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Cakes for Japan is a fantastic, charitable idea to raise money for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last week. All of the proceeds are going to the Red Cross. They’ll have a pop-up shop in Shoreditch on the 18th March and one in Edinburgh next week. The cakes and cookies look beautiful:

Painted Cookies by Nevie Pie

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I don’t like soup. Generally, I’d much rather eat my vegetables whole. What’s wrong with that?

However, I love watching the food network. I was watching ‘Barefoot Contessa’  recently where Ina Garten made Butternut Squash and Apple soup. The combination sounded delicious – two things I love: butternut squash and apple juice. So I set out to make it.

Several challenges are involved in making this soup. First of all you have to keep a very close eye on the onions as they’re frying in the pan. This is harder than it sounds when you’re also peeling and slicing the squash (more on this in the next paragraph). Based on the experience I had it’s a good idea to either buy frozen cubes of butternut squash or peel and slice it before you start the onions.

The second issue is the butternut squash itself. The star of the soup just so happens to be one of the most difficult things to peel and slice in the entire world. If you can get frozen butternut squash I would strongly recommend buying that. If you like a challenge, I hope you enjoy spending half an hour grunting and swearing as you try to slice open the squash and scoop out the copious amount of seeds in the middle. The seeds. Just as you think you’ve surmounted the challenge you come upon the seeds. Small, numerous and ridiculously slippery. You could also roast the squash for 30 minutes or so in the oven. Still, you’d have to halve it and scoop out the seeds beforehand. Every option is fraught with trouble.

Hopefully, you haven’t been put off at this point. With the modifications I’ve made to Ina Garten’s original recipe it really is delicious. I found her recipe far too sweet and so I toned it down with a dash of soy sauce.

You can find the original recipe here.

Ingredients (to make 4-6 servings):
A knob of butter
1tbsp Olive oil
1 Large onion
1 Butternut squash
2 Apples
1tsp Cinnamon
Salt
Pepper
250ml Water (1 cup – if you have measuring cups)
250ml Apple juice (1 cup – if you have measuring cups)
1tsp Soy sauce

1.  Peel and slice the squash in half. It may help to use two knives to pry and split the flesh in half. Cut off the ends and scoop out the seeds in the middle using a spoon. Feel around in the cavity for any seeds that you’ve missed and pick them out. Cut the flesh up into rough cubes no more than 5cm x 5cm. Put to one side.

2. Dice the onion. Melt the butter in the olive oil in a large saucepan (you can use a stock pot, but it’s not absolutely necessary – just use the biggest saucepan (that has a lid) you have) and add the diced onion. Fry the onion for about 15 minutes, stirring it regularly, over a medium heat.

3. While the onion is cooking, peel and core the apples. Cut them into 2cm x 2cm cubes.

4. Add the butternut and apple to the saucepan with the onion. Add a dash of salt and pepper and a teaspoon of cinnamon. Pour over a generous cup of water, give everything a gentle stir and cover with the lid. Leave to cook over a medium low heat for about 40 minutes.

5. Make sure the butternut is soft and well cooked before transferring all the ingredients in the saucepan to a bowl or a blender. Using a handheld blender (or normal blender) puree the soup to the coarseness desired. Return to the saucepan. Add the apple juice and stir. Add more or less apple juice to achieve the desired soup consistency. Finally, add the soy sauce to taste and serve.

The soup, if stored in an airtight container the fridge, will keep for several days.

My friend was visiting from Paris over the weekend. To celebrate we all went to an Indian restaurant called Dishoom in Covent Garden.

Apparently, the restaurant draws on ‘the heritage and tradition of old Bombay Cafés’. Never having been to a Bombay Café I admit that this might have been lost on me. The atmosphere felt dark, stuffy and claustrophobic. This was especially the case when we were waiting at the bar for our table to be prepared. Squeezed between a pillar and someone’s shoulder it is nigh on impossible to look sophisticated holding your Bollybellini. I wasn’t terribly impressed by the rude waiter telling us to get out of the way either. Where were we meant to go?

