Monday, 29 April 2013

An American feast: slow-cooked BBQ beans (with BBQ beef and sweet potato wedges)

I came across the recipe for the BBQ beans in Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa at Home but was originally put off by the long cooking time. However, since I am now the proud owner of a slow-cooker, I decided to give it a go. It still requires a good bit of forward planning - you'll need to soak the dried kidney beans overnight, and cook them for 50 minutes on the stove before adding them to the dish - but it's a lot easier to throw everything into a slow-cooker and leave it to simmer than it is to spend 8 hours worrying about it drying out/spontaneously combusting in the oven.

Here's my version - I made a few minor adjustments to the ingredients (I skipped the tablespoon of Chinese chilli paste and added an extra tablespoon of grated ginger instead) and adapted it to be cooked in the slow-cooker.


1 pound dried red kidney beans
1 large onion
1 bay leaf
6 whole black peppercorns
175ml maple syrup (3/4 cup)
100g light brown sugar (1/2 cup, lightly packed)
125ml tomato ketchup (1/2 cup)
1(or 2) tablespoons freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon of Chinese chilli paste
1 teapson salt
150g smoked bacon, diced

Soak the dried red kidney beans in a bowl of cold water overnight, making sure that the water covers the beans by at least an inch. Drain the beans and rinse well.

Cook the beans in a large pot with four pints (2.25l) of water, the onion (cut into eighths), bay leaf, and peppercorns.  Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 50 minutes, or until the beans are tender. Once the beans are cooked (a good trick is to take a scoopful of beans and blow on them - if the skins start to peel, they are ready), drain them, retaining the cooking liquid.

In a saucepan, whisk together the maple syrup, brown sugar, ketchup, chilli paste (if using), grated ginger, salt, and 375ml (1 1/2 cups) of the cooking liquid, reserving the remaining liquid. Simmer over a medium heat for around 6 minutes.

Transfer your beans to the slow cooker. Mix half the diced bacon into the beans, and place the rest on top. Pour the sweet sauce and 125ml (1/2 cup) of cooking liquid over the beans, and set the slow-cooker for 8 hours.

After 8 hours, transfer your beans to a heavy-based pot (I used my Le Creuset) and refrigerate until needed. When you're ready to use your beans, simmer on the stove top for a while to heat them through (and to thicken the sauce).

Sweet potato wedges - colourful and delicious
I served these beans alongside slow-cooked BBQ beef, sweet potato wedges and Cajun-spiced roast chicken as part of my American-themed dinner party.
Tasty, tasty BBQ beef

Monday, 22 April 2013

Dinner and drinks at Mamounia Lounge with Bon Appetit Card

Last Friday my boyfriend and I were treated to a lovely meal at Mamounia Lounge, Knightsbridge. This lively Lebanese venue recently signed up with Bon Appetit Card, offering cardholders 30% off their bill for groups of up to four, and I was eager to check it out.

Opulently decorated with gold leaf and elaborate detailing, the restaurant was already buzzing when we arrived, filled with people winding down after a long week at work over cocktails and mezze. We relaxed at the bar for a while with a couple of drinks - the Gold-digger for me (like the much-loved Pornstar Martini, this contains fresh passion fruit juice and vanilla vodka, and comes with a shot of champagne on the side - lovely!) and a Manhattan on the rocks for my boyfriend. The bar staff were great: chatty and friendly, they reflected the excellent standard of service which continued to impress us throughout the evening.

Upon finishing our delicious cocktails, we headed over to our table to peruse the menu. Featuring all my favourite Middle Eastern dishes (as well as a good few I was yet to try), we eventually settled upon a platter of mixed mezze and pastilla of chicken to start, and the lamb meshoui (a traditional dish of  lamb shoulder marinated in a blend of herbs, spices, nuts and dried fruits) and mixed grill for our mains.

