Monday, 30 August 2010

A bus ride to nowhere in particular

The London Particular

I’ve often thought it would be nice to hop on any old commuter bus and sit on it for the entire route to see where it takes me around London. Sort of like going on a London Big Bus tour but without the tourists and the bad jokes.

A few weeks ago my friend Becky (former part time chef at Lantana) opened a café in deepest darkest south east London. The only thing that stopped me visiting as soon as it opened was the location. How the hell do you get to New Cross from west London? And then a serendipitous thing happened. I noticed that the bus that literally passes the end of my street has the words New Cross Gate on the front. I didn’t even have to bother with the route planner on TFL. Two birds. One bus.

So on a rainy Monday morning I sat myself on the No. 36 tour bus and took in the sights of Paddington, Victoria, Vauxhall, Camberwell and Peckham before arriving at the end of the route, New Cross Gate. After walking along a grim stretch of New Cross Rd from the bus stop I found a small cosy space filled with the aromas of baking and coffee, people chatting around a communal table, and at the centre of it all, Becky pulling a tray of blueberry brioche out of the oven.

‘London Particular’ was the name given to thick pea and ham soup in Dickensian times when London was famous for its heavy fogs, or 'peasoupers'. If you could create a hearty bowl of pea and ham soup in the form of a cafe, that cafe is The London Particular: warm, comforting, unpretentious and nourishing.

Becky graduated from the Royal College of Music and worked in that field for a couple of years before listening to her culinary calling and pursuing a career as a chef. Largely self taught, Becky’s love of food and her creativity shines through in the flavours, colours and textures of the food she cooks.

She decided to go with a bowl food concept for the café in order to keep the menu simple, informal and reliant on the quality of the ingredients. Its also simple by necessity as Becky is cooking everything served in the café herself in a space not much bigger than a shower cubicle.

It was a difficult choice but I went for the special of the day which was a courgette, rocket and feta salad served with a beetroot and white bean dip, toasted rye bread and chorizo (optional extra).

My friend had home baked beans with mushrooms

and the couple across from us had a pretty amazing looking sandwich with grilled haloumi, bacon, tomato and garlic mayo. I finished off with a lovely creamy flatwhite made by Jen (who Lantana customers might also recognise) and one of Becky’s buttery light freshly made brioche. All delicious.

There’s been no gentle easing in period for Becky and Jen who thought they’d have a quiet August to test the menu and put the finishing touches on the café. From the moment they opened the door, punters and reviewers have been steadily pouring in and Bex and Jen have barely had time to eat lunch. More proof that London is crying out for more cafes, good ones in particular. Well done Bex and Jen.

The London Particular: 399 New Cross Rd, SE14 6LA

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Holidays on a fork

Why do the calming, positive effects of holidays wear off so quickly? When our regulars saunter in for a takeaway coffee after returning from holiday all relaxed, suntanned and smiling it only seems to take a couple of days before their eyes are glued to their blackberries again and they are rushing in and out, stressing about work.

It also didn’t take long for my holiday freckles and ‘perche no’ attitude to fade after a trip to Italy a few weeks ago.

Photographs are a poor substitute for the actual experience of sitting in my gin and tonic chair

pulling vegetables for dinner from my friend’s garden

and walking through Italian villages post siesta

But one of the wonderful things about cooking, is that I can hold on to the smells and taste of Italy in a more satisfying way. With the daylight hours starting to get shorter in London and my next holiday a small dot on a distant horizon, I’m feeling in need of a forkful of Italy.

Of all the meals I ate in Italy these stood out for their classic Italian-ness; good quality ingredients, simple flavour combinations, served without fuss.

A rocket and pecorino salad with toasted walnuts and honey

And polenta served in a way I’ve never seen before – almost like a pasta dish.

Baked polenta with tomato sauce

Baked polenta (6 serves)

200g instant polenta

1 tsp salt

1 litre water

1 tbls oil

75g grated parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 200C. Oil and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. In a small pan bring the water and salt to the boil. Pour in the polenta gradually, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon to prevent large lumps forming. Reduce the heat and keep stirring for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the oil and two thirds of the parmesan. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Spread the polenta mix evenly across the prepared baking tray so you get a layer 1.5cm to 2cm deep. Leave to cool.

Once it has cooled, tip the set polenta onto a board and cut into triangles then cut a third of the triangles into smaller bite sized pieces. Use the other half two thirds for other recipes- like the mushroom one below.

Tomato sauce (enough for 2 serves)

400g can plum tomatoes

olive oil

1 fat clove of garlic sliced thinly

little dried chilli

basil leaves

pecorino cheese

Fry garlic in olive oil over a gentle heat until it just starts to colour (don’t let it brown or it will become bitter). Add tomatoes, chilli and salt and pepper. Break up tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Turn heat right down, put a lid on the pan and leave sauce to cook for 30minutes to an hour until it is nice and thick. Add a good handful of torn basil leaves.

Put the polenta pieces on a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil. Place in a preheated oven for about 10 minutes to heat through.

To serve, spoon the sauce over the polenta in bowls and top with grated pecorino.

Polenta with sauteed mushrooms and goat’s cheese (2 serves)

500g mushrooms

1 tbls butter

1 tbls olive oil

good splash of verjuice


goats cheese

Slice mushrooms. Heat oil and butter in pan. Add mushrooms and toss over high heat until they brown lightly. Add verjuice and remove from the heat. Stir through parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Heat fry pan with a tablespoon of olive oil until it gets quite hot. Fry polenta triangles in batches for a couple of minutes each side until golden brown. Place polenta on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Spoon some of the mushroom mixture over each triangle then crumble some goat's cheese over the top. Bake in the oven for a couple of minutes until cheese melts.

Bon appetito.