Sunday 26 January 2014

The Cochin Indian Restaurant, Bedford

This weekend I have been down south visiting my family. It was my sister’s birthday last week and my mothers this coming week. Yesterday all the family gathered together to celebrate. In the evening we went out for an Indian meal at a restaurant I’d read about called The Cochin.

It’s a little different to your typical curry house in that all the food has some southern India influence, Kerala specifically, and includes special dishes like Dosa, Thali and a range of Indian Keralan tea shop style snacks as starters. Another thing I liked it that all the dishes were particular in what they included, there was no list of curries, Bhuna, Balti, Masala etc, that you then picked your meat, fish or veg to go with, each dish on the menu was made a particular way and called after its traditional Indian name. Everything is cooked fresh to order meaning you could really see and taste the different ingredients and spices.

Upon arrival, I mentioned I couldn’t eat anything containing wheat or gluten and before I had even finished speaking the waiter said “oh you’re gluten free, that’s not a problem. You can have this, this or these dishes from the menu” I found this very reassuring and trusted they knew what they were talking about. Thankfully a lot of Indian food is naturally gluten free, so I had a fantastic selection of dishes to choose from.

We decided to share a couple of starts between 4 of us. We selected Idly a rice flour based steamed little cake that came served with 2 chutneys and a savoury sambar for dipping. The Idly themselves were bland (not dull, just unspiced) and soft, but were great for absorbing all the spices in the chutneys. Not something I’ve tried before.

The other starter was a very intriguing sounding Banana Boli, (banana fritters) – yes on the starters! They were large sliced of banana dipped in a thick spiced batter of sesame, fennel, cardamom and turmeric and deep fried. These sadly weren’t gluten free, but everyone else pronounced them delicious. We suspect they may have been plantain rather than banana, as they were definitely savoury rather than sweet and were served with a red onion pickle and a spicy dip.

For mains I selected a potato masala dosa. I had my first dosa in a Sheffield restaurant last year and have been longing for another one ever since. They are a paper thin crisp pancake made from fermented rice and lentil flour. They are cooked on an enormous flat hot plate before being topped with your filling of choice and skillfully rolled. The middle part softens around the filling, while the two hollow parts either side stay wonderfully crisp. They are served with a selection of chutneys and sambar. You typically eat them with your hands, tearing off a bit of the crisp pancake, scooping up a bit of filling and dipping it in the chutney.

When my dosa arrived I couldn’t believe my eyes. They are traditionally long, but this one was simply enormous, it was about a meter long and stretched over the edge of the tray and even over the edge of the table, it must have been about a meter in diameter before it was rolled! It had a wonderful flavour, the dosa itself being quite plain, the mildly spiced potato filling adding substance and texture and the chutneys or sambars adding heat, savoriness or creamy coconut depending on which one you dipped. It was delicious and I somehow polished off the lot!

The rest of the part shared a lamb & spinach curry, a chicken stew (which was actually mildly spiced with nuts and coconut) and a lamb & caramelised onion dish. They were all pronounced delicious and full of flavour.

Another thing I loved about the restaurant is that they also offered two rice based, naturally gluten free breads – thick fluffy rice based pancake-style looking Appam or Kallappam, which is the same bread mixed with cumin and shallot. This is such a nice change to the usual offer of naan, of which that wasn’t even an option, Chapattis and flaky Parathas or Poori being the wheaty bread choices.

Overall it was a fabulous meal and wonderful to spend some time with my family. If you’re ever in the Bedford area (or Hemel Hempstead where they have a sister restaurant) and fancy some traditional authentic Indian food then head straight for The Cochin.

Note: I want to state that this review is purely my own. This was a family meal out that I enjoyed and decided to write about. The restaurant does not know I have written about my experience and I have received no incentive to visit or review them.

