Lodestar

Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

I am recently in possession of a kitchen so large it needs an island. I am in awe of this fact, and every morning I come downstairs and get rather doe-eyed looking at it because this kitchen is my new office. Oh, the things I can cook in this space, the gadgets I can amass in such obscene amounts of storage, the natural light abundantly available for food photography…

Since we moved house, I have found myself thinking generally about kitchens and what they represent in one’s life. I realised that every single kitchen of every single place that I have lived is indelibly linked with me, and each of these has had a life and personality of its own. There is a marvellous article MFK Fisher wrote for The New Yorker in 1966 about two kitchens she lived in during the 1950s in Provence, and in a preface to this article (in one of the many compilations of her writings), she says that kitchens are a person’s “lodestar”. Fisher felt that more often than not, upon first interaction, we are unable to recognise the importance of the lodestar on our lives, but over time its purpose becomes more obvious and for her, as it has been for me, her kitchens were vital in the shaping of her life as a writer and as a person.

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Photo Credit: Roadside Pictures

One of the first things my family commented on when they came to visit me here in London 12 years ago was the size of the kitchen in the first flat I rented. No bigger than 1.5m wide walk-in closet, it was clearly designed as an afterthought in a flat where I paid the princely sum of £400 a month for a single bedroom in a shared Ground Floor Flat with two other flatmates. At the time, cooking and food were a love but not a passion, and really how could such passion evolve in a kitchen like that – dark, cramped and with virtually no counter space. And yet it was a flatmate who was obsessed with food that ignited a spark in me. There were often times I would come home and she and her boyfriend would be making Thai green curry from scratch, the house smelling like feet from all the fermented pastes and sauces. Other days she would cook some obscure recipe with odd-looking vegetables from Brixton Market, and in doing so opened my eyes to the diverse foods available in London. Because of her, for the first time I began to actively seek out new flavours.

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Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

A year on, I lived in a shared 4-bedroom house in West Dulwich where the kitchen was enormous but lacked any sense of homeliness – my flatmates and I ate communal meals there, but the familial warmth was not always there. I next lived in a flat with an open-plan kitchen. It had loads of counter space and a decent sized refrigerator and freezer. Cooking began to inspire me and some wonderful meals were created there: mustard and thyme encrusted rack of lamb, a perfected version of my grandmother’s spaghetti Bolognese, peach crème brulée. And yet what was lost there was my marriage, and that kitchen saw the demise of a relationship in a raw and brutal fashion; there is nowhere to hide from each other in open-plan living.

The house I lived in with friends post-separation had a large kitchen and I swooned at its five burner hob and double oven. The best Thanksgiving turkey I ever made was done in that kitchen – so juicy it was like it had been rotisseried, the legs willingly falling away from the carcass. We had so many parties and dinners there, and it is the kitchen where I fell in love with my now husband, and I celebrated turning 30. It was there I convinced a picky friend to try salsa verde with brisket for the first time and where I made Beef Wellington for my visiting parents. I loved that kitchen for what it represented to me at the time: newfound freedom and starting over.

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Photo Credit: Mike Licht

My last kitchen, however, will have my heart forever. My husband and mine’s first place together, the kitchen was smaller than the first dank little one in Brixton, though perfectly laid out. It had almost too many electrical outlets and the cupboards were installed in considerate heights and locations. It was one step to the sink and one step back to the oven. Though storage was at a premium, I managed to find a place for everything. It is in that kitchen that I took the plunge into the world of food writing and cookery. There I achieved perfect pâte brisée and made copious quiches and tarts. I taught myself how to make choux pastry and crème anglaise, in a moderately decent stab at chocolate éclairs. I fought yearly battles over my Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys with my overly ambitious oven, finally winning in the last attempt much to my joy. It is the kitchen that I cooked and ate my way through my pregnancy and where in recent months, I cooked fruit and vegetables for my daughter to mush into the kitchen table and throw on the floor. Really, I feel like my life kick-started itself in that kitchen and I will always be attached to it.