The mezze selection was excellent. Served with two pillowy flat breads, it included an assortment of tasty dips (creamy labneh, earthy hummus, and moutabel, a particularly delicious combination of sesame oil, lemon juice, and smoked aubergine puree), broad beans cooked with coriander and garlic, a mound of summery tabbouleh, and portions of green beans and chickpeas stewed in rich tomato sauce. Yum!

The pastilla of chicken was also very good. Never having tried this particular dish before, I was interested to see how the combination of chicken and icing sugar would taste. In fact, it worked incredibly well: the dainty filo pastry parcels of cinnamon-spiced shredded chicken with their dusting of powdered sugar hit a perfect balance between sweet and savoury, and my boyfriend and I enjoyed them immensely.

My meshoui arrived on a wooden board, meaty chunks of tender slow-cooked lamb piled high in the middle. Garnished with dried apricots, dates and slivers of orange and accompanied by a dish of savoury vegetable gravy, it was absolutely delicious, the combination of sweet fruit, rich, flavourful sauce, and tender flaking meat coming together perfectly.

My boyfriend was also very impressed with his mixed grill, which featured tasty skewers of chargrilled chicken, lamb and kofta (spiced minced lamb), triangles of flatbread, and an assortment of pickles and vegetable accompaniments.

Very full at this point, I had to decline the offer of dessert, opting instead for a large pot of sweetened Moroccan tea. Served in a dainty glass, poured from an beautiful silver teapot, this was a perfect way to end the meal (and a far better digestif than my usual choice of milky coffee).

My boyfriend managed to find the space for something sweet, ordering the mahalabia, a sweet milk pudding garnished with slivers of pistachio. I sneaked a few bites and can report that it was extremely good; smooth and creamy with a pleasant hint of rose-water.

The latter part of our meal was accompanied by in-house entertainment, in the form of a stunning belly dancer, who shimmied her way around the restaurant to a catchy blend of traditional Middle Eastern music and modern house-like beats, accompanied by plenty of clapping and cheering from the on-looking diners!

When the time eventually came to take our leave from Mamounia Lounge, we realised we'd lingered over our meal for close to three hours! It was a truly enjoyable evening, with delicious food, great cocktails, a lively atmosphere, and staff who were as smiley and welcoming as they were efficient. It would be a perfect spot for a lively pre-night-out meal - in fact my boyfriend is already planning a return visit with a group of friends (I think he may have been entranced by the belly-dancer as much as the food!)

Square Meal Mamounia Lounge Knightsbridge on Urbanspoon

Friday, 19 April 2013

Best breakfast ever in Monterey, California

I recently spent 10 days in California, driving down the coast (in a convertible nonetheless!) from San Francisco to Laguna. We stopped in lots of places along the way, but one of my favourites was Monterey. Situated on a beautiful stretch of coastline just North of Big Sur and the famous 17-Mile Drive, this picturesque town boasts a charming street of converted canneries (the "Cannery Row" of John Steinbeck fame), some lovely coastal walks, a large population of local sea lions, and a famous aquarium (which we didn't get around to visiting...).
It was also the location of one of the best meals of my trip: our breakfast at First Awakenings featured the lightest, fluffiest pancake I have ever eaten in my life, setting me up for a lifetime of disappointment back in the UK!
Free refills of coffee...yes please! (cue caffeine shakes)
It took me a while to choose from the selection of pancakes on offer (raspberry-coconut-granola was particularly tempting), but I ended up shunning the more traditional options (blueberry, or - dare I say it - plain) for the very breakfasty-sounding "Fresh Apple Cinnamon and Oatmeal" pancake. I was slightly worried that the oats would make this too heavy, but they were sprinkled on top (rather than incorporated into the batter), and - lightly toasted - brought a lovely nutty flavour to the dish.
The incredibly airy pancake was packed with little cubes of sweet apple (perfectly cooked, neither too hard nor too soggy), and the dish was completed with a sprinkling of oat flakes, a dusting of powdered sugar, and the traditional American pancake accompaniment - a scoop of whipped butter. I had a tentative taste, in the hope that it may have been ice-cream, but was sadly disappointed. Still, I maintain - this was the best pancake I've ever had, and if you ever pass through Monterey, you have to go here!
The savoury options were pretty impressive too: my boyfriend went for the "Caps, Etc" - a dish of sautéed mushroom caps tops with a bubbling layer of melted cheese, served alongside fried eggs, toasted English muffin, and a very generous portion of home-made hash-browns. Delicious.
After our breakfast we went for a stroll along the bay, and said hello to some of the local sea lions, who were lounging on the protected beach below the coastal path. And then, sadly, it was time to go - heading off down the 101 to Santa Barbara.





