Hidden Gem in Central London

I recently had the pleasure of dining at The Vincent Rooms which is part of the Kingsway College culinary program. The “rooms” consist of two restaurants: one is the more casual Brasserie with a modern European menu; the other is the Escoffier Room, which offers a weekly themed 5 course tasting menu.

Famous alum have passed through the cookery training here and gone on to make a name for themselves including Jamie Oliver, Aisley Harriot and Sophie Wright, to name just a few.

The beautiful Brasserie looks over verdant Vincent Square and has lovely paneling, wooden floors and natural light. The tables are all dressed with flowers and cloth napkins and, although there is an upscale air to the place, all staff are welcoming and professional (if a tad shy and nervous). All the food and service is provided by students in the culinary classes who are overseen by professional chefs and maitre d’s.

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The first thing my pal Rene and I noticed was the outstanding basket of home baked breads that were delivered to the table. The sliced multigrain was our favorite and we even asked for more of it, which isn’t something we would usually do. Each bite was hearty and wholesome with a delicate crumb and wheatie flavor.  All varieties of the bread baked on the campus as well as homemade chocolates and other goodies are for sale in the lobby of the restaurant so you can pick some up for home on the way out.

We ordered glasses of Prosecco to wash down all those carbs and chose fresh fish dishes for our mains. Rene got the pan seared haddock (£13), which came with lentils and spinach. The skin was caramelised to a deep golden and the filet sat in a satisfying puddle of creamy lemon butter sauce.

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I ordered a gorgeous piece of grilled sea bass (£14) atop a pile of leafy greens, shaved carrots, dill and delicate spring onions. The fish had perfect grill marks and a smattering of caper sauce completed the plate.

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We ordered a stellar dessert of panna cotta (£5.50), which we chose as almost a test to see what the kitchen could do. Often this dessert has a rubbery texture from too much gelatine and not much depth, however the Vincent version did not disappoint. Creamy and rich, with a haunting vanilla finish, the dessert was satisfying and came with delicate homemade cookies.

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Overall, this is a top notch eating experience with quality of food and service that far outweighs the prices. Keep it in mind if you are in Westminster touring the sites or have theatre tickets in the area, you won’t be disappointed.

The Vincent Rooms has just launched a new website that makes it easier to book a table, look at menus and find our more about the program however I’m still secretly hoping that it won’t get too popular – best to keep secret gems a little secret.

You can read more of my reviews on Time Out London:

Enoteca Rosso, Bobajam, Nusa Kitchen, Soho Coffee, Sama Bankside, Ivy Cafe Blackheath

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Remembering

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My mother was a force to be reckoned with. She would be up at the crack of dawn, bustling around the house ticking things off her “to do” list and living the Protestant work ethic she was raised on. She didn’t mind telling you, when you dragged yourself downstairs after a night out on the town, all that she had already accomplished while you were lazily counting sheep. Then she would vroom off to work leaving a cloud of dust and mixed feelings behind.

Among the positives that came from her driven nature was the gift of cooking. She had the chuzpah to host a dinner party for eight and cook a meal of recipes she had never tried before. She went to local farms and picked berries then made jars of jam, crafted pickles from homegrown cucumbers and put together chutneys with local tree fruit. She loved cookies and became, especially in her later years, a biscuit maven extraordinaire.

My mother created a cookie walk as a fundraiser for the adult day care center in her hometown of Basking Ridge, New Jersey. She had experiened this old fashioned event during stays in New England and loved the idea: volunteers donate platters of different kinds of cookies then customers come with their boxes, walk around the laden tables and fill them with the sweet bounty.  A cost per pound was charged at the end.

To get ready for the holiday rush she would begin in October baking tin upon tin of  different types of decorated and delicious cookies then tuck them into the big chest freezer in the cellar. In December, she and an army of volunteers would set up the local church hall with Christmas greenery and holiday clothed tables to hold all the pfefferneuse, Santa cut outs, Kris Kringles and other donated cookies. The event was even written up in one of the local magazines after gaining notoriety within the community.

 

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Mom getting ready for the Cookie Walk in Basking Ridge, New Jersey

She fueled my love for cooking by giving me cookbooks starting at age 7, teaching me baking to begin with then more involved recipes later and fulfilling her own passion for cooking in front of me with every meal she created.

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Mom gave me this very beat up copy of “Joy of Cooking” years ago. We always made the classic Butterscotch Brownie recipe on page 587, a Beeb Jackson stand by because they were quick and easy to make and delicious to eat.

