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I love to eat delicious food, and share it with you.

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Stephanie Alexander’s rhubarb and cinnamon cake

(Happy birthday Claire)

I made this cake recently for my sister’s birthday and it was a big hit with the family. We love rhubarb, it’s tart, sweet and tangy all at the same time and there are so many delicious ways to use it.

This recipe is very easy to follow. The finished product is moist with soft pockets of cooked rhubarb and a crunchy sugar topping. An excellent pudding served hot with vanilla ice cream.

Ingredients
60g unsalted butter
300g plain flour
380g brown sugar
2 eggs
A few drops of vanilla essence
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 cup of crème fraîche, sour cream or greek yogurt
400g rhubarb cut into 1cm pieces

Topping
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Start by preheating the oven to 180°C, and greasing + lining a 24cm round tin.

In a bowl, cream the butter with sugar and add your eggs and vanilla. Then sift the flour, salt, bicarb soda and cinnamon into the bowl and mix until well combined (this can all be done in a food processor, but I just used a wooden spoon).

Stir through lemon zest and crème fraîche/sour cream/yoghurt, and then pieces of rhubarb.

Once mixture is well combined, scrape into your greased and lined cake tin. Mix topping ingredients together and sprinkle evenly over surface of cake.

Bake for 1 1/4 hours or until a skewer inserted comes out clean. Be sure not to get over eager and open the oven door too early, or the centre of your cake will sink.

Enjoy x

Fiesta Mexicana

Wahaca.

Bright, busy, fresh, tasty…and cheap.

Thomasina Miers started this little gem in 2005 after winning Masterchef. She was the first modern chef to win the title, and is still the only female winner in the amateur category for the UK series.

Reservations cannot be made at Wahaca, and you will almost definitely encounter a wait. This is dealt with by allowing you to pass the time with a cocktail in hand, which works well. The service throughout the restaurant is friendly and knowledgeable. Your waiter will tell you their name and have a little joke with you which people seem to like. On occasions however, we have had to pull a few high flying acrobatic feats to get noticed, especially when asking for the bill.

The drinks list is simple and quite strict which I’m sure could be seen as a negative, but each drink offered suits the menu perfectly. On this occasion we visited the Soho branch, and had regular mojitos and hibiscus mojitos, where a lovely sweet pink syrup is added to the mix.

 

You can have an absolute feast at Wahaca for £10 - £15 a head (+ cocktails). The restaurant has won many awards for their value for money. I love meals where you can share small dishes, and get to taste a bit of everything, and the ‘street food’ section of the menu is a great way to do this. The whole menu changes seasonally so you will never get bored.

One of the most exciting things about Mexican food is the combination of textures and temperatures - spice as well as heat. This is something I love in a meal. Crisp tortilla chips, crunchy lettuce, buttery guacamole, spicy salsas, earthy beans, cool creamy cheeses, and all kinds of tender meats. A few of the street food dishes will tick all of these boxes, and the ‘Wahaca selection’ makes choosing easy and eating excellent value. For £19.95 you receive an assortment of some of the best street food dishes on the menu. It’s enough for two to share, and you can of course add more dishes if you wish.

Guacamole and tortilla chips, and salsas

 

The tostadas are especially gratifying, as they get this combination of textures, flavours and temperatures just right. They are small (about the size of your palm) crispy tortillas topped with your choice of seafood, chicken or black bean salad. The black bean tostadas come with feta and crema’ and are in the ‘Wahaca selection’.

Chicken guajillo tostada + Black bean tostada

 

We didn’t get through the quesadillas as quickly. They have more of a doughy texture, and are very cheesy. They are worth trying, but perhaps to share between two or three as they are quite filling. My home-made quesadillas (number one hang-over cure) tend to end as a main meal - much bigger and chunkier than this, with more salad and a citric dressing which helps to combat the stodge. Ottolenghi does a nice version too, with a zingy salsa and lots of fresh herbs. You can find the recipe here.