The menu has some interesting choices available, particularly for snacks and starters. We ordered their crisps (poppadoms with a hint of lime, a sprinkling of paprika and something spicy), lamb samosas (crispy with a light, aromatic lamb filling – delicious!) and calimari (not what you’d expect in an Indian restaurant, but always a hit). After these nibbles I was looking forward to something more substantial.

However, the main courses were disappointing. For a start, there isn’t a great deal of choice. It’s mostly a choice between something from the grill or a Biryani. You can also have Roomali Rolls, but considering they’re just glorified wraps more suited for a lunchtime meal than dinner I stayed away from them. Decisions decisions. I have the most pathetic tolerance level for spicy food, so anything marked ‘(s)’ was immediately discounted. The only thing on the menu that described itself as ‘mild’ was the Murgh Malai. I was expecting something like butter chicken that would be creamy and delicious, melt in your mouth type food – not even a hint of that disagreeable burning sensation. What I got was a plate of tender chicken that set my mouth on fire. THIS was mild?! Yeah right… I ended up dousing the entire plate in a bowl of raita.

Another criticism lies in the portion sizes. My Murgh Malai was a side plate of chicken. Apart from a lime, a very small pot of slivers of cucumber and tomato (also spicy) and a sprig of parsley there was nothing else on the plate. I would have expected some sort of salad or a bit of rice to go with the chicken. In fact, I would have settled for a smaller portion of chicken if there was something to go with it. Those who ordered Biryanis fared a little bit better, although the presentation in a small stoneware bowl made the portion look smaller than it actually was.

Nevertheless, to end on a positive note, I have learnt several things from this experience. Firstly, not even dishonest chicken can make a night out with good friends less fun. Secondly, if in doubt, make sure the waiters/kitchen staff are aware of your spice intolerance. It’s not a recognised allergy, but for me (and hopefully others) it makes a huge difference. Finally, if all else fails, a bowl of cucumber raita will always help you through tough times.

Exasperating Bowl of Sweet Potato GnocchiFirst of all, I have to apologise. This post will be about a catastrophe. A horrific culinary experiment that I would rather forget.

Traditional potato gnocchi have a slightly floury texture and absorb the flavour of whatever sauce you put with them. However, this recipe for sweet potato gnocchi creates little balls of infuriatingly gelatinous and tasteless dough. I suspect that there was far too much flour in the recipe. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have trusted the Waitrose recipe. I should have used a recipe with reviews from real people who have actually tested the recipe and shared their thoughts on it. That’s the main lesson I’ve taken away from this experience – always try to find out what other people thought of the recipe before you make it.

Instead of providing you with the disgraceful Waitrose recipe (which you can quite easily find by google searching), I’m going to give my modified version of this recipe. Note: I haven’t tried this recipe, I am only altering it based on my experiences with the Waitrose recipe.

Ingredients (to serve 4-6)
1kg Sweet potatoes
1/2tsp Ground nutmeg
55g Grated parmesan
Salt & Pepper
150g All purpose flour (you may need more or less – see below)
(NB: I have omitted the egg from the allrecipes recipe, as the addition of more moisture would require even more flour, thus contributing to the glutinous problem)

