Saturday, 28 February 2009

afternoon t at the rose lounge


late saturday afternoon found i and i with three other ladies at the sofitel on piccadilly. we had to wait a while in the bar since our five o’clock reservation was significantly delayed by a group of ladies taking their tea at leisure. i guess windows of reservation seldom apply to female conversations. eventually we were seated in the very feminine rose lounge. soft pastel pinks and books whose covers were rose visuals made up the place. low sofas lined with substantial cushions were inviting and comfortable to settle into. shelves of books lined the spaces that are not mirrors or murals. for the most part the lounge is occupied by women.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

tollhouse chocolate chip cookies

there was a time cookie baking was a staple activity for me. back in pakistan i used to bake a weekly batch that was sold at rifz cafe. i decided to make a batch midweek because for me baking is a great way to unwind. i didn’t realize that baking cookies in london would turn out to be a bit of a complicated affair. for starters it was shrove tuesday and a retinue of pancake crazed adults and children crowded the bakers aisle at waitrose where i had gone to get chocolate chips. the next challenge turned out to be the chocolate chips. waitrose’s cooks ingredients includes everything but chocolate chips. i desperately missed the over populated cookie chip variety offered by albertsons and frys in the us of a. there was butterscotch, white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, triple chocolate – i missed tollhouse more than anything! i decided to be creative and picked a bar of dark chocolate and decided to combine it with some green and blacks orange spiked maya which i had at home. i also got some margarine and a big fat shiny orange. thus equipped i headed home. 

before the cookie recipe i want to say one thing. in england a cookie is often equated with biscuits – to me these are two very different things. a cookie is soft and moist and crumbles easily. a biscuit is hard and crisp and requires to be bitten into. this is why biscuits are perfect for dunking and cookies generally require care. the dividing line between the two; butter vs. margarine. if you want a moist, soft and chewy cookie you want to avoid butter as that is what makes it spread and go harder. the other important this is the length of time you bake it for. for a cookie, it should look like it is slightly undercooked. a rule of thumb i generally work with is nine to eleven minutes in the oven with lightly browned edges. you then have to resist the temptation to lift them of the tray as soon as you bring them out of the oven as they will most certainly disintegrate. you have to wait for them to cool slightly.  

so here is what you need 

dry ingredients: 2 ¼ cups of flour, 1 tea spoon salt, 1 tea spoon baking powder
1 cup margarine
sweet stuff: ¾ cup brown sugar, ¾ cup white sugar
bringing it together: 2 eggs 
additions: 2 cups chocolate chips, 1 cup nuts (optional)
season: 1 teaspoon vanilla essence 

combine the margarine and sugars until light and fluffy. sift together the flour, salt and baking powder. add an egg and then some of the dry ingredients and incorporate. continue until you have mixed everything. then add the chocolate chips and fold through evenly. i tend to like to add a hint of the season to my cookie dough so i added some grated orange rind that teemed perfectly with my spiced orange home broken chocolate chips. preheat your oven to 190 degrees celsius. drop cookies by the spoonful onto a greased cookie tray. you can let them be irregular or pat into shape slightly. stick them into the oven for nine to eleven minutes or until the edges are lightly golden. don’t worry if the centre looks slightly uncooked. they will continue to cook on the tray for a couple of minutes. let them stand until they are firm enough to lift off with a spatula. serve hot with a glass of cold milk, a cafitiere of fresh coffee or a cup of tea. i had hers with earl grey tea, i had mine with cafitiere of fresh yirga cheffe coffee and j had hers with black currant tea. 

this is a basic foolproof recipe that is the genius of tollhouse. don’t be afraid to tweak it to your likes. i often substitute some of the flour for oats to gives a varied texture. try different combinations of chips, perhaps a hint of cinnamon or raspberries which white chocolate chips. once baked make homemade ice cream sandwiches with a good quality vanilla ice cream. if they do last long enough ,keep them in a air tight jar. they generally tend to remain soft but for an added treat microwave them slightly to get the chips warm and melty. 

oh and don’t forget to eat some of the batter before it goes into the oven. it’s really addictive.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

brunch innovative idea?

on a delightful weekend of renewed friendships, tentative springs and big steps forward, m and i found ourselves in hyde park on a chilly sunday morning in need of a warm refuge that would welcome us for a couple of hours of reading, writing and obviously chatting. being in an exploring mood, we decided to wander about the fairly unfamiliar bayswater area until we came across something appealing. our choice was the cosy charlotte, a dim-lighted café with wooden tables and low couches by the window.

the smell of traditional, greasy english breakfast which overpowered us as soon as we stepped in clashed a bit with the superficially sophisticated look of the café, but we decided to give charlotte a second chance. we sat down and ordered reasonable coffees, surprised to discover that the main item on the menu, the apparently popular “brunch buffet”, did not include drinks.