And so now I sit in my new kitchen, looking at its expansive surfaces and empty shelves and think of the possibilities in front of me. Already I have made Judith Rodgers’ roast chicken here. I’ve baked banana muffins and cooked potato rösti for my daughter. This latest of muses seems to be hinting that great things are afoot and whether that means I will finally master puff pastry or something else, either way this kitchen has already began to create memories and in its own way, as have all the others, weave itself into my story. But for now, back to work…

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A Taste of Catalan in the Heart of Brixton

Boqueria-tapas-restaurant-and-bar-opens-in-South-London_dnm_largeAs the main artery between Brixton and Clapham, and accessible only by foot or bus, Acre Lane may seem like a culinary no-man’s land. The Tesco and Access Storage bookend a strange mix of businesses between them and “dining” seems limited to a number of caffs and a few takeaways. But appearances can be deceiving and Acre Lane is also home to two particularly fantastic restaurants: the elegantly understated stalwart, Upstairs, and the relative newbie, Boqueria. Already establishing itself as a formidable addition to the Brixton dining scene after being voted Time Out’s Best New Cheap Eats 2012, Boqueria continues to make a name for itself both in and outside Brixton, and deservedly so.

We ate there on a Tuesday night, a tumbleweed scenario in many restaurants outside the centre of Town, but Boqueria was busy. Its sleek bar mostly filled with urbanites enjoying cool glasses of sherry and nibbles; the back dining room noisy in a good way and filled with couples and friends enjoying a night out, safe from the freezing temperatures outside. Their menu is comparatively large and full of traditional tapas dishes like tortilla, croquettas and chorizo, but goes further with its profferings of paella and jamon, among other things. On this particular evening, two specials called to me: calçots in tempura with romescu sauce and quails eggs in ratatouille. We added roasted Padrón peppers, carrillada Ibérica (pork cheek braised in red wine), and arroz negro (black rice with squid and mussels) to our order, all of which was accompanied by dry Tio Pepe and followed by a medium-bodied Rioja.

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The calçots, a type of spring onion that hails from Catalonia, were fried in a light tempura batter and served with romescu sauce on the side. I found the tempura a bit unnecessary but enjoyable all the same. The romescu sauce was good but tasted more of tomatoes than red peppers and lacked the piquancy I’d hoped for.

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The quail’s eggs were a revelation. Fried and a bit wobbly, they gleamed up at us, perched on a flavourful ratatouille. Everything in the dish worked together beautifully. The roasted Padrón peppers, although a touch too bitter, were brought back to life by sea salt and good olive oil.

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Carrillada Ibérica was hearty and deeply wintery. The pork was tender and delicious; the red wine sauce was rich and intensely flavoured. It all tasted as if it had been cooked for hours, exactly as it should have. Finally, came the arroz negro. The black paella-like rice dish had a nice backbone of seafood flavours, enhanced by bits of squid and mussels nestled within. Accompanied by a nice dollop of aïoli and garnished with a beautiful grilled prawn set into the dish like a crustacean Venus, it was well worth the pre-warned 25-minute wait. We finished with a decent crema catalana, then rolled our happily sated selves home.

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Boqueria is delicious, relatively inexpensive and all within walking distance for us Brixtonites. Whilst Brixton Village continues to attract diners with its excellent diversity of restaurants, Acre Lane is proving to be a marvellous collaborator. From Caribbean to Catalan, great dining on our doorsteps now exists in even greater abundance. Why would you want to live anywhere else?

Boqueria, 192 Acre Lane, Brixton. Tel 020 7733 4408.

Meal for two, including drinks and service £50.

A version of this was printed in the Brixton Bugle, Edition 8, March 2013. You can read an online version here.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

2013-02-12 18.43.30Before Betty Crocker became synonymous with Devil’s Food Cake mix and General Mills, its cookbook, first published in 1950, was one of my mother’s and grandmother’s default cookery reference guides. At the time, my mother’s dog-eared edition, pages loose and some undoubtedly lost forever, held for me the mysteries of cooking in its bounty of recipes, but today I mostly remember it as a baking bible. I managed to track down a updated edition about 6 years ago and was thrilled to find the old favourites were there, plus many more which I will never begin to crack the surface of. Naturally, as it is an American cookbook, all the recipes are in frustrating imperial measurements, but it has been redesigned as a binder which makes it easy to remove pages, convert the measurements yourself and continue on your merry way.

The book had a seemingly fool-proof recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies (that has since been usurped by David Liebovitz), as well as other American classics like Buttermilk Biscuits, where the dough makes an effervescent whisper of protest as a dough cutter weighs down upon it, Lemon Bars that remind me of my grandmother and Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting, which seems to hold a certain cakey romance in my mind, although I am sure I could count on one hand how many times we made it. But Peanut Butter Cookies still, after all this time, stand out to me as supremely easy and entirely memorable even with such minor effort.