1) Place the sweet potatoes on a baking tray. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil over them and bake for 30 minutes at 180C. Keep an eye on them to avoid them cooking too much. They should be soft, but not excessively dry.
2) Allow the sweet potatoes to cool until you are able to handle them comfortably. Slice them in half and scoop the flesh out with a spoon into a large mixing bowl.
3) Using a potato masher, mash the sweet potato flesh until the consistency is smooth.
4) With a wooden spoon mix in the salt, pepper, parmesan and nutmeg. Slowly begin adding the flour. Make additions of about 50g until the dough is soft and consistent. If it is still sticking to the bowl a lot, add more flour, but avoid adding so much flour that the dough feels dry. Getting the flour content just right is the hardest part.
5) The most helpful suggestion in the reviews on allrecipes at this point was to put the dough into a plastic sandwich bag, cut the corner off (if you have such a thing, you could use a piping bag for this) and pipe the gnocchi out. I would recommend piping the gnocchi directly into a saucepan of boiling water. When you have a small sausage (no more than 2cm long) cut it off into the water with a sharp knife.
6) At this point, it would be tremendously helpful to have a beautiful assistant. While you’re piping gnocchi into the pan, your helper (or 3rd arm) should keep a close eye on the gnocchi already cooking. As each gnocchi floats to the surface, you know it’s ready. Leave it there for about 10-20 seconds, before fishing it out with a slotted spoon and putting it aside.
7) When all the gnocchi are cooked, empty the saucepan of the pasta water and return them to the pan. Cover with a sauce of your choice (a nice sage butter sauce or tomato and basil sauce, perhaps) and heat everything up over a low heat. Serve in bowls, cover with parmesan and lament the 2 hours it took you to produce.

The name, while being Portuguese, has no bearing on where the delightful cuisine hails from. True, the chef, Nuno Mendes, is originally Portuguese, but the restaurant’s name should be used as a rough guide to the food on offer. Without a menu or any indication of what you will receive until your waiter lays it in front of you, a meal at Viajante really is like being a traveller on a voyage of culinary discovery.

I enjoyed the 6 course meal at Viajante a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been putting off writing this blog post in the hopes that the restaurant would send me the menu we ate, as promised, but alas, that is not to be.

The restaurant is in an unlikely location. Bethnal Green, as you may know, is not famed for haute cuisine. But this doesn’t seem to have stopped Mendes setting up shop in the old town hall. Although the surroundings leave a little to be desired, the premises themselves are cosy and inviting – a spot of wood panelling never goes amiss.

The menu (or lack thereof) was exciting to say the least. We went for the 6 course option, but in actual fact this turned out to be 6 ‘courses’ and 4 sides. To avoid spoiling the surprise, I won’t go into great detail about what we were served. The main things I noticed and that I think are worth highlighting is the use of traditional ingredients in novel ways and the recurrent theme of various purées holding the dish together. On the first point, I would like to mention the chocolate truffles that incorporated mushrooms to enhance the flavour. Truffles aren’t exactly the most exciting thig for someone who has been eating chocolate for 21 years, but incorporating mushroom into the mix was an excellent idea. The taste of the mushroom was nutty, a little salty and slightly sour – a perfect counterpoint to the creamy delicacy of the chocolate truffle. In terms of the purées, they prove that if you add enough butter and cream to something they will taste delicious. However, I am not criticising them at all. I loved every single purée I came across, from the more well-known butternut squash purée to the innovative use of kelp. Not only did the taste help to hold together the other ingredients used, but the bright colours made the overall presentation very impressive.

So far I’ve given a glowing report of Viajante, but it did have its bad points. Firstly, there was one dish on which I wasn’t terribly keen. A vaguely asian take on tuna accompanied with very bitter salad leaves and slightly undercooked vegetables came slap-bang in the middle of the meal. Even though I had been enjoying the courses up to that point and thereafter, the tuna dish unfortunately had the effect of dampening my spirits. Secondly, even though we’d ordered the 6 course sampler, there was no indication of what course was being presented to us. For example, what we believed to be the 8th course was actually ‘pre-dessert’. This did cause quite a lot of consternation.

Overall, Viajante is an excellent restaurant, particularly for those with little experience of fine modern cuisine. For around £68 it is possible to eat a substantial amount of very good food. However, if you have high expectations you could be disappointed by what is on offer.