Sunday 19 January 2014

The Crooked Spire, Chesterfield

Yesterday A and I decided to visit Chesterfield. This is a nearby town on the outskirts of Sheffield. I have driven through it often but never actually visited it. It is most well known and famous for its Crooked Spire church, which can be seen rising high above the town from the surrounding areas. I’ve never seen it up close and so A and I decided to pay it a visit. I often think we should play tourist more often in the places we live. We often travel to London or places abroad and make sure to take in the local history but very rarely do it where we actually live.

Once arriving in Chesterfield we had a wander round the local shops and market. It was a mix of traditional high street shop chains and then a few local bakeries and book shops nestled in amongst them. I love looking round special independent shops, they have their own rustic charm that you just don’t get from chains. One local shop, Jackson’s The Bakers seemed quite popular and had a lovely traditional display of breads and cakes in the window. They were proudly displaying a photo of the Hairy Bikers visiting the shop, so it must be quite well known.

As we drew closer to the Spire, I was surprised at how large the church was. I’ve only ever seen glimpses of the spire in the past and never actually stopped to think about the church it is attached to. In my mind it was quite a small church, but in reality it’s actually quite a large and grand affaire. It is in fact the largest church in Derbyshire.
The church was open to visitors so we got to have a look around inside. It was very impressive with tall columns, a vaulted ceiling and some original stained glass windows. The hushed reverence inside was very peaceful. You can even take trips up the tower if you visit between Easter and Christmas. I bet the views are spectacular.

The church itself is called The Church of St Mary’s and All Saints and its now famous Crooked Spire came about completely by accident. When it was being constructed in the late 13th Century, young green timber was used, meaning it was still soft and subtle. This was a mistake and meant when the heavy cladding and tiles went on top it twisted and warped into the Crooked Spire it has now become famous for. It actually leans 9 foot, 5 inches from its true centre, and in some ways I’m amazed it’s still standing.

Before we left we had a light lunch in a little café we happened across called Organic Kitchen. It was a fairly simple café serving a selection of hot and cold sandwiches, soup and omlettes. Nothing fancy, but nice freshly prepared lunchtime faire. They had a small selection of gluten free items listed on the menu which always pleases me and I enjoyed a tasty mushroom omlette with a side of beans. I don’t know why more places don’t offer omlettes, when cooked fresh they are delicious.

I’m pleased I finally went to Chesterfield and visited the Crooked Spire after only seeing it from a distance for so long. Anyone got any other suggestions of local Yorkshire places I should visit?

Sunday 12 January 2014

Navel Orange ‘Marmalade’ Curd

While doing my weekly shop I spotted bags of Navel and Seville oranges amongst the usual simply named ‘oranges.’ This made me realise that it must be marmalade making season already! Each year in January, when these special marmalade oranges are available, my mother and grandmother make colossal batches of homemade marmalade. I love the smell and process of boiling the oranges, cutting them, stirring in the sugar, boiling and jarring. Nothing beats the flavour of my mum’s homemade marmalade, shop bought just doesn’t compare and is never allowed to enter my parents/my house.

Marmalade making is a traditional I would love to continue myself, only I don’t eat a lot of marmalade, and one jar (provided my mum) will last me for several months. Now I’m not living at home, seeing the Navel and Seville oranges in the shops made me nostalgic for home, and the fabulous zesty aroma of a pan of warm simmering marmalade.

I bought a bag of Navel oranges and decided to make orange curd rather than marmalade with them. This way I still got the wonderful sweet orange aroma wafting through the kitchen without the need to make jars and jars of jam, as curd can be made in small batches quite easily.

Stirring the slowly thickening bowl of orange curd was quite relaxing and made me feel very nostalgic. Once jarred and cooled and I ate my first spoonful on toast, as a nod to marmalade. It was fresh and zesty, with a bitter-sweet intense orange flavour. Noticeably different to marmalade, being creamier and richer, but the lingering flavour was definitely reminiscent of marmalade. I think it would be brilliant paired with a dark chocolate cake.

Do you like marmalade? Do you ever make your own?