Broadbean and feta quesadilla, and Green rice and beans + Chorizo and potato quesadilla

 

The taco bases are a thin soft flour tortilla. They have an interesting, almost skin like texture. We tried the chicken, pork and summer vegetable tacos. They are easy to eat and a nice little taster, although the meaty versions were more of a hit than the vegetarian. Additionally, I am told you should avoid the chicken taco if you are afraid of too much chilli.

Chicken tinga taco + Pork Pibil taco

 

Wahaca’s taquitos are beautifully presented and fun to dismantle. The menu describes them as ‘two corn tortillas wrapped around one of our wholesome fillings, deep fried and served with crema’. The vegetarian option, below, is summery new potato flavour. The salsa and salad topping work perfectly with the crispy tubes of tortilla, cutting through the fried factor so you barely notice it.

Summery new potato taquitos

 

If sharing dishes is not your thing, the bigger plates are very generous. You can always start with some guacamole + tortilla chips and/or a small plate to yourself, to ensure a variety of flavours and textures are enjoyed. The salads served in cripsy tortilla bowls are fun to eat, and the delicious burritos are as big as your head.

So, go forth and order plenty. You’ll be surprised just how much you can eat…

Festival feasting

Recently we went to Latitude Festival. It’s a lovely festival in the Suffolk countryside with an excellent musical line up, as well comedy, art, theatre, cabaret, poetry, colourful sheep, forest parties, fairground rides and happily for us, an outstanding selection of potential meals. My first big festival was T in the Park when I was 15 years old. It was loads of fun, but the only vegetarian dish I could find was a cheeseburger without the meat, aka bread with cheese, sauce & onions. Latitude festival is a testament to how far we’ve come…

When the rain was at its heaviest on the Saturday morning, we took shelter in Mr Scruff’s ‘Make us  a Brew’ tent. They served an array of tea, coffee and, most importantly, cake. We had the chocolate brownie (twice), ginger cake and the lovely dense fruit cake with luscious thick icing.

Over the weekend, a few visits were made to the Big Apple Hot Dogs stand. They are American inspired, because as we all know, the yanks do hotdogs best. The ingredients are all the best quality around, creating fresh and delicious dogs for the Latitude masses. Obviously I did not indulge, but the feedback was so positive I had to share.

On our second day, a standout meal was definitely the wood oven pizza from ‘Pizza to the People’. These guys definitely had their system sorted. A perfect little production line of sauce makers, dough stretchers, topping spreaders, wood oven operators and money takers/pizza slicers. x 2.

Each pizza took about 5 minutes to make and cook and with two queues, the wait was not long. The outcome was a perfectly cooked, deliciously doughy (yet crispy) wood oven pizza. We tried the goats cheese, spinach, pesto, olive + red onion, the spicy pepperoni + jalapenos, the butternut squash and leek, and the garlic bread pizza to top us off. They cater for everyone’s taste, so if you see these guys at a festival, do not think twice about trying them.

Just next door to the Big Apple stand, was the pop-up Giant Robot restaurant and cocktail bar. I am lucky enough to work a few doors down from this Clerkenwell based restaurant, but sampling their Italian American menu in the middle of a muddy field, served by manic waitresses wearing rainproof ponchos and ducking between tables, the bar and the kitchen was definitely an experience. We were oh so pleased to be sitting out of the rain, sipping on Mojitos and Bloody Marys, and the idea of our upcoming beautifully cooked meal, eaten in comfortable chairs at a proper table almost seemed like a dream.

The quality of the food was outstanding. I can’t imagine the pressure the kitchen must have been under. I’ve since learned that the restaurant was set up for 200 covers at a time, and that 6000 meals were served over the long weekend which is just amazing. My friends were experienced in the Giant Robot menu, and subsequently all went for the meatballs and mash, which came with a sweet Napolitana sauce.

I had the roast butternut squash & ricotta tortelloni, with broccoli, walnuts and pecorino.

We shared fries and green beans, and had classic ice cream sandwiches for dessert, for which I believe the cookies were freshly baked.

