Sunday, July 29, 2012

Food in London

As of today, I'm back in London, pushing my way through the Olympic crowds to get to the British Library. British food gets a bad rap (not entirely deserved, in my opinion), but London's dining options are not restricted to British food. As a cosmopolitan, international city, there are tons of delicious options available to please a wide variety of palates.

Jeff spent a few days in London with me before he went home (and I moved on to different cities) and we had excellent luck food-wise, partly due to some key research I had done in advance of the trip, but partly from dumb luck. On Sunday, we went to a beautiful sung Latin Mass at St Etheldreda's church - formerly chapel of the thirteenth-century palace owned by the bishops of Ely - and then trekked down to the Tower of London, which Jeff had never visited. As we passed St Paul's Cathedral on the way to the Tower, we stopped for lunch at Café Rouge, a cute little French bistro (which turned out to be a chain). Chain or not, the food was delicious!

After my week of bread and pasta in Rome, I was dying for a good salad, and Café Rouge offered just that. I ordered the salade de courge rôtie - roasted butternut squash and bell peppers tossed with grilled summer squash, toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds and a light vinaigrette, served with some crispy flatbread. It was so delicious, and exactly what my vitamin-deprived body needed for a long day of walking (we nearly hit ten miles that day). I took a photo of the menu so as to remember the ingredients, because I plan on trying to recreate this at home!

While I don't regret my salad - my body needed it so badly - I did envy Jeff's meal, which he ordered after I pointed it out to him on the menu (this seems to happen a lot - I should start taking my own tips!). This is the tartine Marocaine - spicy Moroccan sausage and caramelized onions served with hummus and chicory over a grilled slice of sourdough bread. It was divine - the sausages were caramelized along with the onions. Each bite simply danced in my mouth. I may need to return some time in the next week or so and order this for myself!

After exploring the Tower and some of the Tate Modern, we passed back through the City, unsure where we were going to find dinner. The City is London's financial district, so a lot of restaurants tend to shut down on Sundays (I must stop choosing Sunday to hang out there). But we got lucky again, incidentally just next door to Café Rouge, at GBK - the Gourmet Burger Kitchen. This is a casual chain run by New Zealanders, offering delicious, inventive gourmet burgers made from great ingredients, and free peanuts while you wait (comparisons with Five Guys should end there - GBK is SO much better).

I ordered the Taxi Driver (pictured in the foreground) - a ground beef patty topped with American cheese, a crispy onion ring, cajun relish, smoked chipotle mayo and a pickle, served on a toasted brioche bun. It was absolutely delicious. So many ingredients, but they all came together beautifully in this juicy burger. My only regret was the onion ring, which sort of got lost in the mess of other things. Still, this is one I'd go for again. Jeff ordered the Frenchie - a beef patty with Gorgonzola, bacon, onion jam and relish. I was tempted to get that as well, but I wasn't sure about the cheese. As it turns out, the bites I had of Jeff's were fantastic. The side of very thin, crispy rosemary fries was a great accompaniment.

I enjoyed GBK so much that I sought out another while I was in Oxford last week. Since I was endeavoring to get back to my diet, I ordered the Falafel - handmade falafel patties served on a toasted bun with hummus, cucumber raita, and chili salsa. It was a beautiful thing. For the sake of my waistline, I'm going to endeavor to keep away from this place for the remainder of my trip. It's going to be difficult, though!

On a very rainy Monday night, we popped down to the West End for a show and sought out Food For Thought along the way. I had stumbled on this place during my rambles last year, but never ended up eating there (I was always around at the wrong time, or they were out of the dishes I wanted). Food For Thought is a tiny vegetarian cafe, serving a limited number of rotating menu items each day. It's been around since the '70s, a testament to the quality of food offered as well as the constantly updated menu options.

We both ordered the absolutely delicious vegetarian chili and shared a cheddar and chive scone on the side (sorry for the blurry picture - it's the only one I took!). The scone was flaky and nice, although I can't say the flavors really stuck out to me. But that may have been the fault of the chili, which was so packed with flavor that it dulled my poor taste buds. Toothy kidney and pinto beans, sweet bell peppers and onions in a zingy sauce. It was the perfect meal for what turned out to be a chilly, rainy London night.