Navel Orange ‘Marmalade’ Curd
Zest & juice of 2 large Navel or Seville oranges
170g caster sugar
55g unsalted butter
2 eggs

Place two small clean glass jars and their lids on a baking tray and place into the oven. Heat to 130C and leave while you make the curd.
Finely zest the oranges into a large glass bowl. Squeeze the juice form the oranges and add to the zest in the bowl along with the sugar.
Place the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water and whisk constantly until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has turned from cloudy to clear. (You can sieve the zest out at this stage if you don’t want it in the finished curd, but it adds a lot of extra flavour).
Cut the butter into small cubes and gently stir into the zesty syrup with a spatula until melted and combined.
Lightly beat the eggs and then pour into the orange mixture through a sieve to remove any oogly bits, mixing all the time to prevent the egg curdling into scrambled eggs.
Keep mixing gently for 15-20 minutes until the mixture starts to thicken. Do not be melted to walk away or turn the heat up to speed up the process, it will scramble the eggs.
Once the mixture starts to thicken, keep stirring until the mixture is thick enough to coat the spatula. You should be able to run your finger down the spatula, leaving a mark without the curd flowing back over it.
Remove your jars from the oven and immediately fill to the rim with the hot curd. Screw the lids on the jars tightly, using rubber gloves to prevent burning your hands.
Leave to jars to cool on the side – the lids will suddenly ‘pop’ as the vacuum is created, ensuring a sealed and sterile jar.
Store in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.
Makes 1½ - 2 jars of curd

Sunday 5 January 2014

Apple & Spice Baked Breakfast Porridge

Breakfast is my absolute favourite meal of the day. I love it and all kinds of breakfast related foods. It is my comfort food and I could quite happily eat breakfast foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week and not get bored. Porridge is actually one of my favourites, I find it so comforting, warm, milky with a little bite to the oats. My treat is to sprinkle on a few dark chocolate chips and wait for them to melt before tucking in!

Considering my love of porridge and breakfasty things, it is amazing that until yesterday I had never tried baked porridge. This is more commonly know as baked oatmeal, but as it’s made with chunky oats rather than ground (oatmeal), I think porridge is a better name for it. You bake it as you would a baked rice pudding, stir your oats together with lots of milk, bake it in the oven and hey presto – a delicious flapjack style porridge is yours to enjoy!

As the porridge bakes the oats swell and become plump and compact, meaning its spoonable or even sliceable once removed from the oven. One of the best parts for me was the way the top became golden brown and lightly toasted during baking, creating a thin chewy, slightly crisp top layer with the soft and milky swollen oats beneath.

I decided to jazz up my porridge by adding sultanas, dried apricots, fresh apple, pumpkin seeds and spices. This added a wonderful array of textures and flavours. As the recipe contains no added sugar the fruit adds a lovely natural sweetness, the seeds a pleasant crunch and the spices a delicious warming flavour. The apple created little pockets of soft moistness with a slight tang, while the dried fruit added a lovely chew and intense sweetness. I absolutely loved it!

Eating a slice of baked breakfast porridge on its own felt quite indulgent, but to make it even more decadent I drizzled my slice with a little brandy sauce that I had leftover from Christmas. In my defense it needed using up and I actually ate this for lunch rather than breakfast so I didn’t feel too guilty. The fact I went on to devour nearly half the tray, now that I did feel a little bad about, but I just couldn’t resist it.

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to try baked porridge – it’s a breakfast revelation! I can’t wait to try out some other variants. Imagine pear with dark chocolate chips or fresh blueberries with vanilla; served with lemon curd and fresh yogurt mmmmmm.

Porridge – how do you eat yours?