It was definitely a meal to remember, and I’m already excited about my next visit to Giant Robot, but I do wish they would add a few more vegetarian options to their menu. The tortelloni and arancini are seriously delicious, but I’d love to see what else they could whip up for us veggies. Perhaps they could take inspiration from The Meatball Shop in New York, and give vegetarian meatballs a chance. Now that would make me a happy camper…

The only disappointment of the whole Latitude weekend was our final meal. Surprisingly, it came from the food van which always had the longest queue. Halloumination. They did wraps with halloumi or falafel and salad, and various additions. We chose artichoke and olives as our added extras. The artichoke was a great choice, but unfortunately the halloumi was sliced far too thin, as you can see below, meaning it barely touched the sides.

To end on a positive though, I’ll tell you about our home(tent)cooked breakfasts, and hopefully provide a little inspiration. Each morning we used a little camping stove to cook a hot meal without having to trek into the festival village. This turned out to be a genius idea, especially as thick mud engulfed the whole area. I love this dish, it’s fast and simple but full of flavour, filling and very comforting.

1. Gently fry a couple of sliced garlic cloves in olive oil, adding a tin of chopped     tomatoes and some tomato paste once browned. Season well.

2. Drain and rinse a tin of cannellini or butter beans (or you can use dried beans that have been soaked in cold water for at least 5 hours), then add to the saucepan with as much or as little fresh thyme as you like. Season again.

3. Simmer gently for about 7 minutes until the skins of the beans are soft and the tomato sauce is thick and rich.

4. Ideally (not always possible when camping) serve on toasted crusty Italian bread with grated cheddar and toasted pine nuts. You can also add a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce if it’s a flavour you love.

Bon appetite and happy festivalling  x

Aubergine parmigiana 

Aubergine is one of my favourite vegetables. When it’s cooked properly its creamy texture and unique smoky flavour make it extremely moreish. This dish, aubergine / eggplant parmigiana, or melenzane, is one that I can never go past on a menu. Thinly sliced aubergine layered with tomato and cheese. The end product is exceptionally tasty and very comforting. A great wintery Sunday evening meal, but it can also be cut into squares and served cold at summer picnics. This recipe is my simple version…it involves a little time management as there are a few things on the go at once.

1.       Slice an aubergine as thinly as you can, lengthways so you end up with long strips. Salt and leave for half an hour so some of the bitter juices are extracted. While you’re waiting…

2.       Make a simple napolitana sauce by slowly frying diced onion and sliced garlic in good olive oil. Add tinned chopped tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes that have been pierced, blanched in boiling water, skins removed and chopped), tomato paste, plenty of seasoning and a glug of wine (red or white). Once the sauce has reduced slightly and sweetened, add fresh basil and remove from the heat.

3.       While the sauce is cooking, rinse the aubergine strips and pat dry. Place in batches under the grill, drizzle with olive oil, season and grill until each is softened and a little charred. You’ll need to turn each slice once, and watch them carefully or they will burn.

4.       Put a little sauce in the bottom of your baking dish, and begin layering. Place a few slices of aubergine, then a large spoonful of sauce, freshly torn mozzarella, a couple of basil leaves and freshly grated parmesan, repeating until the dish is full. Season every second layer, and finish with a cheese on top. For a little extra crunch you can toss some breadcrumbs in olive oil and add these under the last layer of parmesan.

5.       Bake for 40 minutes or so, until golden and bubbling. Serve piping hot with a green salad and crusty bread.   

Turkish-style baked eggs

Sunday breakfast at my Dad’s is always pretty special. We gather around a table topped with weekend newspapers, freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit juice and the coffee machine is fired up while a happy little Welsh Terrier scampers around our feet. I believe one of his best is this delicious Ottolenghi dish. The eggs are baked in a bed of sautéed rocket, and topped with garlicky Greek yoghurt and a spiced melted butter, served on toasted Turkish bread. Give it a go this Sunday, you will find the recipe here.

