30 March 2012

Mussels from Brussels

We adore mussels and while working together the other day Rebecca mentioned to us that she'd been for a meal at a well known Low Country shellfish eatery recently. This reminded us that in the 90's we used to troop all the way from Earls Court over to Camden just to eat mussels at the newly opened Belgian concept restaurant called Belgo's. This was the first branch to open in London and very cutting edge at the time but everything about going there was an experience which made the safari well worth while. The first surprise was that there was virtually no street front presence at all. You entered a discreet almost hidden door from the street and a high level walkway took you past all the open plan kitchens where everything was on view to the eating salon at the back. The room had wooden refectory style tables and the waiters were dressed in long flowing monks habits tied with rope. The menu boasted dozens of fruity Low Country beers - another innovation at the time and delicious with the shell fish - but as regards food only featured mussels, litre pots with a jus or "au gratin", grilled with bread crumbs or filet steaks and chips with the usual sweet and sticky desserts to finish.The formula was subsequently so successful it has been rolled out all over the nation.

Belgo style moules and frites chez nous! 
Luckily we do not have to go to such lengths these days. Mussels are available in all the local supermarkets but we much prefer those on offer on the North End Road at our friendly Afghan fishmongers. Strange a landlocked and mountainous country straddling the roof of the world should spawn a football team of fish merchants who run not one but two shops within 500 metres of each other. Their fish is wonderfully fresh, great quality and reasonably good value. A kg bag of mussels costs less than £5.00 and the last time we bought one none  of the shellfish had to be discarded. They also did not require cleaning or bearding and could be thrown straight into the pan. Each opened perfectly and was meaty and succulent just as you would like them!
There are many variations on how they should be cooked but we always find as with all such good quality produce the simplest method is best. There are two classic avenues to follow, Moules Marinieres with white wine or Moules Provencale with a tomato based jus. There is a third possible route which is to go down the Asian track. To be honest my personal preference is for the Marinieres but you can google many different recipes and take your pick. The cooking principle is always the same however. Heat a large pan with a tight fitting lid on the stove. Pour in a little white wine and a half tsp of finely chopped garlic and a couple of chopped celery sticks. Throw in the mussels and close the lid. Toss around in the pan for two or three minutes by which time they should be done. Season and sprinkle with torn flat leaf parsley or coriander. This is a very basic method and as we say there are many more herbs and spices which can be added according to your taste. Just have a browse. At the restaurant frites are the classic accompaniment and you can't beat a little garlic and lemon aioli to dip them into. Heaven!

22 March 2012

Noodles for two...

Spring is in the air how wonderful. The sun is shining and the air is warm. The days are stretching and the clocks go forward this weekend - Don't forget!! The North End Road market was buzzing under the blue sky. Having not been there for some time it was my first trip of 2012 and I have to say we've never seen the fruit and vegetables looking fresher, more colourful, or more enticing and shouting buy me, buy me and take me home. Eat me. Eat me!! Not intending to buy too much we had only brought one trolly with us.... Big mistake! We dragged it back home stuffed to the brim and groaning under the weight of all the food wedged inside. Its amazing how quickly it fills up.

Of course we were famished when we got back so to celebrate the cornucopia of wonderful spring vegetables on offer Ghaz pulled out the wok and made delicious noodles for two which we demolished in the blazing sunshine on the balcony.

This is a quick vegetarian noodle recipe which is easy, versatile and nutritious.


650g Egg noodles
Selection of market vegetables
(Handful of each in bite size)
- Broccoli
- Carrots
- Button mushrooms
- Red pepper
- 2 or 3 sticks celery
4 tbsp Light Soy sauce
4 tbsp Oyster sauce
2 tbsp sweet chilli sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil (optional)
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
2 inches ginger finely chopped
5 tbsp vegetable oil


Heat wok until slightly smoking. Add oil ginger and garlic until aromatic then add the vegetables - hardest first. Stir fry for approximately one minute. Add the liquid ingredients soy and oyster sauce. Fry for another minute. If necessary add a little water to prevent ingredients catching on the wok. Finally add fresh egg noodles and sesame oil. Toss until the noodles are coated with the sauce and the vegetables are cooked to taste. Serve in bowls garnished with chopped spring onions and coriander. Serve in the sunshine.

