18:03 | Posted by Nim Headland | Category

Bella Italia, Reading Riverside.

Ah, the chain restaurant debate. Are we bored of it yet? I regularly find myself settling down to comfortingly consistent food in the sort of establishments that you can find on every corner of every town in England. And you know what? I'm not ashamed. In my opinion these restaurants have done nothing but good for the foodie-culture. They mean that people don't have to save up for three years in order to pop out for a quick bite for friends. They allow you a nice meal and a bottle of wine with change from £20. To me, eating at restaurants is a treat, an occasion. Cheaper chain restaurants don't lessen this idea, they just allow me to enjoy myself more frequently. And what, I ask you, is wrong with that? Don't get too snotty about the food. It may always be on the wrong side of great, but it is what it is. Try lots, find what's great and always order that. That's the beauty of it.

Bella Italia is one of my favourite jaunts of this type. I first went to one in Bath, way back when it was Bella Pasta, and I was far too young to be enjoying the large glasses of wine really, but no matter. I ate my first Caesar Salad there, and was introduced to the wonders of a Bella perennial, an immense dessert that goes by the name of The Godfather. Order one, I beg you, and get it with the shot of Amaretto on it. Just bear in mind that I have never, ever managed to finish one alone, even after 9 years of trying.

Anyway, over the weekend, Steviant and I popped into the Reading Riverside Bella for a quick lunch. The special sounded good,
Spaghetti in a white wine sauce with cream and mussels. I am addicted to mussels so it was a no-brainer for me. Steviant ordered his usual Carne Mista pizza, which does what it says on the tin. Pizza and lots and lots of meat. It was good as usual (The pizzas aren't at all bad here) but I thought the base was a little flabby. Steviant said he liked it like that, and who am I to argue?

Mine came and looked good, smelled good - good start. The mussels were as fresh as you're going to get at a place like this but they were slightly overcooked. There was a teeny tiny baby mussel that entranced me so much I took a picture to show you. Then I ate it. Mohahaha. Anyway, back to the sauce. I really wish they hadn't got the work-experience kid to chop the onions. Tiny slivers and enormous chunks and mostly raw, shame. The sauce itself saved the meal, it was lovely and rich with a good balance of flavours. If I were being nit-picky I would say it bloody well should be, it's hardly tricky to prepare.
On balance, I enjoyed the meal to a point, and we had a lovely hour eating in the sun and pretending to be on holiday. I wouldn't order it again. My recommendation from Bella Italia is the Penne Zafferano. Lightly smoked salmon fillet, king prawns, cherry tomatoes and spinach in a saffron and cream sauce. It's as good as it sounds.

The service in The Riverside's Bella Italia is hit and miss. When it's bad, it's tolerable but when it's good, it's excellent. This time it was tolerable. I helped myself to menus after a rudely long wait for service, and our waiter was polite but rushed (it wasn't especially busy) We didn't tip. That's another reason I like chains like this. I never feel obliged to tip unless the service is truly exemplary. I resent tipping in general but that's a story for another day.

Anyway, the bill came to £16 for two meals and two big glasses of fresh juice. That, and sitting in the sun for a gorgeous hour catching up with a favourite person is why I love restaurants like Bella Italia. Plus The Godfather. Mmmm.

17:18 | Posted by Nim Headland | Category

Brilliant Scrambled Eggs

Eggs are great. Particularly if, like me, you're lucky enough to be able to wander down the garden of a morning and collect your own. I can firmly vouch for the fact that the eggs our chickens produce bear no relation to the sad, anemic offerings from the big-name supermarkets. I have tried spending a fortune on organic, free range rare-breed eggs but they still fall short. What is it that they do to them? Our chickens are happy, bolshy little blighters who take their egg laying duties seriously, as you can see in the picture of one of our Buff Orpington ladies looking furious at being disturbed early one morning. They lay enormous, orange yolked beauties that taste of... Well, egg, obviously. But more. And richer. The point I'm long-windedly trying to make is this; if you don't have room for your own chickens, try and find someone who does and buy from them. It's worth the hassle and I bet they're cheaper than supermarket eggs.