Apple & Spiced Baked Breakfast Porridge

150g gluten free oats
40g sultanas
30g dried apricots
10g pumpkin seeds
1 eating apple (I used golden delicious)
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
500ml milk

Preheat the oven to 180C.
Place the oats, sultanas, pumpkin seeds and spices into a 15 x 20cm baking dish. Chop the apricots into pieces roughly the same size as the sultanas and add to the mix.
Chop the apple into small cubes 5-10mm in size. Place into a small dish and microwave on high for 1 minute until slightly softened, alternatively do this in a small pan with 1 tbsp water.
Add the apple to the oaty mixture and stir everything together until all the ingredients are evenly distributed.
Pour over the milk (it will look like a lot but don’t worry).
Bake for 35-45 minutes until the liquid has been absorbed by the oats and the top feels firm to the touch and is golden brown.
Serve in large wedges while still hot, with a little extra milk, cream, yoghurt, fresh fruit or syrup as desired.
Any leftovers can be kept in the fridge and eaten cold or reheated the next day.
Feeds 2-4 people depending on appetite

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Sprout & Almond Soup

Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. After all the rich festive food I always crave a few days of simple, lighter meals. Soup fits the bill perfectly. It’s warming, comforting and in this case, packed full of veggies.

Sprouts have a bad reputation, but I personally love them. I think they only taste bad when they have been overcooked and start of give off the musty damp smell of old socks. Anything that smells of stinky socks and is graying in colour is never going to taste good. Cooked so they are only just soft and still green in colour they are delicious. I even love them cold, yes I know people are probably reeling back in horror now, but trust me, try them sliced and eaten with some warm crusty bread with houmous, or in a cheese and mustardy sandwich and they’re delicious!

As I went home to my parents for Christmas when I returned to my flat I was sadly sproutless. A quick visit to the shops to stock up on supplies and I came away with a huge bag of sprouts that had been reduced to 30p. There was no way I could eat through such a big bag myself so sprout soup it was to be. I know some people are already turning their noses up in disgust, but if I’d said leek soup or even broccoli or spinach, no one would have batted an eyelid. This is not just a sprout soup, it is a sprout and almond soup. The nuts added the same creamy nuttiness that chestnuts do and sprouts and chestnuts are often a classic (and much loved) Christmas side dish.

In this case the almonds come in the form of almond milk, added just before blitzing and also from a splash of almond liqueur. The alcohol itself gets burnt off during simmering, but the flavour remains and it just gives it that little something extra. I’ve seen Brandy used in soups before, so I decided to try Amaretto for an almondy touch and I loved the results.

If you have lots of leftover sprouts, or someone who insists they ‘hate’ sprouts, give them a bowl of this soup and I bet it will change their minds. Just don’t add carrots to the mix, orange carrots and green sprouts = murky brown soup and murky brown sprout soup is never going to convince anyone!

If you’re not much of a soup eater use them in place of cabbage to make bubble & squeak or how about trying some creamy blue cheese & sprout pasta that I made last year?

Sprout & Almond Soup

600g sprouts
3 medium or 2 large potatoes
1 red onion
25g butter
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp ground coriander
1½ tsp dried thyme
1 litre vegetable stock
250ml almond milk (or regular milk)
1 tbsp Amaretto (optional)

To Serve
Chopped almonds
Double cream, crème fraiche or yoghurt
Bread for dipping

Heat the oil and butter together in a large saucepan until the butter is melted, then turn to a low heat.
Peel and roughly dice the potatoes and red onion. Add to the pan, stir briefly and then place the lid on the pan and leave them to sweat for 5-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, remove any dirty of damaged outer leaves from the sprouts, but don’t be too fastidious as the more you remove the less you add to the soup. Cut the sprouts in half from root to top.
Stir the potato and onion mixture in the pan and add the sprouts, don’t worry if a bit of the veg has stuck to the base of the pan, this adds flavour later. Add the herbs; replace the lid and leave to sweat for 3-4 minutes longer.
Add the vegetable stock and Amaretto if using. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce to a simmer, replace the lid and leave to bubble away for 15 minutes.
Remove the lid and stir the soup mix well, scraping any stuck on bits from the base of the pan. Test a potato chunk for tenderness. If it is soft, then remove the pan from the heat. If not, then leave to simmer for 2-3 minutes longer.
Once the veg is soft, stir in the almond milk (or regular milk) and blitz until smooth using a liquidizer or hand blender.
Serve the soup in bowls topped with a swirl of cream and a sprinkling of chopped almonds.
Makes approximately 6 servings