16 March 2012

Puff pastry pizza

We are lucky to have a very close friend and neighbour whose Italian family run Santaniello's a highly successful and well known wood oven Pizza restaurant a little way up the M1 in Bedford. Our friend loves his food, so much so the term "shoving it in" has become a personal catch phrase and at lunch or dinner parties in his own home in Earls Court he always serves the biggest portions of anyone I know. Enormous amounts of anti pasta, pasta, italian bread, primi... secondi... and dolci..... all come tumbling out onto the table presenting diners with a real challenge to stay upright and last the meal. Not easy!

Anchovies, artichoke hearts, olives rocket.....
In Bedford the eatery is now being run by the third generation and like all large Italian families we hear there is usually an element of high drama rumbling around somewhere in the background but at the end of the day he and the other family members are tight knit and close and of course as a dutiful son he visits his "Mamma" religiously. We have to admit this is extremely fortunate for us too as he always insists on bringing us back a little something from the restaurant in return for keeping his herb garden watered while he is away. He tried the obvious cooked pizzas but they seemed to loose lost some of their appeal halfway down the motorway so now we are honoured to get gifts of lovely fresh pizza dough balls made by Antonio the restaurant chef of some thirty years on his return. This wonderful dough is the real McCoy and we would love to be able to say we toss and spin the pastry theatrically in the air like Antonio to make perfect thin bases but of course we can't so after several practice runs with a rolling pin to get the dough base thinned out without holes and to sit flat we can now make passable (almost) authentic if not exactly circular pizzas at home.
Sometimes sadly for various reasons visits to "Mamma" do not keep pace with our craving for a comfort pizza which can be an unpredictable and powerful force so it is essential to have alternative plans for their provision at short notice in place. Here in Earls Court there is always the popular Papperdella's around the corner but this is very often packed with no tables available without a long wait. So sometimes we just stay at home and make this quick and easy puff pastry version which when covered with our favourite pizza toppings whilst nowhere near one of Santaniellos stone baked oven masterpieces is not a bad substitute until that is, "Mamma" gets another visit from her loving son.....

Onions, chorizo, ham. mozzarella..... 
It is probably not necessary to say that there are almost an infinite number of toppings which can be used, any that work on pizza dough will work on puff pastry - all a matter of personal taste. Below is our suggestion. Perhaps the only essential ingredients are the pastry, tomato and cheese but then again even the tomato and cheese can be dispensed with. By the way pastry with a high butter content is usually the most successful.

1 Pack All butter Puff Pastry
Tomato or Passata
Your favourite toppings...


Roll or lay the pastry flat on an oven baking tray and cut a line into it about a centimetre all around being careful not to cut right through. Prod the centre of the pastry. Bake in a hot oven for 10 minutes. Remove from oven press down any air bubble in the centre and spread over the tomato paste. Then begin to arrange your favourite toppings over and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes or until you are happy with the result.

8 March 2012

Spiffin' Tiffin

I have recently been at home a lot recovering from a bout in hospital. Pretty boring you might think but one of the few advantages was the enormous amount of sympathy and attention I got from my close friends. For a few weeks they were my lifeline to the outside world. I did look forward to the visits and listening to all the news. Absolutely everyone seemed to be in the process of making elaborate travel arrangements. Callers would come, sit on my sofa and chat, telling me all and in addition to the usual tittle tattle, latest stories and gossip plans to go skiing and forthcoming visits to Italy, India, Thailand and even Tasmania were all mentioned in some depth. Even one of my long lost Irish cousins turned up en route from her farm in Clogher Head, Co Louth to a 60th birthday celebration in Cyprus! Apart from being a captive ear my role was to serve up tea (Twinings "Chai" was the blend of choice) and well...... what ? I thought buying cakes was a bit of a cop out so I needed something to keep on standby, sweet and delicious  that I could make with the minimum of effort (as I was not able to stand for very long). Well, luckily I discovered just the thing which fit the bill perfectly.....