I may have previously mentioned this, but London is full of exciting restaurants in all shapes, sizes and culinary persuasions. One particular cuisine I am especially fond of at the moment is Korean. Everyone’s had Chinese food or perhaps sampled a bit of sushi, but Korean food is still rather undiscovered for reasons that still elude me. Admittedly, it wasn’t until I became friends with a few Koreans at university that I first sampled Korean food, but since then it’s had a significant impact on my eating out decisions.

Korean cuisine is fairly diverse, making use of a variety of meats (chicken, beef and pork mainly), as well as fish and vegetables. From what I have tasted so far there is also a tendency towards spicy dishes, but the spicy marinade that is often used is quite a treat. At first it crosses the palate with an unexpected sweetness that slowly turns to a warming spice. The more you eat, the spicier it feels.

Tonight, we went to Dong San on Poland Street, just off Oxford Street. I’ve been to this restaurant before with Korean friends, but tonight it was just me and my Portuguese/French/English/Spanish-speaking boyfriend (henceforth, L), so I was a little bit worried about ordering. Upon reflection, I needn’t have been, since the menu does a good job of translating the names of some of the more obscure Korean dishes. If I had never eaten Korean food before, I might have been more perturbed, but at this level of familiarity it was just fine.

From the outside, the restaurant blends in well with the Soho scenery. It doesn’t really stand out from the other small restaurants in the area. However, the service, gorgeous crockery and the food more than make up for its unassuming appearance.

We ordered vegetable tempura (who can resist?), rice cake with seafood and two dolsot bibimbaps, which came with a little dish of kimchi to share between us. The waitress tried to warn us against having the rice cake, as it’s not generally to Westerners’ tastes. This was very thoughtful, but I insisted that we have it, as I’m quite a big fan of these gelatinous cylinders hidden among a variety of dead sea creatures (think tiny little tentacles, prawns, etc.) and vegetables all dripping with the spicy sauce I mentioned earlier.

The food came fairly quickly, which was a definite plus given how hun

gry we were. The rice cake dish was steaming, so we both got started on the vegetable tempura. The batter was nice and crispy and the vegetables inside hot and soft – clearly freshly cooked. You get a good selection of veg – aubergines, green peppers and yam (I think, but I’m not sure). The only thing I would have liked to see added is sweet potato or carrot.

When the rice cake dish had cooled down a bit I urged L to try a bit. He’d never had rice cake before and most likely won’t have it again. He didn’t really get on with the texture of the rice cake, but did enjoy the rest of the dish, so all was not lost.

With regards to the kimchi side dish, L’s comment sums it up perfectly: ‘cabbage has to be the most boring food in the world, but somehow they’ve made it interesting’. Slightly spicy with a distinct taste of pickled cabbage (surprise, surprise) I really found the kimchi to be a necessary and refreshing side to the hot rice cakes.

Then the main show arrived. The dolsot bibimbap. I had never had bibimbap at this restaurant before, but as one of my favourite Korean dishes I was keen to try it. Essentially, it’s rice, carrots, cucumber, bean sprouts and an egg served in a large, very hot, stone bowl. The egg comes uncooked, but as you mix the separated ingredients in the vessel they cook thanks to the heat of the bowl. The result is slightly crispy rice with very fresh, clean vegetables and a slight hint of egg. It’s the perfect dish for a cold evening (and yes, it’s pretty cold right now). We both enjoyed the bibimbap at Dong San partly because that’s what we were in the mood for, but also because it was genuinely good. It didn’t differ too much to other bibimbaps I have had, except for the addition of mushrooms and the detraction of (cooked) strips of beef. There is the option on the menu to have the bibimbap with ‘beef sashimi’, which I assume would be raw beef. This would cook in the stone bowl, but on this occasion we decided not to go for it.

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal. However, I would say the nicest thing about this restaurant is the friendliness of the waitresses. They seem to genuinely enjoy talking to you and making sure that you have a good meal, unlike a lot of restaurants where they simply ask how the food was as a formality. So, if you’re looking to try Korean food in London, or you’re already a devotee of this covert cuisine do try Dong San.

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