The River Cafe Still Has It

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The River Cafe is a classic that has withstood the test of time by championing a seasonal manifesto, serving top quality ingredients and having great leadership at the top.

It was originally opened in 1987 by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray as the employee cafe for Rogers’ husband’s architectural practice. The location was an old oil storage facility right on the river Thames that was turned into a handsome office building with the restaurant at its heart.

A courtyard faces the river with dining tables for al fresco eating during nice weather surrounded by garden boxes filled with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s quite an idyllic spot.

Many now-famous chefs have honed their culinary chops under the tutelage of Gray and Rogers including Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall and April Bloomfield, to name just a few. Gray passed away in 2010, but Rogers carries on the foundations they started together. The restaurant remains dedicated to Italian cuisine in all its simplicity, from fresh homemade pasta to whole fish roasted in the watermelon pink wood oven that’s finished with a drizzle of good olive oil and a squirt of fresh lemon.

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The wood oven anchors the space and many of the standard dishes the restaurant is known are cooked in it – such as that whole roasted fish. But the kitchen is proficient at bringing optimum flavor out of seasonal ingredients and uses many techniques to achieve that.

One example was a starter of creamy burrata, juicy, roasted cherry tomatoes, cracked olives and wilted swiss chard that hit sweet, bitter, salty and creamy on the taste buds. A drizzle of olive oil pulled it all together. Another starter of chargrilled squid was topped with a tiny dice of spicy red pepper so the elements of chewy ocean interplayed with a piquant heat. Lemon, olive oil and a pile of raw autumn leaves completed the dish.

The mains were also examples of simple ingredients brought to the peak of flavor. The kitchen was using many varieties of chicories, both raw and cooked. The bitter bite of  treviso alongside a pan roasted loin of monkfish accentuated the buttery moist fish. Slices of rosy lamb were accompanied by cicoria which contrasted with the meat and a luscious, wood roasted artichoke. A refreshing minty garlic sauce snapped it all to attention. A plate of homemade ravioli stuffed with girolles mushrooms and cheese was the weakest link of the meal, not because it wasn’t done well but more because it seemed boring compared with the flashes of brilliance and color on the other plates.

Prices are high but I would say you get what you pay for. The chance to enjoy a fantastic meal at this gorgeous place that is still going strong after 31 years was worth every pound.

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Bountiful Harvests at PYO Farms

This summer I’ve had the chance to visit two farms outside London. We went by train and walked from the station a short distance to acres of brilliant orchards, fields and bushes laden with the bounty of the season. It was so inspiring to walk around picking gorgeous produce from the earth where it was grown – instead of mediocre stuff packaged in too much plastic in the grocery bin!

The first time was on one of the hotter-than-hades days we had this summer in London. Dripping with sweat, my pal Therese and I picked buckets of raspberries, oozing, ripe strawberries, corn and beets. It was a bit of a hateful trek back to the station with bags heaving on our shoulders, drenched from the heat but I made the best strawberry pie and tucked raspberries in the freezer for later. The corn was the best I’ve eaten in England ever.

As summer faded into fall, the farm was beckoning again. This time ripe plums weighed down branches like jewels, apples perfumed the orchards and fields of pumpkins colored the landscape.

The relief and joy of being out of the city and in fields of produce ready for the picking could be the reason why I came home with about 40 pounds of stuff – everything from cooking and eating apples to plums and quince to green beans and more corn. Yikes!

It’s been fun exploring recipes and plotting how to use all of it. Like a squirrel putting away nuts for winter, I’ve been canning, making jam and freezing the harvest for the cold months ahead.

The PYO farms are open until the end of October and many of them have family activities on the weekends like corn mazes, hayrides and pumpkin picking. Check out www.pyo.co.uk to get a list of farms in your area. You can also filter your search by type of produce. The farms I went to were Secrett’s in Surrey and Hewitt’s in Kent, both about 1.5 hours from central London by train and foot.