Needless to say, I'm glad to be back in a city with so many amazing food options within walking distance. I plan on using my finely tuned foodie skills to sniff out more cheap, tasty options during the rest of my trip. Hopefully they won't be crowded with Olympic tourists!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Food in Rome III: Cecilia-Metella

My last post about food in Rome is proof that sometimes you just get lucky.

Jeff and I spent half a day outside the city walls visiting the catacombs. This was an absolutely awe-inspiring experience. First of all, going underground got us out of the relentless Roman sun and heat, which was restful. Second, the catacombs allow no photography (rightfully so, for they are sacred spaces), so we were able to peel ourselves out from behind our camera lenses and actually experience the sights. Descending into the tunnels of the ancient burial chambers was really like entering a different world - one that was peaceful, serene and breathtaking (and somehow not at all creepy, despite what the college students on our tour kept saying). As far as a religious experience goes, this was the best in Rome, in my opinion - far better than pushing through several thousand tourists (literally - I would not be surprised to learn there were four or five thousand people inside while we were there) in Saint Peter's Basilica. Walking among the different catacombs and other sites, I really had the sense of being on pilgrimage, rather than being a tourist.

But I know a thing or two about pilgrimages - as soon as the practice of pilgrimage became popular in the Middle Ages, enterprising businessmen set themselves about fleecing the ignorant tourists. So while we had planned to stop at the restaurant across the street from the church (and catacombs) of San Sebastiano, I was prepared to turn around and walk out if I felt we were being taken advantage of.

We walked up the hilly driveway to the restaurant, which was enormous. Much of the seating was in an outdoor courtyard with an ivied trellis overhead. There were tons of tables. It was beautiful, but I was suspicious - clearly, this was a place that catered to tourist buses. But the menu items looked tasty (more creative than most of the Roman lunch offerings we'd come across) and the prices seemed on par with what we'd come to expect. We decided to stay.

This was an excellent decision. We sat at a table next to the fountain in the center of the courtyard, able to watch the sun play off the water, but still cool and shaded. It turned out that the fountain had seven or eight resident turtles (and some frogs I didn't notice until we were leaving), so we had entertainment. But I knew things were going to be good when the bread arrived. Every restaurant we'd been to had brought bread to the table - generally slices of decent rustic, peasant bread. At Cecilia-Metella, we received a basket of fresh crusty rolls with a soft crumb. They were big - too much for us to eat right then - but I liked them so much that I endeavored to sneak the rest into my purse when the waiters were occupied (hey, it wasn't like stealing - they charge for the bread in Italy - but I still felt that stealth was in order so as not to seem obnoxious).

When our dishes came out, it was clear that the bread wasn't going to be the only high point. I ordered a specialty of the house - green pasta (you can just see that the noodles are slightly green in this picture) in a sauce of crême fraiche with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese over the top. I think there was prosciutto inside as well. It was divine. The pasta was beautifully soft and fresh, the sauce creamy and with a slight cheesy tang.

As good as mine was, Jeff's was better (and I totally envied him every bite - especially since I had almost ordered the same thing). It was, essentially, lasagna, though it wasn't called that and had fewer layers. The meat sauce was hearty and savory. The tomato sauce was thick and flavorful (tomato sauce baked in the oven is one of my favorite things). But the cheese was the crowning glory - crisped and scorched all over the top, it had a rich, caramelized flavor. My mouth is watering just thinking about the few gooey, steaming bites I was able to snatch.

This is what Italian food should be, whether catering to tourists or not. I would have liked the meet the chef  and laud him or her for not lowering any standards, but serving delicious, hearty food with beautiful ingredients. This was the first time Jeff and I were inclined to linger over our meal, savoring each bite slowly. Now I can see why the Slow Food movement originated in Italy - this sort of food is meant to be drawn out. The next time we go to Rome, the catacombs will be on my list again, both for the spiritual uplift offered by the tombs themselves and the sensual uplift offered by the food nearby.

East Oxford Farmers Market

I have another long-delayed post scheduled for today about food in Rome, but I thought I'd interrupt the queue to tell you about the foodie excursion I took this morning.