Marvellous thing, this book was and still is.

In honour of the Brixton Blog’s first birthday party, I was asked to prepare some little treats and figured it was as good a time as ever to give the delightful Peanut Butter Cookies another crack. Not only are they are slightly crumbly, there is a nice little give in the dough so they stay nice and chewy. And with only about 225g (1 cup) of sugar, the sweetness is nicely tempered by the salty peanut butter, making them rather addictive and not at all sickly. A recipe as straightforward as this can be built on quite easily and I have often toyed with the idea of adding orange zest or some spice. But this time, I went for plain chocolate chips as really, chocolate and peanut butter are one of the most glorious couplings of all time.

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One trick the original recipe doesn’t allow for is chilling time in fridge. I have made these before and often when it comes to pressing them into their little flat crisscrossed shapes, the dough sticks to the fork and ends up making them a bit mushed and sticky. After preparing the dough, it is advisable to give the fats and flours a chance to get to know each other and have a rest before moulding them into shape. I chilled the dough for about 3 hours, but that was purely due to circumstance. I imagine half an hour to an hour would do the trick nicely.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

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  • 115g or 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 115g or 1/2 cup brown sugar – if using cups be sure the sugar is packed
  • 115g or 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 55g or 1/4 cup suet (shortening)
  • 55g or 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 large egg
  • 140g plain flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 100g or 1/3 cup of plain (semi-sweet) chocolate chips

In a glass bowl, beat both sugars, peanut butter, suet or shortening, butter and egg together with an electric mixer. Add flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Once all the ingredients are mixed thoroughly, add the chocolate chips and mix well with a wooden spoon. The dough may seem a little stiff and the chips tricky to amalgamate, but stick at it, they’ll get there eventually. Your goal is to have them evenly dispersed throughout the dough.

Chill in refrigerator for at least 1/2hr. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F and line baking tray with baking paper.

2013-02-06 17.37.06Shape dough into approx 3cm (1 1/4in) balls. Using a fork, flatten the dough, leaving crisscross marks along the top.

Once baked, these marks will add to the nice crumbly character of the cookie.

Bake for 9 to 10 minutes, depending on the speed and intensity of your oven, until light brown.

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Remove cookies from baking sheet and transfer to a cooling rack. Let them chill out there for a few minutes. You can see in the photo on the left that I left one batch in for a little longer than 10 minutes so they were a little more toasted. Don’t worry if that happens; they won’t dry out and they still taste delightful.

Makes about 24. Perfect with a cup of tea or a glass of cold milk.

Recipe adapted from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, Bonus Edition, pg 180.

Review: Bamboula, Brixton

tumblr_maa1wsEQIz1qjcl1qLow lighting, beach hut interiors, fantastic reggae and warm tropical air being pushed around by ceiling fans on full blast: if it weren’t for the Town Hall looming outside, with your fruity rum punch in hand, it might be easy to forget you’re in Brixton.

Actually getting into the place is another matter, however. You can’t be sure if you book online because they don’t respond. Calling seems even more pointless because despite confirming my booking over the phone, we arrived to still no reservation. In any case, the staff happily seated us at a small table in the corner, near the bar.

The whole vibe of the place is mellow, chilled-out and totally Caribbean. I won’t get snippy about service taking too long as I’d feel a little ridiculous and overly Londonish, but once we did eventually order our drinks and food, we settled in, taking in the lovely smells and the warm air.

For starters, we ordered Codfish Fritters, served with love apple in tomato sauce. The love apple has a flavour similar to an Asian pear, and the subtle sweetness of this sauce complimented the crunchiness of the fritters; their texture like little savoury doughnuts. Served with a nicely dressed bit of salad, they were a happy promise of things to come.

For mains, my dining partner had the Guava Glazed Jerk Lamb, after reading unanimous support for it online; I ordered an obvious classic, Jerk Chicken. With a side of rice and peas and plantains, this had the makings of a seriously awesome dinner.

The lamb was tender and spicy, with a subtle meaty sweet-smokiness that danced perfectly with the accompanying fried plantains. It was covered in a dark rich jerk sauce and served off the bone. In the dim lighting it took a little effort with our knife and fork to separate the meat from the bone, but regardless it lived up to its reputation.