Local favourite - Loong Kee Cafe

Of all of the Vietnamese restaurants along the strip on Kingsland Road in East London, Loong Kee is by far my favourite. It’s the last restaurant along the strip when heading away from Shoreditch High Street, just before the Geffrye Museum on the right-hand side. For vegetarian dishes it wins hands down. The options are much more interesting than the usual ‘stir-fried vegetables in oyster sauce’ or a very plain ‘Tofu Pho’ you tend to get at the others. One of my favourite dishes at Loong Kee is the ‘Aubergine and tofu in hot pot’. Deliciously tender aubergine with firm tofu in a dark spicy syrupy sauce, with a little chili kick. In summer however, for two people to share, I believe this combination cannot be beat. 

We love to start with the ‘Aubergine with salt and chillies’. Once again tender pieces of aubergine coated in a crisp salty and spicy batter and fried. It sounds simple but each little piece is oh so tasty, it will leave you wanting more. From a non-vegetarian point of view, an alternative starter that gets a lot of love is the chili salt squid. I’m told it’s some of the best in East London.

 

For mains we opt for the vermicelli Bún, which is a fresh warm noodle salad, deliciously light and refreshing and containing a variety of flavours and textures. The base is vermicelli noodles, then added are fresh herbs (mint, basil, coriander) chillies, cucumber, carrot, beansprouts and shredded lettuce, with fried spring and white onion. The remainder of the flavours are for you to choose, and there are many different options. I go for the tofu and lemongrass with vegetarian spring rolls, which are cut into small pieces and add a little extra crispiness to the dish. 

Mister chooses pulled pork with non-vegetarian spring rolls. Each salad is finished with tangy sauce of soy, chili, sugar, vinegar and crushed peanuts. Non-vego versions can include fish sauce as well. I can highly recommend trying this dish at home. It’s easy, fast, cheap, delicious and healthy. Here is a great tried and tested recipe to get you started.

 

Recently we went to Sicily, and sampled all kinds of gastronomical delights. We mainly explored the Western side of the island, where traditional cuisine contains a lot of fresh seafood, aubergine, interesting pestos, artichokes, couscous and delicious gelato. Stand out dishes for us were Gnocchi Alla Norma (baked gnocchi with aubergine and mozzarella in a tomato based sauce), Busiate Al Pesto Trapanese (little springs of pasta with a pesto of cherry tomato, almonds, basil, garlic, aubergine, salt, olive oil and parmesan),  and Couscous Alla Trapanese, a seafood couscous served with a fish soup on the side. The soup is ladled on as you like, to add moisture to the couscous.

Another favourite snack was arancini – balls of risotto that are covered with breadcrumbs and fried, with mozzarella in the middle for extra cheesy goodness. Unfortunately for my vegetarian self, we found it difficult to find meat free versions, and so homemade vegetarian arancini has already been attempted with great success. I used a roast butternut squash, feta and thyme risotto. YUM.   

For sweets, we ate gelato every day. Gelato is the sweeter, smoother and more intensely flavoured cousin of ice cream, and for some reason it’s very difficult to find in London which makes it all the more delicious on Italian escapades. I cannot think of a better way to start your day than with a Brioche con Gelato – a large scoop of gelato served in a sweet brioche bun. To drink, you can’t go past café crème, a super creamy and sweet iced coffee.

Another favourite Italian sweet has always been cannoli – tubes of fried pastry filled with a sweet custard filling, often involving mascarpone and vanilla. On our last day we visited a lovely little pasticceria in Trapani which specialises in these lovely handfuls of soft and crunchy delight. It is the only pasticceria in the region where you can watch the pastries being made before you buy, in what’s more like a commercial kitchen than a shop. The welcoming Italian gentleman put together a fresh cannoli for me on the spot. It was the best I’ve ever eaten. Please don’t miss it if you are ever in Trapani, it’s La Rinascente, at Via Gatti 3.

Two other unmissable eateries in Sicily are La Brace in Cefalu, and Pasticceria Maria Grammatico in the village of Erice, right on top of Mount Erice, has a great little café next door. It’s not a full restaurant and serves only snack food. The antipasto was more than enough for lunch, rich and very very tasty and vegetarian to boot.