Monday, 15 April 2013

Lunch at Sauterelle, The Royal Exchange

Yet another leaving lunch, this time in the fancy environs of the Royal Exchange. Upstairs from the beautiful main hall, Sauterelle has a set lunch menu with two courses for £20 (or three for £23.50). Our meal took a bit longer than expected - almost an hour and a half - but the location was lovely (with arched windows looking out onto the main hall) and the food was good too.

The set lunch began with an amuse bouche - tasty quenelles of smoked fish pate served on slivers of toast - followed by some fantastic bread (happily, the bread basket came round three times). With a choice of white, brown or seeded, served warm and slathered with copious amounts of excellent butter, this was one of the highlights of my meal.

The set menu offers a choice of three starters or mains, and with a varied selection of meat, fish, and vegetarian dishes there was something to suit all of us. I began with the trio of beetroot: almost too pretty to eat, this was an artfully presented dish with jewel-bright slivers of fuschia and yellow beetroot peeking out from a tangle of fresh salad leaves. The smear of beetroot puree, dotted with nutty pumpkin seeds was an interesting addition to the dish, while the tangy goats curd was an excellent counterbalance to the sweetness of the beetroot.

The ham hock and foie gras terrine was the most substantial starter: a huge portion of layered pate served with toast, red onion marmelade, and a baby leaf salad. The marinated sardines was a slightly daintier option, almost as pretty as my beetroot, with a colourful green bean and potato salad and a tear-drop shaped pool of vivid green watercress mayonnaise.

For mains, we were given a choice of butternut squash risotto, seared gurnard, or confit leg of duck. I opted for the gurnard. A firm, white-fleshed fish, this was served with cauliflower puree and ratatouille, and drizzled with a rather unpleasant curry oil. I was intrigued to try the yuzu* jellies, but couldn't seem to locate them on my plate!

Confit duck leg came with an enormous helping of sausage cassoulet (as with the terrine, it was much larger than the other dishes) - while reportedly tasty, it did receive some criticism for being slightly unrefined, and apparently felt a bit too close to 'sausage and beans' given the smartness of the location.

The risotto was a brilliant buttercup yellow, highlighted with a garnish of lime-green basil oil and sun-dried tomatoes. I forgot to ask how it tasted, but the picture looks pretty good (if a bit blurry), and - in the absence of any voiced complaints - I am assuming it was tasty!

With two courses taking close to 90 minutes, we didn't have time (or the stomach capacity, to be honest!) for dessert, so we hurried off back to the office. The food was good, but the most impressive thing is the location - definitely a good spot for a business lunch with overseas clients.

*A tart Asian citrus fruit

  Sauterelle on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Taberna Etrusca

A few weeks ago I moved jobs, and with lots of people to say goodbye to at my old firm, my final weeks included an impressive number of leaving lunches. One of these was at Taberna Etrusca, just off Bow Churchyard, where my friends and I took advantage of a set lunch menu offering two courses of tasty Italian fare for £17.

To start, we were given a choice between minestrone soup, Insalata Caprese (aka buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad), or pan-fried chicken livers with shallots, pancetta and mushrooms. Aside from me, everyone went for the salad, which looked very good: plump slices of mozzarella atop a fan of sliced tomato, all drizzled with concentric rings of tasty vinaigrette.

