Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Autumn equinox: Quiz night at The Underground Restaurant

This was the menu :
Kir Royale
Bread 'shots'
Artichokes with Dijon mustard vinaigrette
Pear, walnut and Gorgonzola salad
Ricotta and Spinach cannelloni
Baked figs with almonds, orange chocolate and candied oranges slices

How to make the Candied Orange Peel:

Cut the orange in quarters down to the pith
After slicing the peel into 1/4" strips, boil 2/3 times to get rid of bitterness, then boil in a sugar(4 1/2 cups) water (1 1/2 cups) at about 230 degrees (soft ball) until the rind is translucent.

Roll the orange slices in sugar then dry for at least 8 hours on racks or parchment paper.

I used the syrup left over to bathe the figs in.

Kilburn honey was used to drizzle over the figs and almonds.

The final dish, with Mayan Gold chocolate, Riverford Organics double cream and my own candied orange slices.

To make the cannelloni:

Fry shallots, garlic in olive oil, add the spinach until it shrinks. But I found, on my second go, that mincing the spinach in the food processor first worked better, more manageable to eat.

Mix your spinach mix with ricotta, nutmeg and I added some Riverford Organics Glastonbury cheddar cheese. Salt and Pepper to taste.

I was going to muck about making fresh pasta but time ran short so I used De Cecco No boil cannelloni. Stuff them with the ricotta mixture.

Lay the stuffed cannelloni tubes on a bed of tomato ragu, turn them after a while so they soak up the juice. Make a bechamel sauce (I added Glastonbury cheddar) and cover the cannelloni. I'm finding Michel Roux's latest book 'Sauces' invaluable in the kitchen. If I forget how to make a sauce, it's there, within reach, with very simple step by step instructions. Buy it! You won't regret it.

The finished dish decorated by wild flowers that Masterchef 2009 winner Mat Follas sent me.
I was very proud of myself, a couple of vegans came, I forgot about them. Everything but the cannelloni was vegan. I put my thinking cap on and made cannelloni stuffed with silken tofu and spinach covered in the tomato sauce. It was totally delicious!

How to make the gorgeous little bread shots:

A last minute inspiration, a recipe from Richard Bertinet's book 'Dough' was highly successful. We couldn't get enough of them. I slightly changed the recipe, which called for a normal bread dough, to a focaccia dough.In a jug, mix 320 ml of warm water with a pinch of sugar and a dessert spoon of yeast. Wait till it froths. Measure 500gs of good strong flour (Shipton Mill is very nice) and mix with your yeast and water adding 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Knead well. Leave for an hour.

Make 20 g balls of the dough and press in a green or black olive, a piece of anchovy or a sun blushed tomato. Brush with oil and salt (rosemary flaked if you have it). Leave to rise around the olives etc for an hour.
Angie who assisted me in the kitchen.

After baking for about 15 minutes brush them with oil again.

Left: Sun blushed tomato bread shots. Right: Quiz master Marcus Berkmann making my guests use their brains. One table was reluctant to join in. True to form they were the most competitive and won! Marcus runs the hardest pub quiz in London at the Prince of Wales, Highgate every Tuesday night. He also has written books on quizzing, cricket and about pop, including a column for The Spectator. He is available for quizzes at
The quiz was exquisitely constructed: two rounds on food and one round on all things underground.

Q:There were certainly shops in Victorian London that sold one of these ingredients, mostly run by Portuguese Jews. And there were Irish shops selling the other ingredient, for instant consumption. It took a Jewish immigrant from eastern Europe named Joseph Malin to put the two ingredients together, when he opened the first what in London’s East End in 1860?

Q: Each platform on the Victoria line, when they all opened in the late 1960s, had its own motif, unique to each station. Euston’s motif was the Doric Arch at Euston Station, and Blackhorse Road’s was a black horse. Which station had a ton of bricks?

Again I did the steamed artichokes as a starter. Use them while in season I reckon. These are Riverford Organics owner Guy Watson's pride and joy. They were so fresh they still had ladybirds on them.
Following my trip to Bologna (blog post soon) I was inspired by both autumn and Italy. I made a pear, gorgonzola, walnut and baby leaf salad, dressed with balsamic glaze, lemon oil and a sprinkling of Malden salt at the end.
The Cava Kir Royale's being poured.