It’s well worth the effort to get your hands on the freshest fruit and veg out there and it soothes the soul too.

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Quick Pickles

I first tasted refrigerator pickles when my brother Peter brought a batch to a family gathering. They were crisp and cool and salty with lots of garlic flavor and they were gone in a flash.

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Quick fridge pickles are super easy to make and perfect for midsummer when the bounty of cukes, hot peppers, garlic and dill are all at their peak.

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This is one of those non-recipe recipes that you can customize to your preferences. Start with ultra fresh cucumbers, either just picked from your garden, the farmers market or the store; slice them about 1/2″ thick. Peel cloves from 1/2 head of garlic; cut the cloves in half if they are big. Pick the sprigs off a bunch of dill and set aside and have handy a mix of spicy hot peppers and well as mild ones.

 

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You’ll need a clean jar with a lid. I use a 24oz. Kilner jar with a clip seal lid but any glass jar will work. Ones that are wider are easier to pack but I’ve also used quart Mason jars with success because that was all I had.IMG_3135

Put 1 teaspoon each of black peppercorns and coriander seeds in the bottom of the jar. Add a layer of cucumbers, a few garlic pieces, a couple small, hot peppers and a layer of dill sprigs, add a larger pepper if you are using. Continue layering in this manner until they reach the top of the jar. Make the top layer cucumbers, small peppers and garlic only to save yourself from having to sift through soggy dill to get to your first pickles.

Put 2 1/2 cups water, 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1 tablespoon kosher salt in a bowl and stir until salt dissolves. Pour this over the ingredients in the jar until all pieces are submerged. Put the lid on and gently turn the jar upside down a couple times to distribute the flavors evenly, then put into the refrigerator.IMG_3144

The pickles are ready in as soon as 8 hours. The longer they sit in the brine the more flavorful they get. You can use them as an appetizer or on a burger or sandwich. I also like adding them to potato salad for a salty garlicky burst and to the fermented sauerkraut I’ve been noshing with sausages lately. Frankly, they are amazing with just about anything savory and can become addictive. Feel free to add less garlic and to change up the peppers. Sometimes I will use only jalapeños because I love their heat and flavor, other times a combination of hot as hell and mild ones so feel free to experiment. The peppers are also an interesting ingredient to add to recipes or put in cocktails. Speaking of drinks, I want to try using some of the brine in a gin cocktail similar to the dirty martini idea. If it’s any good I’ll post about it.

 

 

 

A Penchant for Potatoes

The British love their potatoes! In my local grocery store here in London, there are about 15 varieties at any given moment.

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There are potatoes for baking, frying, steaming and mashing.

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There are big ones, small ones and “new potatoes” in red and brown.

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There are ones in bulk and ones in bags and heritage varieties like La Ruffe, Charlotte and Albert Bartlett Elfe.

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But my favorites this time of year are the raggedy-skinned Jersey Royals that have the distinctive terroir of the island where they are grown. These spuds are planted in the rich, well-drained soil of Jersey in the English channel and fertilized with seaweed from the island’s shores. The tubers have been grown in this manner since 1878 and have even been awarded a Protected Designation of Origin by the EU. The taste is golden and buttery with a texture that takes well to being roasted and crisped in the oven.

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My favorite way of preparing these is to scrub the skin well under water then roast them whole in a hot oven (180C) until they can be pierced easily with a fork. Smash them down using a potato masher until they are somewhat flattened; don’t worry if some of the fluffy innards spill out, that just makes for more bits to get crispy. Drizzle each tatty with a generous amount of good olive oil then sprinkle judiciously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pop back in the oven for 20-30 minutes until the potatoes are golden brown and crunchy.

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You could sprinkle the finished Jersey Royals with chives or dab on some sour cream or creme fraiche or eat them just plain. I like to make extras then fry them up the next day for breakfast with eggs – or just snack on them right out of the fridge!

The scruffy spud from the island of Jersey wins my vote every time. And all those other potatoes can find a home in someone else’s shopping trolley!

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.