My dorm room in Oxford came equipped with a mini fridge, so I've been able to eat a little more cheaply (in other words, PBJs for lunch every day). Actually, I did this without a fridge last summer in London - peanut butter and jelly both keep well enough on a shelf at room temperature. The bread, though, tends to go moldy after about three days. I wasted a lot of bread. But now that I have a lovely little fridge, the bread has lasted and I've been able to keep some milk for my morning granola!

My London dorm should be even better - it's supposed to have shared kitchen facilities. I am really looking forward to this - while veggie dishes are far easier to come by in the UK than they were in Rome, there still aren't enough veggies for me. To put things in perspective, Jeff and I spent two months trying to consume three or four heads of lettuce in a week (besides the rest of our farm share). That amounts to a ton of produce. Our weekly menu revolves around veggies. But since I've been away, my diet has revolved around starches (though beans have made some inroads, since I've been in the UK - lots of falafel and hummus).

So, as you might imagine, the idea of a farmers market makes me giddy with joy right now. When I found the website for the market in East Oxford, just half a mile from my dorm, I jumped at the opportunity. It would make more sense, of course, to wait until I actually arrive in London to buy my veg, but I would have to rely on the grocery store rather than local organic farmers (London's farmers market scene is rather good, too, but there's nothing in my area until at least Thursday - and while the supermarkets do a great job stocking local products, I prefer to avoid the middle man when at all possible). So first thing this morning, I trotted over to the market to stock my little fridge!

The market was a bit crazy. There was only one produce stand, so the area around it was quite crowded. After observing the chaos for a few minutes, I realized that the system was this: take a number, take a box, fill your box with the produce you want, then hang in the background and wait until your number is called. Most of the chaos was caused by the people hanging around the background - the room wasn't very big, so it was impossible not to be in someone's way.

I took my number and popped over to one of the bread stands to pick up a whole-grain loaf and a cute little hedgehog bun (close-up below). I then eyed up the other stands - some baked goods, including French macarons (I passed, because I found great macarons at a cheaper price yesterday), a few stalls with prepared foods, some meat vendors and some craft stalls. I wasn't interested in anything else, so I honed in on the veg. I grabbed some salad and stir-fry ingredients. I couldn't take any greens (though the spinach and chard were so tempting) because I was doubtful they'd survive my journey to London tomorrow. But I did get salad fixings (which may also be dipped in hummus!): cucumber, broccoli, a bell pepper and carrots. I liked the look of the broad beans, so I grabbed a bunch along with some onions and tomatoes, perhaps for a little veggie saute. I also got some zucchini because I couldn't help myself.

We'll see how this goes. If my produce survives the trek to London intact, and if I have access to the cooking equipment I require, I may try and post a recipe. Until then, back to the regularly scheduled line-up of travel posts!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Food in Rome II: Trattoria Giovanni

As I suggested at the end of my previous post, we didn't have all bad luck eating in Rome. Just the first few days. Then, tired of mediocre meals, we got a little savvier. One of our guidebooks said to look for places packed with Italians and avoid anything with a tourist menu. We'd been dodging pushy waiters along the street our hotel was on for days before we thought to look across the road. Our first night, as I was writing in my journal going to bed, I noticed the persistent background noise from a restaurant across the street, packed with patrons talking, laughing and listening to street musicians. I tucked it away in the back of my mind, but whenever we were in need of dinner, showier places kept attracting our attention first. One day, finally, I suggested going to the place across the street, Trattoria Giovanni.

Good call. This was the real deal, folks. Everyone in there was speaking Italian - many seemed to be locals and regulars. The surly looking manager/owner came out and played his guitar while we ate (still looking surly - I guess that's how you know he's not catering to tourists). And, for once, we had good food. A relaxed good time was had by all.

Prompted by my suggestion (since I'd read about it a few weeks before on Ciao Chow Linda), Jeff ordered the pasta cacio e pepe, a traditional Roman dish. And that's all it was - spaghetti tossed with cheese and black pepper. Simple, but incredibly flavorful. I only had a few bites and I have a whole new appreciation for the flavor of pepper. This is one I'd like to try making at home (ideally with some vegetable accompaniment - half a pound of pasta, however tasty isn't my idea of a balanced meal).