Top: On Saturday night I allowed the TV cameras from BBC breakfast news in. With all these reality game shows based on supperclubs, I wanted to show the world the real deal, not a one nighter faked up for the cameras. The lovely Stephanie and her cameraman Pete were both enthusiastic foodies. I hope MsMarmitelover came across ok...but my hair was greasy and I was a little tired from the night before.
Bottom: The guest book, I'm trying to get an email list together (rather belatedly) and Michaelmas daisies from my garden.
Mat Follas came down to lend a hand on Saturday night. He looked rather fetching in a French maid's pinny don't you think? Here he is with Angie (left) and Lenny (middle) who did front of house to perfection as usual.
I was very upset on Saturday night as I had 8 no shows. There being problems with the Jubilee line at the moment, we waited for an hour for them to turn up. An underground restaurant is different from a conventional restaurant, every guest counts. Even though I still get the money, I hate waste and an empty table leaves a gap. Please at least let me know if you cannot make it. I felt very sorry for the two people left at the table by themselves. A very small quiz team (Team name '2 of us are good but the rest are rubbish') but they took things in their stride.They also left me an unusual tip: a Brixton pound! Special money you can only spend in the Brixton area. Another cheeky team called themselves the meat-loving vegetarians.
So, what to do with the leftovers? With the artichokes I made a dip, mixing the bottoms with creme fraiche, anchovy paste and mayonnaise. Serve warm.
With the leftover pears I made crumble. The leftover figs I baked again in the rest of the orange syrup for several hours in the Aga simmering oven. They are now a sticky condiment.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Bologna and Brighton

Taxi driver, Bologna, Italy
Supper clubbing in Bologna
The bells, the bells...
Luisa, supper club, Bologna, Italy
Luisa in her kitchen
Luisa, caesarina, supper club, Bologna, Italy

dish at Luisa, caesarina, supper club, Bologna, Italy
The strichetti with peas and parmesan
wine at Luisa, caesarina, supper club, Bologna, Italy
Keep it fizzy
 courgette cake, Luisa, caesarina, supper club, Bologna, Italy
Courgette 'cake'
rabbit pommes duchesse, Luisa, caesarina, supper club, Bologna, Italy
Rabbit with pommes duchesse
cake, Luisa, caesarina, supper club, Bologna, Italy

I'd heard about the Homefood Italy project years ago on Woman's Hour. It was one of the inspirations for my home restaurant. The best Italian food, I'd heard, is to be had in someone's kitchen, not in restaurants.
The visit to a Bolognese home restaurant, in one of the gastronomic centres of Italy, took months to arrange, for it was plagued by bureaucracy, Italian style. Their website, with irritating Italian folk music that starts up again every time you click on something, didn't work properly. Eventually, after a few email squabbles, the association consented to deal with me directly.
One of the disputes was over food.
As readers will know, I do not eat meat. Vegetarianism (although I'm a pescatarian) is rare in Italy. I'm used to having to compromise when I travel. But as they'd asked me to fill out a bunch of forms about my allergies, special diets, religious beliefs, likes and dislikes, I assumed they were going to take it into account. Not so...I received this email...
"I would like to make you notice that meat is present in both menus in almost all dishes prepared, so I simply think that they cannot be suitable for you. We are not a restaurant but a cultural association, and each Cesarina offers a fixed menu that was studied to offer her guests a real “cultural journey” through food, and not only a plain list of dishes. For this reason, menus cannot be changed (apart from small changes in case of allergies and intolerances to some ingredients). But if you do not eat meat, I think that is a problem almost everywhere in Italy at the Cesarine’s, since meat is basic in Italian culinary traditions and we cannot personalize menus totally on request."
Fair enough, I'm used to that. Although at my 'home restaurant' I not only cater for vegetarians, I also cater for vegans, coeliacs, lactose intolerant types, people who don't like coriander (groan), people who don't eat deadly nightshade vegetables (double groan). And I'm cooking for 30! So why the form filling? Could it be that, just like France, they simply love form-filling as a satisfactory occupation in its own right?
The next hurdle: halfway through finally establishing a date for a meal, I sent an email to say 'hold on I'll just confirm my flight'; in the middle of the day, in the middle of the goddamn email exchange, on the 31st of July, the association went on holiday for a month. Of course! It's Italy! Nobody works during August.
When they returned, we resumed our negotiations. I was hoping to eat at the house of two separate 'cesarine' (female Caesars who rule the hearth) over the weekend but the meals were cancelled, not enough guests. I couldn't change the weekend, I'd already booked my flight. I persuaded my parents to come with me. Then phew, we could eat at one place but not two. I had to fill out more forms detailing my parent's food preferences and intolerances. My mum doesn't eat meat either.
You also have to pay the association a fee, a temporary monthly membership, to go to the meal.
The association had given us an address but not the information that the 'cesarina' lived in a flat. Dropped off by a taxi driver well versed in local wines, wearing a gondolier's outfit of blue and white stripes, I realised that the 'house' was a complex of flats and I didn't know which flat or which building even. Finally, after looking in vain for the name 'Luisa' I buzzed on every bell. Luckily, somebody, I don't know who, let me in.
Entering the grounds, I heard a lady calling to me from her window high up. I assumed she was the cesarina. I spoke a mixture of French and Spanish, and she seemed to reply that the cesarina was not her but lived in a flat on the third floor. I took the lift to the third floor and knocked on every door. Eventually somebody answered. Despairing of ever finding the actual apartment, I was relieved finally to find that somebody could direct me to the correct address on the first floor.
The actual meal consisted of four courses: focaccia (cake-like in the style of the region) and fresh strichetti pasta made by our hostess to start, then a courgette 'cake' and cabbage wrapped meatballs, rabbit and pommes duchesse for mains, finishing with an almond torte. The food was nice but every dish was slightly dry, like a dieter's version of Italian cuisine. (I have a heavy hand with the oil and the butter myself). Despite the copious form filling, the non-meat items were served next to the meat, stained by the juices.
For almost 40 euros, which is £40 nowadays, at least the wine, a local sparkling white, Pignoletto and a sparkling red, were included. We finished with a glass of Nocino, a walnut liqueur, bitter, syrupy and sweet.
Looking back, I realised I'd foolishly harboured fantasies of eating in the kitchen of a little Italian mama wearing black, possibly played by Anna Magnani, surrounded by sons in vests. Every so often she would pinch my cheek and clip the ears of the hairy sons. Calorie counting would not form part of this vision.
In reality our hostess is a suburban housewife. Her flat, lots of Versace style gold leaf, marble, opulent china and crystal glasses, gleamed from the attentions of her cleaner, We ate in the dining room. There was a family atmosphere in that her mother and sister were present in the kitchen and we could see, scrawled on a wall, the different heights of her children as they grew.
One of 30 'cesarina' in Bologna, Luisa has been doing meals for strangers for five years, once or twice a month and hasn't changed her menu. I was one of five guests, including my parents, a Canadian girl studying Italian and her London boyfriend.
This 'cesarina' was fascinated by the fact that I am, I suppose, a cockney cesarina!