My minestrone soup was slightly less photogenic than the salad, but still tasted pretty good. A thinner, less tomato-based soup than I would usually associate with minestrone, this consisted of a (slightly over-salted) clear broth packed with finely chopped vegetables - a light yet warming start to the meal.

For the main course there was fresh tagliatelle with a creamy smoked salmon and baby spinach sauce, pork escalope with asparagus and cream gratin and mashed potato, or pan-fried haddock with a cherry tomato, caper and canellini bean sauce.

Two of us opted for the fish; three flaky haddock fillets in a pool of tomatoey stew. The sauce was good - crammed with sweet cherry tomatoes, tart capers and tasty canellini beans - but, as with the minestrone, it was slightly too heavily salted for my liking.

The two remaining members of our party went for the pork and the salmon options. The pork escalope was highly praised: served with a generous portion of mashed potatoes and drenched in a rich asparagus cream, it did look very good!

The smoked salmon and baby spinach tagliatelle also went down well, and is something I may attempt to recreate at home (cook fresh pasta for 2 minutes, drain, stir in cream, smoked salmon, and baby spinach leaves...and you're done!).

All in all, it was a lovely lunch, and somewhere I will definitely come again - although I wouldn't recommend it if you're in a rush!

Taberna Etrusca on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Monday, 8 April 2013

Super salad: Chicken, halloumi, spinach and roasted peppers

This might just be the best salad I've ever made (and I've made my fair share).

Inspired by a starter at my Granddad's local Italian joint, this jumbo salad is packed with delicious ingredients: juicy chunks of pan-fried chicken, roasted strips of red and yellow pepper, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, and - to top everything off - delicious slices of seared halloumi cheese...

The original version is accompanied by a yoghurt and herb dressing - a delicious and healthy alternative to creamier mayonnaise-based sauces - but I served my salad with two dressings, providing a home-made honey-mustard vinaigrette in addition to the yoghurt one.

To serve 4 (as a main course)

For the salad:
400g packet of uncooked chicken breast fillets
250g halloumi cheese
2 sweet peppers (red, orange or yellow)
Large bag fresh spinach leaves
Half a large cucumber, cut into small chunks
Handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
Oil and butter (for cooking)

For the yoghurt dressing:
4 tbsp Greek yoghurt
Juice of half a lemon
1 clove of garlic, crushed
Salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper

For the honey-mustard dressing:
1 tbsp good quality grain mustard
1 tsbp runny honey
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Pre-heat your oven to 200C. Deseed your peppers and slice into two halves. Place on a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil, before cooking on a high shelf of the oven for around 25 minutes. When the peppers are done, take them out of the oven and remove the skins (if the peppers are ready, they should come off easily). Set aside to cool slightly, before slicing into small pieces.

Prepare the dressings: both are incredibly easy to make. For the yoghurt dressing, combine the Greek yoghurt with the lemon juice and the crushed garlic, stirring well, before seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper. For the honey-mustard vinaigrette, whisk together mustard, honey, white wine vinegar and olive oil, and season to taste. Serve "on the side" to give your guests the choice of which they would prefer to use on their meal.

Heat a glug of oil and a pat of butter in a large pan over a high heat*. Slice the chicken fillets into strips (roughly 1-inch wide and 3 long) and cook until golden, frying in two batches if necessary. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Cut the halloumi into slices, around 1/2 an inch thick. Heat a dash of oil in a griddle pan over a high heat, and fry for a couple of minutes on each side (the aim is for an attractive griddled pattern), before slicing into strips.