I went with an old favorite: penne al vodka. A delicious pink sauce, with nice bits of ham (maybe prosciutto - wasn't listed on the menu). It was a ton of pasta, but tasty enough that I ate it all (and managed to avoid getting any splashy sauce on my white shirt!). My silly face should tell you that I was in a good mood from the tasty eats.

We ordered second courses as well. I ordered a lemon chicken - thinly pounded chicken breast in a thick lemon sauce. The flavor was good, though not great (I really had no meat dishes in Rome that impressed me). Jeff ordered some sort of scaloppine, which the menu claimed included scallops. It turned out to be thinly sliced veal (as I sort of suspected - the translations weren't great) in a tasty mushroom sauce. I am anti-veal, so I didn't try any, but Jeff took one for the team and ate it without complaint (the deed was done - sending it back wouldn't help the poor calf) and enjoyed it.

So, some lessons were learned. #1: look for the places where the locals are eating. #2: regardless of what the menu says, scaloppine has nothing to do with scallops.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Food in Rome

Some of you may have been wondering whether I'd fallen off the map. And I did - the North American map, that is. I've spent the last two weeks in Europe - one in Rome with Jeff, a few more days with him in London, and a few more days on my own in Kew. Today I moved on to Oxford. I'll be in the UK a few more weeks doing dissertation research, so there won't be any new recipe posts for a bit (except possibly a draft or two I wrote up ages ago). I will, however, have something to say about what I've been eating over here. I have photographic evidence of a number of our meals and will be posting about them when I get the chance. For now, here's an overview of our Italian experience.

I know what you're all thinking: Rome! Italy! Oh, the culinary delights! I certainly thought so too. So much so that I proclaimed an official hiatus of my diet while over there (what cholesterol problem?). I didn't want to spoil our big trip by not being able to eat anything (which is pretty much what it would have come to). In retrospect, I wish I'd declared my hiatus in London rather than Rome (well, it did sort of extend to London . . and to Kew . . . and to Oxford this morning - I swear the healthy diet starts again tomorrow). Overall, I was not impressed with Roman cooking.

Rome has two food groups, one of which you see above. There is the bread/pasta/pastry group and the gelato group (more on that later). Upon being seated at a restaurant, bread is brought to the table - plain rustic bread, no butter or oil - which you are charged for. Naturally, we began to eat our bread as soon as it appeared. At one restaurant, however, Jeff was chided by a waiter for doing so - the waiter said he would spoil his two courses. My conclusion is that the bread is meant to be used to sop up the sauce from your plate (although that still doesn't explain why it is brought out so early).

Next comes the pasta course. We always ordered pasta, even if we rarely ordered meat. Most of the pasta I had in Rome was good - fresh and handmade. The gnocchi in the above photo were particularly soft and tasty. The sauces left something to be desired, however. We spent three full days in Rome before tasting a dish that was properly seasoned. The sauce for my above gnocchi consisted essentially of crushed tomatoes. Maybe there was some sugar, too, but definitely no salt or pepper. Jeff's lasagna was better, but still needed salt. In this case, the problem was that we were lured into a restaurant with a tourist menu. While I appreciate that this was the only place in Rome that endeavored to serve me any sort of salad, the food was really mediocre. Good ingredients, but careless preparation.

My perception of the meat course (based on very little evidence, mind you) is that it consisted of very small portions of thinly pounded meat swimming in some sort of buttery or creamy sauce. This was not worth the money, in my opinion. The only time it was worthwhile was when Jeff ordered grilled fish and was presented with a whole fish on a plate, simply prepared and falling off the bone. It looked so delicious, it made me wish I liked fish.

We had better hope for our lunch near the Vatican. Jeff had a tip from a Catholic forum, where several people had discussed their favorite restaurant at length, including the idiosyncrasies of their favorite waiter. Unfortunately, this post turned out to be quite dated. The waiter had long left the restaurant and the food was not up to par (perhaps it was just that we visited for lunch? I was generally unimpressed by the limited range of Roman lunch menus). My lasagna, apart from the lovely blistered cheese at the top, was only ok, despite my sunny smile (I may not have tasted it before the photo was taken).