The jerk chicken came slathered in sauce, as opposed to a spice rub or paste, which I usually prefer. It had the right amount of heat and underneath its heady spiciness, mild citrus flavours made it totally moreish. Despite Bamboula’s claim it is marinated in the jerk sauce, I found the chicken a little dry for my liking, but the sauce recovered any missing moisture, and on the whole it was quite delicious; the rice and peas soaking up whatever leftover sauce remained perfectly.

We finished with their famous Rum Bread Pudding. A take on the traditional bread and butter pudding, the hard dough bread is soaked in Wray and Nephew spiced rum, and served warm with melting vanilla ice cream. Despite its denseness, the rum’s vanilla, ginger and caramelised Demerara sugar flavours made it a perfect ending to the meal.

We left chilled out and sated. Full of spice and rum punch, Bamboula, if just for an evening, with its soothing reggae beats and wonderful food, gave us a nice little taste of Jamaican London. Slightly away from the most fashionable bit of Brixton, it has remained a fixture in the local food scene since 1997 for a reason. Go and eat there. You won’t regret it. Just be sure to make the booking in person.

Dinner for two, including service and rum punch £47.71

A version of this can be found in the September issue of the Brixton Bugle.

Flavours of Brixton at Cafe Max

Itumblr_m86nf6BRVg1qjcl1qn my mind, Café Max has always existed in Brixton though for some reason I’ve never been. Perhaps when I first moved to here 10 years ago, my “fresh off the boat” mentality meant I was less adventurous to visit the more local haunts and so stuck with what I felt more comfortable.  But as Brixton has become my adopted Home, surely I cannot consider myself a Local without trying local places.

I came hoping for a proper Portuguese breakfast but the menu board, filled with a huge variety of sandwiches, only proffered a full English – not what I wanted. I asked the proprietress what she’d suggest for a true Portuguese breakfast. She smiled and said traditionally, it was a ham and cheese sandwich, and a cup a coffee. Perfect.

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An enormous sandwich and a latte arrived at my table, and I ate whilst watching a steady stream of patrons coming in and out, necking espresso at the bar, or stopping for a chat with someone they knew at a neighbouring table. These people are locals in the truest sense of the word; they’ve been here in good times and in bad and they will likely be here when hipsters decide that Brixton isn’t cool anymore.

The sandwich didn’t blow my mind, but it probably didn’t expect to either. Portuguese breakfasts seem to be fairly unadventurous, and further research suggests that indeed they try to keep it simple: bread/sandwiches, cereal, yoghurt, fruit and maybe some pastries. However, the coffee was great and of course, what I was most interested in trying were the wonderful delights residing in the pastry case.

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She gave me a pasteis de nata (custard tart) and a bola de bacalao (fried salt cod ball). The bolas, made in-house, consist of mashed potato, salt cod, parsley and garlic. They are then moulded into little balls and fried. The salt cod gave great flavour to the fluffy, garlicky mash, and whilst not typically a breakfast food, I thoroughly enjoyed them. Next time, I’m thinking a couple of those with an ice-cold Sagres might really hit the spot.

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The pasteis was also wonderful – lovely creamy custard; carmelised sugar giving off fantastic brulée after notes; the pastry was flaky, delightfully crunchy, and utterly perfect. Whilst these little goodies are delivered from a local bakery, the proprietress makes the rest of the cakes in-house. Two had just come out of the oven when I was there: one resembling a bundt cake and another, an almond tart, which she took particular pride in. She said that everyone loves this cake, and offered me a slice to try. Still warm, and despite her protesting it tasted better completely cooled, I can see why she can confidently claim such praise. The base was wonderfully light vanilla sponge; the topping sticky, crunchy and lightly toasted slivered almonds.

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Café Max really seems to gives off a proper flavour of Brixton, both figuratively and literally. Its patrons mirroring Brixton’s diversity with a mesh of Portuguese, Jamaican, English and now American; the Portuguese food proudly served side-by-side with full Englishes. I cannot vouch for the lunch fare, but if anything, a slice of almond tart with a cup of coffee could really make one’s morning. I know it did mine.