This is an adaptation of a recipe from Eric Lanlard - "The Cake Boy"  himself. A version of chocolate tiffin which he demonstrated on his Channel 4 TV programme "Baking Mad". It is easy to do, requires no baking and no more cooking skills than melting chocolate and chopping biscuits. The version Eric makes with it's milky chocolate which he calls Chocolate Honeycomb Squares looks like it is designed to cater for younger gourmets and would be the one I would prepare if was cooking for a children's party, but as none of my visitors were likely to fall into this catagory I tweaked the ingredients to suit a more adult palate. Children of all ages as it were!! I followed his basic recipe and ratio of ingredients but substituted dark orange flavoured chocolate for his milk variety and added in some cherries soaked in liquor. The resultant tiffin biscuit cake was delicious even if I do say so myself!


100g Unsalted butter
200g Dark Chocolate (min 60%)
200g Digestive biscuits roughly chopped
3 tbsp Golden syrup
200g Honeycomb sweets (Malteesers)
50g Cherries


Line a 20 cm square baking tray with grease proof paper. Melt together the butter syrup and chocolate in a bowl over some boiling water then add the crushed biscuits, Malteesers and cherries. Mix together quickly and pour into the tin and chill until set. You can serve the tiffin as it is or decorate with more melted chocolate (to act as "glue") and sprinkle with crushed biscuits, cherries and/or honeycomb sweets.

2 March 2012

Home Cured Salmon

Rebecca's Home Cured Salmon
For sheer wow factor nothing beats our friend Rebecca's home cured salmon yet it’s so easy to do as long as you are prepared in advance. There are many curing marinade recipes which are easy to look up but try to use one with beetroot simply because of the dazzling purple reddish colour the salmon will turn once the curing process is complete. For taste once the essential salt and sugar are included the list of additives is almost endless, for example alcohol such as gin, vodka or tequila or citrus fruits and even treacle. Which ever route you follow cured salmon like it’s smoked cousin can be used in many ways - as a canapĂ©, starter or to make more substantial dishes with pastas, salads and remoulades and will last in the fridge for about a week.


2 skin-on salmon fillets (about 1.3kg)
200g caster sugar
140g sea salt flakes
85g fresh horseradish (little finger-length piece) peeled and finely grated, or grated horseradish from a jar
3 medium raw beetroot(about 250g), coarsely grated (no need to peel)
1 bunch dill, chopped

Served On Rye Bread With Soft Cheese
Lay the salmon fillets, skin side down, on a board and brush your hand along it.If you feel any little pin bones pinch them out with your fingers or tweezers. In a bowl, mix all of the other ingredients for the salmon together to make the cure. By the way leaving the skin on creates a colour gradation as in the photograph which I prefer. For a more consistent hue however you can remove the skin.

Stretch two large sheets of cling film over a work surface and spoon over some of the cure. Lay one of the fillets, skin side down, on the cure, then pack over most of the cure, and sandwich with the remaining fillet, skin side up. Top with the last of the cure and wrap both fillets together tightly with lots of cling film. Place in a container with sides, like a large roasting tray, put a smaller tray on top and weigh it down with a couple of tins. Leave in the fridge for about 30 hours turning over half way through. Don't be alarmed by the amount of liquid that leaks out, this is normal. You may need, to pour away the liquid.

To serve, unwrap the salmon from the cling film and brush off the marinade. Slice the salmon into thin slivers depending on how you intend to serve it.