The final step is to build your salad: start with a layer of fresh spinach leaves, before adding the halved cherry tomatoes, diced cucumber, and cooked pepper pieces. Complete the colourful salad with the chicken and halloumi cheese and serve alongside the two dressings.
*The butter adds flavour, while the oil heats to a higher temperature and prevents the butter from burning

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Breakfast at the Riding House Cafe

I visited The Riding House Cafe for a 9am breakfast one Saturday morning, getting together quickly with a friend before we both had to rush off - my friend, for a busy day of shopping and socialising; myself, to catch a train. The area - just North of Oxford Circus - is usually buzzing, but was uncharacteristically quiet at this early(ish) hour, and we had no trouble getting a table.

The Riding House Cafe sports a style I can only describe as gentlemen's club chic, all distressed leather and dark wooden panelling - but with huge windows letting in plenty of light the overall effect is far from dreary, and it's a lovely place to catch up over a meal or drinks.

The cafe has a good breakfast menu, offering classic savoury dishes (eggs Benedict/Florentine/Royale; bacon and avacado sarnies; kedgeree) alongside a selection of sweets and bakery items (buttermilk pancakes; mini Danishes) and a decent variety of healthier options (home-made muesli; chilled grapefruit). There are also one or two more unusual dishes: Eggs Hussard, served with ox heart tomato, ham, spinach, and bordelaise* and hollandaise sauces sounded particularly intriguing, while Omelette Arnold Bennett** - sadly only available Monday to Friday - has been on my to-try list for a while.

My friend went for the traditional smoked salmon and scrambled egg combo, which was apparently very good. Meanwhile, I opted for the strawberry and pear parfait. Presented prettily in a glass tumbler, this tasty (but healthy) treat featured juicy chunks of poached pear layered with thick Greek yoghurt, sweet slivers of strawberry, and crunchy home-made granola. Delicious.

Afterwards, we popped across the road to Kaffeine to grab a coffee to see us on our way, and by 10.30 I was on board a train at Kings Cross - a very efficient breakfast catch-up!

*A tangy red wine sauce more commonly served with meat dishes
**Originally invented for the author Arnold Bennett at the Savoy Hotel, this open-faced smoked haddock omelette is topped with bechamel and cheese and finished off under the grill -  see recipe here to try at home.

 The Riding House Cafe on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

More delicious brunch at Workshop Coffee Co

I've written about Workshop Coffee Co before, but my last brunch there was so good I just had to share...

 Grilled asparagus with smoked salmon, poached egg, truffled marscapone and corn bread - oh my!

With a wide assortment of tempting dishes on the menu - brioche french toast with poached rhubarb and orange marscapone, sweetcorn fritters with halloumi and spinach, and toasted banana bread with date and orange jam, to name just a few - it was pretty hard to choose. However, after some intense consideration my friend opted for the grilled asparagus with smoked salmon, poached egg, truffled marscapone and corn bread, while I went for the braised beans with salted ricotta, lemon, mint and truffled marscapone.

So many delicious dishes to choose from... 

Aside from being visually very appealing - the cheerful pinks and oranges of the salmon and cornbread contrasting prettily with the bright green asparagus - my friend's dish was incredibly good: the wonderful melding of fresh flavours and varied textures (crumbling cornbread, smooth marscapone, runny egg yolk and snappy asparagus) making it a bit more special than the usual salmon and eggs brunch option....

My braised beans - something which had caught my eye on my first visit - were equally good. The generous portion of tender beans, stewed in a rich and tangy tomato sauce, was served on a thick wedge of delicious sourdough and topped with a crumbling of salty ricotta. The scoop of creamy marscapone - which oozed seductively into the beans - and a scattering of fresh salad leaves were the perfect finishing touches.

I'll have to come back one lunchtime for the burger - a guy at the neighbouring table ordered this, and my friend and I both struggled to tear our eyes from his plate. Soft, shiny brioche bun, fat burger patty (oozing heavenly meaty juices...) and a pile of chunky golden brown wedges...Not quite as healthy as our brunch options, but certainly as tempting!

Workshop Coffee - Clerkenwell on Urbanspoon