"How many guests?" She asked.
"About 30" She gasped.
"And you do this all by yourself? Without an association?"
She simply couldn't believe it.

But I enjoyed meeting Luisa, seeing how she lived and gabbling away to her in a mix of French, Italian and Spanish.

A Brighton terrace house
Ratty sitting at the end
Figs, goats cheese salad
Oven baked risotto and parmesan crisps
Chocolate brownies and blondies
The kitchen
Robots in the bedroom the living room....

I went to a Brighton food festival recently which had 'home dinners' at people's houses as part of the festival. This was organised by a PR company who were as clueless as the Italian home food association.
Again bureacratic form filling (the whole point is mutual trust so why?), a set of terms and conditions of behaviours acceptable or not. The PR company got half of the £10 fee given to the hostess but neglected to mention the time the meal started. The poor hostess expected us at seven, and we all turned up 45 minutes late. They also didn't tell her that I was a vegetarian although I had told them that I'd specifically chosen that menu because of the lack of meat. The hostess, Ratty, changed the menu at the last minute, unaware of this.. She had to pick ham from my salad.
Strangely despite the cheapness of the meal, I was the only guest to tip. I'm always amazed at this. The menu with truly fantastic wines from Tengreenbottles (I'm hosting a tasting with them on 13th November) thrown in, cost far more than £10 a head, especially when you consider that the hostess only got £5 of this fee. This was the menu:

Salad of figs, lambs lettuce, air dried ham & young goats cheese with a balsamic reduction

Panfried monkfish fillet with butternut squash & aubergine risotto with parmesan crisps

Deep fried sage & parsley oil

White chocolate & & chilli blondie & a chocolate brownie with homemade vanilla ice cream.

Bonus dessert of recently made chocolate ice cream with white chocolate chips

Another thing that was nice is because she has so few guests, four including myself, Ratty sat down with us to eat. Ratty was delightful company. Her small basement flat was filled with robots; this is an obsession of hers. Her boyfriend, who was not present, banished to the pub, had about 300 records and several thousand CDs. I love that in home restaurants you get to see people's little idiosyncracies, their hobbies, their obsessions, it fascinates me. I went with a friend from my teens, Andy, who has the dubious distinction of possessing the world's largest collection of crisp packets.

But my conclusion is that like so many things in life, if you want to do something well, you can't rely on associations or PR companies, they will lack that personal touch and involvement. If you are going to do a home restaurant, do it yourself.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Vintage tea

Crumpets, hot off the griddle!

Here are the details of a 'vintage' tea I am holding. This is the second tea The Underground Restaurant has hosted. Here was the first one.

Book at


LONDON: The Underground Restaurant - Kilburn

SUN 4TH OCT, 2009 3pm

High Tea:

Dress: vintage


Sandwiches: smoked salmon; cucumber and marmite

Crumpets hot off the grill

Savoury tartlettes and cheese and poppy seed filo triangles


Meringues baked in the Aga



Iced biscuits



There will probably be all sorts of things to eat but to be honest, I will know definitely just beforehand. I tend to go with my inspiration...what do I feel like baking/cooking...

I'm also very excited about our special guest: part of the 'expert in the shed' series...renowned astrologer/tarot reader Bethea Jenner who will be reading fortunes in the shabby chic summer your future and cross her palm with silver...