The River Cafe Still Has It

220px-River_Cafe,_London_05

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.

IMG_3503

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.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_3425

 

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.

IMG_3137

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.

IMG_3134

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.

 

IMG_3138

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.

IMG_2919

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

IMG_2917-2

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

IMG_2915

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

IMG_2920

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.

IMG_2978IMG_2979IMG_2980IMG_2981

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.

IMG_3042

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!

 

 

Slow Cooker Vegan

IMG_2600

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.

IMG_2592

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.

IMG_2597

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.

 

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.

IMG_2159

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.

IMG_2157

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….

IMG_2156

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.

IMG_1950

“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.

IMG_0729-700x441

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.

IMG_1919

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.

ipogeo2-700x441

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.

IMG_1916

IMG_1915

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.

IMG_1963