Friday, 28 December 2012

Mari Vanna, Knightsbridge

As 2012 comes to an end, there is a little reminiscing of the past year in London, including its many meals.  2012 was definitely the year of dirty food in pimped or fancied-up guises – burgers, hot dogs and fried chicken have made up much of the restaurant hype and queuing around town.  Although fun and undeniably greasily delicious, a few of my favourite openings have been altogether different.

Mari Vanna is one such place; tucked next to the glossy One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge, this restaurant transports you to a Russian grandma’s dacha, crammed with trinkets, old family photographs and flowery crockery.  The d├ęcor is fabulously kitsch and cluttered, yet the place is very polished and utterly charming.

Rye bread & pickles
The menu includes authentic Russian classics – we started with a jar of crunchy pickles and delicious pickled mushrooms marinated in dill and allspice, which were a great accompaniment to the rye bread. 

Russian Olivier salad
Herring with new potatoes & onion
Russian salads are not the green, leafy kind, but instead chopped vegetables bound with mayonnaise – our Olivier salad included carrots, cucumber, peas and potato with Doktorskaya sausage.  We also shared Russian blinis (not the little rounds, but larger, soft pancakes) with salty orange pearls of salmon roe and sour cream, and fresh, briny salted herring with new potatoes and onion.

Siberian Pelmeni
From the mains, I went for the Siberian Pelmeni - little silky dumplings filled with meaty minced beef and pork, served with more sour cream on the side.  The beef fillet stroganoff was also good, served alongside nutty buckwheat with mushrooms. 

Honey Cake
We finished with a delightful honey cake made up of soft honey soaked sponge layered with a creamy filling, next to a chunk of gooey honeycomb.  It felt only right to follow this with a shot of their honeycomb infused vodka (other flavours include a powerful horseradish).

The food is the perfect rich, stodgy antidote to the cold, rainy streets of London at the moment, and the service is excellent.  Although I was lucky enough to be taken to Mari Vanna, the food is not too pricey (depending on how greedy you are with all the starters), especially with their lunch set menu at £18 for 2 courses, or £25 for 3 courses.  There is nowhere else like it in London, and I defy you not to be won over by its fairy tale charm.  

Mari Vanna on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Tasty Christmas Gifts

To escape the shopping madness of the last few days before Christmas, I spent a few hours in the kitchen making friends and family some tasty edible presents instead.  You can pick something very   simple or more complicated, but just make sure that it keeps and transports well. 

Any preserves in jars work really well (make sure you clean and sterilise the jars first) – last year I made a red onion marmalade and this year I opted for a ruby-hued festive apple & cranberry chutney (a really simple Good Food recipe that’s great with cheese  You could also go for jars of preserved lemons or pickled pears to use in cooking, for something a little different. 

For something sweet, I have made delicious pistachio stollen bars (a great Dan Lepard recipe that is a lot simpler than making a traditional stollen with all of the kneading and proving -  These keep for a couple of weeks if you brush liberally with melted butter and dust with icing sugar before wrapping well with foil.  Cookies or biscuits always go down well (choose something with the Christmas spices of ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon, or stud with dried cranberries for a festive flavour), and if they need to last, crunchy almond biscotti are perfect.

Sugary sweets also make great gifts – buying a sugar thermometer makes it really easy to make chewy toffees, creamy fudge or crunchy brittle.  I made a brittle for the first time, with salty peanuts and aromatic cardamom to offset all the sugar, that looks great broken into shards within a kilner jar.

Friday, 7 December 2012

FEAST, Islington

Street food in in the capital has certainly changed in the last few years – areas and markets in London have seen a surge in vans and stalls serving up gourmet and affordable plates, with anything from burritos to gyoza.   Certain vendors have gathered cult followings, and have even gone on to open restaurants – Meat Wagon started as a truck, and has since spawned the rammed Meat Liquor and Meat Market.

After a sold out street food event in the summer, FEAST has just set up for 4 days (6-9th Dec) off Upper Street in Islington, and it is definitely a who’s who of the best street food in the city.  This old Victorian sorting office has temporarily been transformed into a buzzing Christmas banquet, with street food from Big Apple Hot Dogs, Lucky Chip and Pizza Pilgrims among others, along with stalls from restaurants including Ceviche, HIX and Moro. 

Delicious hot cider with clove and bay (plum and port punch and a warm negroni were also on offer from the bar) kept us warm while we scouted out the best looking food.  After lots of deliberation I went for one of Yum Bun’s steamed buns filled with tender, golden belly pork with hoisin sauce, and Mexican poached eggs with avocado salsa from The Good Egg.  Other treats on offer included giant pans of macaroni cheese, steaming ramen, beautiful colourful meringues and gooey chocolate brownies.

Get down there this weekend if you can – the tickets are sold out for tonight but there are still some left for tomorrow and Sunday (£7.50 each).  You can even buy a Christmas tree on your way out – the perfect way to get into the festive spirit after some Christmas feasting.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Vietnamese Summer Rolls & Double Chocolate & Pistachio Cookies

Although it’s now December and very chilly outside, it’s nice to have something fresh and vibrant for dinner in contrast to the messages of turkey and trimmings bombarding us already.  These Vietnamese summer rolls were the perfect thing to make for friends coming round, as you just need to do a little bit of chopping, and then get your guests to do all the hard work.

Feel free to mix and match the fillings with whatever you fancy, but it’s best to have a combination of noodles, fragrant herbs, fresh vegetables and crunchy nuts for a good texture.  The dipping sauce works well as a tangy accompaniment, and also works well with finely chopped spring onions instead of the sesame seeds, or more chilli for a fiery kick.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls
Round rice paper wrappers
Cooked rice vermicelli
Cooked prawns (or any meat you fancy)
Toasted & chopped peanuts
A mixture of finely sliced cucumber, spring onion, carrot and lettuce, or any other vegetables (sliced avocado and cooked green beans both also work well)
Chopped fresh mint & coriander

Sesame & Chilli Dipping Sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp fish sauce
Juice of 2 limes
1 tsp sesame seeds
1 red chilli finely chopped

Once you have assembled the filling ingredients and made the dipping sauce (just mix all the ingredients together), all you need to do is soften the rice wrappers in a large bowl of hot water for 30 seconds – 1 minute (a couple at a time works fine).  Shake off the excess water or dry on a clean tea towel and place the filling inside, flip the ends over and roll up - it takes a bit of a practice, and don’t be too greedy with the filling as this makes it a lot trickier to roll into a neat shape. 

Double chocolate & pistachio cookies
After such a virtuous main course, it seemed only right to have something a little more sinful afterwards.  Before the glut of mince pies begins, these little cocoa rich cookies studded with chunks of white chocolate and pistachios are an easy and delicious treat.

120g slightly softened butter
60g caster sugar
1 medium egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
30g cocoa powder
100g plain flour
50g chopped pistachios
50g roughly chopped white chocolate – plus 25g for drizzling on top (optional)

  • Pre-heat the oven to 190c (180c fan oven)
  • Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the egg and vanilla extract
  • Sift in the cocoa powder and flour, then mix together and stir in the chopped pistachios and chopped white chocolate
  • Dust your hands with a little extra cocoa powder to stop the mixture sticking, then roll the mixture into walnut sized balls
  • Place the balls on a couple of greased baking sheets with space for the cookies to spread, then press each one down gently with a fork
  • Bake in the pre-heated oven for 15 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool
  • Melt the extra white chocolate and drizzle on top once the biscuits are cool - then try not to eat too many in quick succession (we all just ate about 5 in a row…)