I am also a bit surprised at the heaviness of Roman food, considering the climate. No matter how good it is, I am not inclined toward lasagna and roasted chicken after tearing about in full sun in blazing heat. The pizza is a better option, but I wasn't terribly impressed with the sit-down restaurant pizza I sampled. We had better luck when we decided to pinch our pennies and stumbled upon the Roman pizza joints. You point to the one you want, they chop off a slice and you pay for it by weight. An awesome system and every place we went had pretty delicious pizza. I only wish we'd discovered these places earlier in the week (and taken some pictures!).

If you want some evidence of how disappointing our Roman dining experience had been, I present you with my lunch on the fourth day of our visit. Fed up with Roman specialties that didn't meet my expectations, I ordered a cheeseburger. "Cheeseburger" clearly doesn't mean the same thing in Rome (or, in this case, along the beach in Lido di Ostia). This was a burger patty with delicious mozzarella cheese, topped with ketchup and pickles, slid between the halves of a buttered brioche bun, and then toasted in a pannini press. That grin on my face is because this was the best meal I'd had in Italy so far. The tourist restaurant by our hotel could learn a thing or two from that snack bar's short order cook!

The gelato of Rome was not disappointing. And gelato makes sense - it's what you want in the middle of the afternoon when it's a gazillion degrees outside (if you can eat it before it melts). And it's often what you want again, strolling around in the twilight (when it's only a billion degrees). Sometimes you also want it at the airport when you need to use up your remaining Euros. All of that gelato was delicious. The most delicious, though, was at this place on Via Torino just south of Via Nazionale. It was just a gelato shop - the long counter displaying dozens of different flavors. What's more, the first time we went in there was a line - something we were instructed to look for in a good gelato joint (of course, it turned out almost everyone on line was an English-speaking tourist).

The gelato was creamy and delicious every time (oh, we went back). One day Jeff got a combination of melon and kiwi sorbetto that was amazing. My chocolate and strawberry was equally divine. The cannoli filling flavor, with bits of cannoli shell scattered through it, was also enticing. Speaking of cannolis, we didn't have much non-gelato dessert while in Rome, except for cannolis. We got them twice, and each time they were exceptional. They seem to be a Sicilian specialty, but those Romans had the knack as well - the shells were thick and crispy and the cream light. American cannoli filling seems closer to a pastry cream - the filling inside these was more like whipped, creamy ricotta. They were worth every bite.

I hope I don't sound too gloomy about Italian meals. I think we simply had bad luck. Our hotel was in a very touristy area near Termini station, so I think we were lured into some bad decisions. The worst meal we had was lunch near the Roman forum (we tried to get a few streets away from the tourist area, but clearly didn't go far enough). But there were some delicious meals, too - mostly toward the end of the week. More details will be provided in subsequent posts . . .

Monday, July 2, 2012

Chicken Salad with Ginger-Soy Vinaigrette

I had a delicious quick salad for dinner the other night. I feel like the last two months have been a constant battle to consume all the lettuce I get from the farm before I have to pick up some more. Most of the time, I'm eating the same salad - lettuce, carrots, peas or radishes, and honey mustard dressing. I'm happy with it, but it gets boring after so many weeks. I added some leftover tandoori chicken and dried cherries (they're not in the picture - I forgot them the first night, but ate them with my leftovers) and tried out a different dressing. Quick, easy and tasty. Served with my farro salad, it was a nice fresh meal for a hot summer night.

Chicken Salad with Ginger-Soy Vinaigrette
Inspired by Rachel Ray's 30-Minute Get Real Meals.

1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tbsp lime juice
1 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp tamari
1 1/2 tbsp canola oil
4 c salad greens
2 carrots, sliced (I used a purple one and a yellow one, for color)
1/3 c snow peas, sliced
3/4 c cooked chicken (mine was leftover tandoori chicken from the night before)
1/3 c dried cherries

Combine the first five ingredients in a bowl and whisk well to combine.

In a larger bowl, combine greens, carrot, snow peas, chicken and cherries. Toss with dressing and serve!