Rest in peace Mom. I will always think of you every time I put my apron on and head into the kitchen.

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BUTTERSCOTCH BROWNIES

This recipe is very versatile and forgiving. You can add chocolate chips, dried fruit (golden raisins and finely diced apricots are a nice combo), any variety of chopped nuts, shredded coconut or a combination of any of these totalling 1/2 cup. It doubles easily in case you are baking for a cookie walk of your own.

1/4 cup butter plus more for the pan

1 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup AP flour

1 teaspoon  baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter an 8X8 baking pan, line with waxed paper or parchment and butter the paper. Melt the butter over medium heat then stir in the brown sugar until it is dissolved. Cool slightly then beat in the egg and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and stir just until incorporated then fold in any of the extras. Transfer the dough to the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Yield: 32 bars

 

 

Slow Cooker Vegan

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We got a slow cooker for Christmas in our London kitchen and I pulled out one of my favorite cookbooks for inspiration: Slow Cooker Italian by Michele Scicolone. I had used my US slow cooker to make sumptuous pots of beans based on a recipe in Michele’s book and decided to give it a go here using black turtle beans. The recipe is simple: 1 cup of beans to 6 cups of water, seasonings or herbs if you want (I used a whole jalapeño and some sprigs of fresh oregano) then cook on low for 8 hours.

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I love the versatility of having a pot of beans handy; they can go into bowls with rice, greens, veggies, and any leftover proteins that are hanging around or can be made into a pot of soup or blended into a dip or sandwich/quesadilla filling or added to a wintry mix salad. I chose to make tostadas with some mole sauce I had stashed in the freezer and enhanced those flavors with grated raw beets, juicy ripe avocado and a few baby lettuce leaves.

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If you want to get creative you could make the corn tortillas – they are dead easy but just take a little technique – I like this tutorial from Kitchn. You can get masa harina – the cornmeal mixture you’ll need – at Cool Chile Company online or at their stand in Borough Market.

And if you have some time on your hands and the inclination to do some cooking, try making your own mole sauce. My favorite recipe (this link is to a blog with the recipe and handy photos of the steps that go into making this ancient sauce) is the one from Cafe Pasquale, a fantastic restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It has a long list of ingredients, including a few different types of dried chiles which you can also get at Cool Chile or at Mestizo Mexican Market on Hampstead in Kings Cross, London. The mole sauce is very concentrated and rich – a little goes a long way – and you will have enough to furnish your freezer with 8 to 10 1-cup containers which would garnish the tostadas of a very large party.

One final note – this recipe idea is vegan and gluten free, a welcome thought after all the holiday feasting.

 

Christmas Pudding Reboot

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The view from the farm kitchen window

Last Sunday, November 26, was “Stir Up Sunday” in Britain, a time for family and friends to gather and make the Christmas pudding for the upcoming holiday. I traveled up to Nethergill Farm to cook up puddings with my sister-in-law, Fiona. We were using the recipe of Dorothy Clark, our late mother-in-law, and added a few twists to make it our own.

Dorothy’s recipe used glace cherries and candied citrus peel but we updated these flavors by adding dried cranberries, blueberries and apricots and dried cherries that were soaked in apple juice to keep them plump and moist. We used eggs from Fi’s laying hen ladies; she checks each for freshness by putting it in a cup of water – if they float they are no good.

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The fat traditionally used in Christmas Pudding is beef suet. We opted for the vegetable version but, after reading the ingredients (palm oil) , we still used it this year but decided we would try butter next time.

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The recipe is dead easy to put together, simply measure all ingredients and put in a large bowl then stir until incorporated.

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The mixture gets packed into pudding bowls then greaseproof paper is tied down over the top.

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Followed by foil then a sturdy folded ribbon of foil is added to make “handles”.

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Then it steams for 6 hours, which is a mighty long time.

Now our cooked puddings, with coverings still in place, are stored until Christmas Day when they will get another further steaming.

We can’t find out how they will taste for another month or so but it was a lot of fun reawakening a tradition and making extra puddings to give to family that won’t be with us on the holiday.