after indulging in the pleasure of the observer food monthly, i gave in to my hunger and headed to the appealing buffet while m sat back with her reservations. the warm options, pale scrambled eggs, tinned baked beans and a suspicious mix of sausages and onions threatened to kill my appetite, so i went straight to the next table, offering a selection of savouries. i picked a few slices of ham, a selection of cheese cubes, a slice of onion tart, a sample of egg-tuna-mayo and an inviting muffin. the overall result was not a complete disappointment, but far from exciting. the muffin was a dry affair which only tasted of fennel seeds. ham and cheeses were clearly taken out of a plastic tray, but the egg and mayo salads were somewhat innovative and the onion tart reminded me of home-cooked meals.

a short pause occupied by a debate about the most appropriate side of the nose for a piercing led me to a new trip to the buffet, this time to its sweet side. i picked and mixed two or three of the loaves on the table and i toasted the unexciting brown bread twice with little success due to a completely inefficient toaster. surely, for over nine pounds a head, there had to be something more tempting than nutella on toast in that buffet! the chocolate cake turned out to be dry and i couldn't even figure out what the main ingredients of the other slices were. the only, at that point unexpected, joy came from a soft, moist and flavourful slice of saffron cake. being a great fan of saffron, i had never thought of using it for a loaf and i now wonder why. it was a true revelation.

the saffron surprise and the comfy couches, however, could not make up for the rest of the food, highly uninspiring and overpriced, the lack of choice on the menu beyond the buffet or, to be honest, the unorthodox flushing method in the toilet. the great thing about exploring is the possibility of uncovering hidden gems in this ever-changing city. charlotte was, unfortunately, not one of them.

café garcia

on sunday i and i had decided to spend the day in a café, just like we used to do last year when we were post-graduates. the trial and subsequent disappointment of charlotte was borne of that. when my stomach decided to dictate its hunger i and i decided it was time to abandon the comfy couch and search for something different. since we were so close to portobello road i took out my moleskin for a consult on what i had penned down for that area. on my list appeared café garcia so off we went to the end of portobello road to try out this place.

 attached to café garcia is a delicatessen which stocks spanish and italian foods. i found her favorite childhood biscuits and i came out with a jar of dulce de leche made in argentina. but before our trip to the delicatessen we had sat in the café itself which has a modest menu – there is paella and ceviche and some empadanas with different fillings. the sweet counter comprises a display of flans, churros and some other spanish sweets. on a table across from us two little girls sat drinking a rich dark hot chocolate but sadly i was so full on the disappointing brunch buffet that i didn’t have a partner in crime to halve my guilt with. i did however eat the paella which was warm and satisfying which a strong meaty flavor of chicken and a sweet edge of red peppers. the hot chocolate of course demands another visit but that isn’t the only thing that we will be returning to café garcia for. 

Saturday, 21 February 2009

paul rothe & son

this is a quaint old shop that proudly bears the emblem of its centurion status. its windows are a broad lattice of white wood and through the glass appears an array of jars – pots of conserves, jams and chutney stand in colorful succession. paul rothe and son serve sandwiches that aren't frilly, just wholesome assemblages of generously buttered bread with condiments and meats, vegetables or cheeses. i had slices of smoked salmon with a squeeze of lemon juice and pepper on a light rye whilst o settled on chicken mixes (basically the sandwich mix of the day) on thickly buttered granary. thus equipped and warmed after coffee and tea we headed to the national portrait gallery to see the taylor wessing photography exhibit.

the risotto recipe

i'm not really sure how it happened, but one day, more or less a year after i moved to england, i discovered my friends regarded risotto as my signature dish. it's true, i cook a lot of different risotti, for myself and my friends.
when i was little, my sincere dislike of all things vegetables forced my mum to be very inventive in disguising peas, artichokes, leeks and radicchio in colourful dishes so that i wouldn't grow up with a chronic vitamin deficiency. i now like vegetables and love cooking them, as they allow you to be a lot more creative than a steak or fillet of fish. however, i still enjoy cheating myself and hide my mushrooms or courgettes in a creamy, filling risotto.
after all, cooking risotto it's a pretty simple affair and i learnt pretty quickly after moving out of the maternal home and engaging in my hectic student life. nonetheless, a few people have asked me for a good risotto recipe, so i though i would share my classic one which, i must immodestly admit, never fails to impress.
a risotto can be made with almost any kind of favourites are the classic mushrooms, the summery courgette and shrimp combination, the wintery pumpkin and cinnamon. the procedure is the same for almost all kinds.
it all starts with some butter and olive oil in pan, to which i add some finely chopped onion. once the onion turns brown, i throw in the roughly chopped vegetables (and shrimp or ham or whatever i feel like) and fry them on low heat until they're reasonably soft. at this point, it's time to add the rice (half a glass of rice for each person, old grandma trick), pour a tablespoon of white wine on it and let it fry together with the veggies, stirring constantly for about a minute. then i start adding the vegetable stock, a glass at a time, stirring regularly, until the rice is perfectly cooked. which means soft, but not mushy. it usually takes about fifteen, twenty minutes.
as soon as the rice reaches its cooking point, preferably a minute before, i turn off the heat, add a generous amount of butter and grated parmesan, stir it lightly and let it sit for a minute or so. this last step, called “mantecare” in italian, is essential, as it ensures the risotto is creamy. however, it's very important not to let the rice sit for more than a minute as it becomes rapidly overcooked, mushy and sticky. which is definitely not what a risotto should be!
and i can finally serve it, grate some more parmesan on it, sit back, have a sip of white wine and enjoy it.


