Home Sweet Home

What is home? Is it a place or a person, a feeling or an emotion, a smell or a taste? Sometimes living this expat life it can be hard to determine what is home. Even though I have one here in London I get homesick for the people, places, smells, tastes and comforts of California.

After a recent visit there, I returned to London feeling decidedly homesick. The trip had been lovely in every way: wonderful weather, visits with friends and family and gorgeous scenery, making my return to this gray, chilly city even more difficult.

Around this time I had a chance meeting with a perpetual traveller – someone who roams the world as a professional pet sitter trying on different countries as home for brief periods before moving on to the next doggie in another town. I asked him how he made a place feel like home when the bed, the street and the city weren’t his. He mentioned that the smell of a chicken roasting often created the ambience of home and I could immediately relate: the aroma, taste and process of creating a favorite food can evoke the feeling of a cozy nest.

I remembered that one of the best things during my California trip was visiting the Meyer lemon tree in the garden of our house in San Rafael. As usual, it was bursting with sweet blossoms and laden with golden fruits ready for any cooking task.  I went on a hunt for lemons to cook some California sunshine with and found gorgeous beauties from the bright coast of Italy. They were plump and juicy with big green leaves still attached, perfect for a microwave version of lemon curd that I had cut out of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

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This is an intriguing recipe that caught my attention because it uses olive oil as the fat and honey as the sweetener.

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The method is way easier than the usual curd recipe, which involves lots of whisking in a double boiler set- up and fretting about the egg getting scrambled! Was it all too good to be true?

I simply whisked the juice and zest of those tart and tangy Sorrento lemons with the honey, olive oil and an egg then popped it in the microwave for short bursts at 50% power. After each burst of 30 seconds or so, I stirred and then took the temperature of the mixture until it reached 170F/77C and coated a spoon.

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The process was fun and easy and the result was very good. I used the curd for a dynamite lemon cheesecake and for petite lemon tarts to go with afternoon tea, and still have some left for toast.

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If a simple custard like this can bring me back to California, at least in my mouth and mind, then I’ll keep making it – at least until I can get comfortable with where my feet are planted right now.

Meyer Lemon Olive Oil Curd
Adapted from a recipe by Maria Speck from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat

2-3 lemons (any type will do), about 250 grams

2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 tablespoons mild honey, 50 grams

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 40 grams

1 large egg at room temperature

Finely grate the yellow part of the lemon skin until you have 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons of zest. Juice the fruits, straining the seeds, until you have 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon juice. Whisk together the honey and oil in a medium microwave-safe bowl then whisk in the egg, zest, juice and a pinch of salt until smooth. Don’t worry if the honey hasn’t completely dissolved at this point. Set your microwave at 50% power. Heat the mixture for 1 minute, then stop to whisk and scrape around the sides of the bowl. Repeat, then continue heating and checking every 30 seconds, whisking and scraping in between; the mixture will foam and gradually thicken. The custard is done once it coats the back of a spoon and a path remains when you slide your finger across. This should take about 3 minutes total, depending on the power of your microwave. The temperature of the custard should register at least 170 degrees F on an instant read thermometer. Let cool in the bowl for about 15 minutes, whisking a few times. Strain the zest out if you wish for a silkier texture or leave as is if you like the golden bits of skin. Spoon the curd into an 8 oz. glass jar. Chill until completely cool then seal with the lid.

 

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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.

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