Granny’s Christmas Pudding

225 g (8oz) each of sultanas, currants, seedless raisins, fresh breadcrumbs, vegetable suet*, demerara sugar and golden syrup

113 g (4oz) each of dried cranberries and dried blueberries

165 g (6oz) dried apricots cut in fine dice

100 g (4oz) dried cherries

100 g (4oz) blanched almonds, chopped

100 g (4oz) ground almonds

2 carrots, peeled and grated

1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and grated

1/2 teaspoon each of mixed spice and cinnamon

Pinch of ground nutmeg

Grated rind and juice of 1 large lemon and 1 orange

4 eggs beaten

4 tablespoons brandy

140 ml (1/4 pint) brown ale

butter for greasing pudding basins

  1. Measure all the ingredients into a large mixing bowl and stir well to mix.
  2. Generously butter the insides of 3-2 pint pudding basins or 6-1 pint pudding basins. The exact yield may vary a bit from these measurements but have the basins ready to go and you can always alter the final number depending on how far the mixture goes.
  3. Fill the basins a tad over 3/4’s full. Cover with greaseproof paper and tie snugly with string then cover with foil and tie down again with string.
  4. Have ready a saucepan for each pudding and put a trivet or upside down saucer in the bottom of each then top with the puddings. Add enough water to come a couple inches up the sides of the basin.
  5. Cover and bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 6 hours, topping up water as needed.
  6. Store in a cool, dry place until ready to eat – I put mine in the fridge.
  7. When ready to serve, reboil again for 2-3 hours until the middle is piping hot.
  8. Turn out onto a serving platter and serve with brandy butter and cream.
  9. For a dazzling finish, ignite the pudding by pouring warmed brandy over the top and lighting it.

*Vegetable suet: Neither of us liked using this product and we later found out that butter is perfectly acceptable and would likely make the puddings taste better so next year that is what we will use. Our mother-in-law always used beef suet.

 

Okra – a Love Hate Relationship

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Okra is one of those black and white vegetables – you either love it or hate it. Just to set the record straight, I’m an okra lover so when I walked by the local halal market and saw a box of these green fingers, I had to buy some.

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I was craving gumbo-style soup on that gray day and okra is a key ingredient. It imparts a wonderful texture as it cooks – some would say a peculiar slime – but in this recipe the viscosity adds body and heartiness to the soup.

It’s easy to make and comes together in about 30 minutes. First, saute the vegetable trinity of New Orleans cuisine: chopped onions, celery and bell pepper. Sweat these vegetables until they release their juices and are tender.

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Slice the okra in 1/2″ pieces then add that to the pot along with garlic and stir briefly until garlic is fragrant.

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Add chicken stock, tomatoes, a bay leaf and some cooked chicken. If I have some in the house, I also add cubed zucchini and fresh corn cut off the cob. Simmer the soup until the vegetables are tender, add cooked rice and serve it up, maybe with a nice slab of cornbread.

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You can take this soup in a lot of different directions. Add Andouille sausage and raw shrimp for a heartier gumbo, make it vegetarian by leaving out all animal proteins or use turkey instead of chicken (thinking ahead here to Thanksgiving leftovers).

In any case, it’s a handy little soup that I often make after a roasted chicken dinner, using the carcass for stock and the leftover meat for the soup. Top with a few squirts of Sriracha sauce and, as they like to say here in London, “Bob’s your uncle”.

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Chicken Gumbo Soup

2 T olive oil

1 cup diced onion

1/2 cup each diced celery and green bell pepper

2 cloves garlic minced

1 1/2  cups okra, sliced in 1/2″ coins

2 cups chicken stock, more if necessary

1 bay leaf

1 1/2 cups fresh tomatoes, chopped or 1-14.5 oz can chopped tomatoes and their juice

1 1/2 cups cooked chicken meat, in bite-sized pieces

1 cup cooked Basmati rice

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add onion, celery and pepper and saute until vegetables are soft, about 7-10 minutes. Add garlic and okra and stir until garlic is fragrant then add the stock, bay leaf and tomatoes. Season well with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then lower heat to barely simmering, stirring occasionally, until all vegetables are cooked through. Add the chicken and rice and heat through. If needed, thin with additional chicken stock or water. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with Sriracha sauce or Tabasco if desired.

Yield: 4 servings

 

 

 

 

 

One Good Bite

You know you’re in for an intriguing restaurant experience when there are so many great things on the menu you can’t decide what to order: Brew on the North Cote Road in southwest London holds a treasure trove of choices.

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This location is part of a group that includes four Brew cafes and two Antipodea restaurants (all in southwest London) that are inspired by Australia. That means great coffee is front and center with a variety of hot java drinks as well as fresh-pressed juices, smoothies and milkshakes. They have an in-house baker that makes all the bread, brioche, pastries, pizza dough and even bagels. An onsite butcher cuts all the meat, makes the sausages and grinds fresh beef for the burgers. Some locations have wood ovens for pizzas blistered to perfection and the freshness of produce and ingredients is palpable in each bite.