after a long spell of biting cold weather, the first signs of spring are appearing in london. in hyde park there is a patchy carpet of purple crocuses and on my kitchen table there is a glass bearing snowdrops from my flat mates garden. this saturday the sun made its grand appearance and was accompanied by slight warmth. i woke up to it licking the corners of my blinds demanding that i abandon my bed for a day of coffee and chitchats with my best girl friend. i reached over and called i and said, it gorgeous out, lets meet up for brunch and go exploring. for some time now i have been adding cafes and restaurants to a list in my red moleskin diary and lantana happened to be on that list. lantana is located off charlotte street in a little alley that is home to an italian delicatessen, a health food shop called peppercorns and a place that was advertising walk-in back rubs. a dark wood table and hollowed modern cubes of wood shaped into stools make up the front outdoor seating. the soundtrack for lantana is the sound of conversations bearing the stamp of their space on the map of the world. on the wall facing the entrance is painted a large monochromatic mural of flowers and foliage. 

Sunday, 15 February 2009

the angelic

sunday afternoon found o and i at a gastro-pub in islington. the plan was for us to sit and read…o for leisure and me for this consultancy that is biting into my weekend relaxation time. a comfortable leather sofa bearing distress lines occasioned by frequent usage instantly invited us to it.  the angelic isn't a classic pub. to start with it is bright and airy with high ceilings and substantial windows. the furniture is light rather than a dark wood and the menu is a mélange of classic pub fare and creative tapas and entrees.

our order was preceded by a bread board – three slices of thick brown bread studded with olives and poppy seeds and a small bowl with olive oil with a centre of balsamic. o ordered the soup of the day – a heavy creamy broccoli soup that came served in a big bowl with a flourish of olive oil and a well dressed salad made up of  baby spinach, quails eggs with slightly quivery yolks and flakes of a firm white fish (i cannot recall the name).

i had mackerel fish cakes which were far from conventional and very good. the fish cake was a combination of mackerel, some butternut squash and mashed egg encased in a crisp skin of bread crumbs. it was fired to a golden brown crispness and arrived on a bed of seasoned boiled vegetables. the broccoli was fresh spring green and retained its shape showing that it had been thoughtfully boiled. there were carrots cut on a slant and some boiled radishes – a very welcome change from potatoes. to add a tangy sweet flavor there was beetroot relish that left wonderful deep pink-red streaks on the white ceramic plate. a squiggle of horseradish cause ran along one side of the plate. combined together, the flavors were excellent. 

after a while a refreshing kiwi daiquiri appeared which turned out to be a surprise order for me. i couldn't resist stealing bites of o's steamed pudding with orange sauce. elsewhere around the pub people were tucking into sunday roasts that looked as tempting as they smelled. i take we will have to return to sample the sunday menu, perhaps on a day when i can just relax and not work.

Monday, 2 February 2009

breakfast at ottolenghi

ottolenghi, islington
mum and h and i went to ottolenghi for breakfast today. it is perhaps one of the most serene eateries i know off and i suspect it owes itself to the simplicity of its lines and the whiteness of its walls. all accents of color are attributed to the foods that flank either side of the entrance. large shallow terracotta bowls hold salad creations that are medley of color and taste – flat overlapping arrangements of seared meats both white and red are laid out to one side. the other side is taken up by a display of desserts, each of them beautifully crafted and tantalizing to the taste buds. otto’s signature meringues streaked with berries and chocolate are stacked high and rise about the cakes, tarts and muffins. a blackboard sports a colorfully written menu. there are shelves that house the condiments range – jars of preserves and bottles of oil.

whilst waiting for h to arrive mum and i ordered americano coffee, a rich dark roast served hot with hot milk. on the dining tables of otto sit little square wooden boards upon which are little glass jars bearing butter, preserves and chocolate spread studded with nuts. with h’s arrival came the order for breakfast. a bread plate bearing a slice of plain sourdough, sourdough with sour cherries and a cinnamon pretzel as the almond croissants were finished. a savory side of portobello mushrooms with crumbled feta trundled along at some point, their blackish brown juices with lines of olive oil and a fleck of green herbs gathering in the centre of the plate they were served on. the bread was lovely untoasted and one of the glass jars produced a lovely caramelized banana jam which i fell in love with. the raspberry preserves were excellent too.

 in a rather bizarre end to brunch we ordered a slice of chocolate rum fondant cake – a very luxurious and rich concoction of dark chocolate, heavy cream and a rounding note of rum that enclosed all the flavors of the dessert with a perfection that is classical of ottolenghi. each and every ottolenghi creation i have sampled is a testimony to the ability of both these cooks to create food that is a treat of flavors that reveal themselves collectively and yet do not get eclipsed individually.