£8 for sandwich, coffee, bola, pasteis and almond cake, including service

Café Max,18 Brixton Station Road, SW9 8PD

An edited version of this review can be found on http://www.brixtonblog.com/flavours-of-brixton-at-cafe-max/6072

Prima Donna, Brixton: A review

It must be hard running your own restaurant. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to try to please a huge variety of people, all with different likes and dislikes. With all the competition around, you must essentially be at the forefront of people’s minds when their stomachs begin to rumble and cravings ensue. Surely that is some serious pressure.  What must be even harder is being surrounded by lots of great places in the concentration of 500m, which has occurred in the recent regeneration of Granville Aracade, now more widely known as Brixton Village, and Market Row.  There are now many local places who are in fierce but friendly competition to be the de facto choice for local punters and as such, much to many a local’s pleasure, a great mix of really wonderful and simple food, all cooked in teeny kitchens and served in mismatched dining rooms means Joe Brixton can enjoy himself relatively inexpensively, in a truly unique and quirky environment.

And now, the owners of the Tulse Hill restaurant, Brazas, have stepped into the ring and recently opened Prima Donna in Market Row.  The name suggests Italian, or maybe even tapas, but I found out later it is in fact a new grilled meat restaurant. An interesting choice considering a place like Brixton Grill has established itself, quite rightly, by consistently serving pretty bomb grilled meats and fish, served with their even more atomic homemade piri piri sauce. And also, there is the better-known piri piri place that shall not be named which serves many a reveller, pre- and post-Academy gigs.

The menu is limited to a few little starters like bread and olives, and the mains are focussed on piri piri chicken and soy glazed ribs, with a couple vegetarian options for those less into the atavistic delight inspired by eating meat off the bone with their teeth.  The wine list is equally limited but I enjoyed a nice Tempranillo/Syrah blend and they do have Sagres lager on tap, which seemed to go down well with some fellow diners, who seemed more interested in getting wasted than the food.

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We split the courgette fritters, one of the vegetarian mains, as a starter. A large portion of eggy tortilla-like slabs appeared, covered in spinach, cherry tomatoes, feta and a balsamic dressing. They were not as light as I had hoped, but had a nice hint of mint, which heightened the courgette flavours and melded quite nicely with the rest of its accompaniments. I would have preferred the fritters to have a bit of a crunch on the outside to give them more texture against the freshness of the spinach and tomatoes. They were a touch too soggy to stand up to the dressing.

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Next we had chicken and ribs for mains. I had mine piri piri style (you can have plain if you’re not into the heat) with salad and new potatoes and my other half went for ribs and chunky chips, which also came with a bit of sweet corn.  The chicken had decent heat and flavour, but the breast meat was on the dry side. The legs and thighs were a little juicier than the breast, and overall the skin was crisp and nicely salty. With the chicken came a small portion of avocado salsa, which turned out to be the highlight of the dish. Light with wonderfully fresh flavours of coriander and onion and tomato really cut through the creamy avocado and it gave some much-needed moisture to the chicken.

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The ribs were a disappointment. Dry, over-roasted, tough. The soy glaze seemed to have been charred to an inch of its life and what was left was a slightly soy-carbon taste, which isn’t exactly bad if you’re into that, but if they were going to grill the ribs like this, an accompanying sauce would have been welcomed.

For both dishes, the sides of new potatoes and chips were undercooked. To me, this seems more teething problems than anything else. Often the seemingly less important vegetables get forgotten in an attempt to master the main event, so I’d let them off for this, but it is something that can drain the diner of confidence in the kitchen. The sweet corn that came with the ribs was decent, but it is not in season locally, so I would have preferred something that hadn’t been flown in from some far flung country.

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We finished with a slice of raspberry and blueberry amaretto cake, brought in from Maurillio which was, frankly, the nicest thing we ate during our visit. The cake had fat chunks of amaretti biscuits nestled in its lovely crumbly topping. A berry ripple gave it slightly light tangy hit; a moist and quite delightful little treat it turned out to be.

I was hoping for the best when I stepped into Prima Donna. I went in not knowing what to expect food-wise and emerged a couple hours later a little wiser and a little disappointed. Not that the food was completely terrible. It really wasn’t. But it just seemed to be really lacking that extra element which would make it more the obvious choice over its neighbouring restaurants. Perhaps it is the inattention to detail – slightly overcooked meat and slightly undercooked vegetables – that stood out to me. A little more thought and care in the kitchen would not go amiss. Perhaps it is early days yet and in time, they will have mastered both meat and vegetables, but it may have been advisable to do that prior to opening a restaurant.

Meal for two including drinks £41.85 excluding service

An edited version of this review can be found on http://www.brixtonblog.com/restaurant-review-prima-donna/5259