We started with a couple zingy juice drinks that set the table for our day. The Red Rooster was a gorgeous ruby color with a kick of ginger to get the blood flowing while the Forest Berry Smoothie was a rich, deep magenta blend of four types of berries and apple.

On the heels of that healthy beginning came the Brew Melt, a comforting nosh of ham and melted gruyere with tomatoes on Brew’s homemade bread. Two perfectly poached eggs had our forks jousting for yolk position while a dab of pesto spiked up the Indian summer flavors.

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An order of woodland mushrooms with yogurt, spinach and more of the pesto exceeded the sum of its parts; the creamy sauce was a shoe-in for some cholesterol laden concoction but it was really just Greek yogurt stirred into the luscious pan juices of the season’s best fungi. I’ll be making this one at home….

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Of course, you get what you pay for so prices are a little higher than the competition for mains, egg dishes and those fun drinks; our brunch cost about £26 however we shared the sandwich and mushrooms.

That doesn’t seem to put off customers – as we left, a line streamed out the door and down the block, a testament to the popularity of all things Brew, which serves the neighborhood with Aussie inspiration for every meal of the day.

On the Hunt for Olive Oil in Puglia

Puglia, in the heel of Italy’s boot, is the largest producer of olive oil in the country. The dry, hot climate is perfect for the groves of olive trees that carpet the landscape all the way down to the shores of the Adriatic.

It was there that we discovered gorgeous century old trees, sculpted by sea breezes through the decades. The teeny fruit was ripening under the blistering August sun creating a gorgeous coiffure atop the twisted trunks.

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“People have been coming here and moving these trees to places like Dubai,” Laura Barnaba tells us. “We were losing our heritage so a law was made to protect them,” she continues. The law, passed in 2007, created a system of labelling and surveillance of the ancient trees and is unique to Puglia and the first in Italy.

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Photo courtesy of Sorelle Barnaba

We’ve come to Barnaba’s family farm where olives have been grown and pressed into oil for many generations. Laura and her sisters took over running the business from her parents and are now bottling the fine oil under their own brand name instead of selling it to large producers. The quest for artisan olive oil is in its infancy in this part of Italy and Sorelle Barnaba are hoping to capitalise on this growing business by giving tours and tastings. This aspect of the business is so new that there are no signs on the road to find the farm; we stumbled around with Google Maps pulling into farmyards and deserted fields, finally finding it through trial and error.

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There isn’t much to see in the middle of August, just the mill and some tanks housed in a large barn; harvesting and pressing won’t happen for several more months. But we get to taste the oil from these historic lands, and it gets our attention. The first sample is of the Soffio oil, a bright green label giving a clue of what’s inside. The oil grabs at the back of the throat with bright, grassy flavor and my companions hack, cough and sputter. It reminds me of fresh-pressed oil, spicy and robust. The next is Pizzico, with mellow and smooth flavors, an all-around oil useful for many purposes. Finally we get to taste Il Secolare, oil pressed from trees that are a century old or more. It’s silky with a depth of flavor belying all the years the trees that grew these olives have been on the Earth. The three oils are pressed from 17,000 trees spread over 110 hectares of land; 1500 of the trees are considered ancient. Sorrelle Barnaba produce 600 tons of olive oil each year.

Laura then takes us to one of the most unusual places on the Barnaba property – an underground stone mill. These mills are present all around Puglia and are places that contain a fascinating history of earlier times. The cave enabled the olives to be kept dry and the oil warm irregardless of the weather outside. The fruit was unloaded directly into the large stone presses through a shoot in the side of the chamber and the residue of waste after pressing was easily absorbed by the limestone floor. Mules pulled the wheels to press the oil and man and beast co-existed underground throughout the harvest.

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Photo courtesy of Sorelle Barnaba

The Barnaba’s cave also has evidence of religious symbolism and there is speculation that worshippers – who had to hide their spirituality from the various invaders of Italy though the centuries – found a safe haven in this space. The family intends to one day make a museum to share with visitors the beauty, spirituality and history found in the chamber.

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We happily packed our bottles of Sorelle Barnaba oil into our suitcases as a reminder of a special time in Italy. With each drop of green gold drizzled on soups and avocado toast or whisked into a dressing for a leafy salad, I’m taken back to the beautiful trees of Puglia.

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