The one and only trouble with having your own brood is that chickens don't stop laying when you've got quite enough eggs for one day thank you very much. Hence I am ever-so-slightly egged out and desperately trying to find ways to make eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner a bit more interesting. This is a sort-of Mexican, sort-of Italian, throughly gorgeous way to eat them, and it makes a great brunch for a hungover Saturday morning.

For one:

2 large, fresh, free range and organic eggs
A slosh of double cream
A knob of butter
Three cherry tomatoes chopped and deseeded
A generous pinch of dried chilli flakes
8 or so leaves of torn fresh basil for preference, but if your basil plant has been dessimated by previous recipes as mine was when I went to make this today, chopped fresh chives will be nice too.
A toasted roll or slice or two of toast.

Crack the eggs into a measuring jug and whisk well with a fork. Add a dash of cream and a few decent grinds of fresh black pepper.

Put your roll on to toast and put a small saucepan over a medium heat and melt the butter in the pan. Once it is melted and starting to think about gently sizzling, pour in your egg mixture. Let it sit for 10 seconds or so and then begin to gently stir. Don't be rough, you want softly forming curds, not tiny lumps. Eurgh. Once the eggs are done to your liking, remove from the heat, and stir in the chilli, tomatoes and basil if you're using it. Serve over your favourite bread-based product and then scatter over the chives if they were your herb of choice. Enjoy in solitary silence, with the papers.

16:53 | Posted by Nim Headland | Category

A Summer Salad

A flash make-ahead starter, or a great main to eat outside with rounds of ciabatta on nights where it's too hot to cook. You might want to serve yours in something slightly classier than plastic bowls with a french fry print, but clearly I'm not going to judge! This is also amazing with quartered fresh figs instead of canteloupe, but only if you can get them in their short season which is September - October.
This makes two big main course salads for two, or a good-size starter for 4

For the salad, you'll need:
A small canteloupe melon. Give it a good grope for freshness. It should give slightly to a push with your thumb and smell like summer. If yours doesn't, find something else to eat and leave in in a paper bag on your window sill for a day or two, this salad is a disappointment if the melon is under ripe.
A bag of those ubiquitous and overpriced mixed leaves. Pick something with lots of dark and red leaves, an Italian-style bistro mix would be a good choice.
4 slices good quality Parma ham

For the dressing:
1 or two fresh lemons
Roughly a scant tbsp of fragrant runny honey
A dash of balsamic vinegar

Divide the leaves between your serving bowls, and then set to the melon. Half, remove the skin and seeds and chop into forkable chunks before adding to the leaves. Tear your Parma ham and strew it artfully around the bowls.

Salad dressing is personal, so I'll just advise you to add and taste until you have an amount and a flavour that you like. Squeeze and strain your fresh lemon juice and the add honey to taste before adding a little balsamic. You'll only need a dash. If you don't fancy it, by all means leave it out, but I felt the dressing tasted a bit too much like a cold and flu remedy without it!

Drizzle over the dressing and serve, preferably not in plastic bowls...!

15:49 | Posted by Nim Headland | Category

Raspberry Cheesecake

This cheesecake is great, if I do say so myself.

Serves 6-8.

Raspberry Cheesecake

180g digestive biscuits
75g butter
300g good quality cream cheese, or mascarpone
200ml whipped double cream
75g golden caster sugar
A punnet of raspberries.
Good quality dark chocolate sauce for drizzling (optional)

First, smash up your digestives so they resemble fine bread crumbs. You can do this in a food processor, but if you have any residual anger you need taking care of, you can set to them with a rolling pin. Highly satisfying. Just make sure they are in a sealed plastic bag first.

Melt the butter, and stir well through the crumbs. Chuck the mix into a flan ring or cake tin with a push-up base and pat down, making sure there's no gaps, holes or uneven bits.

Whip your double cream with the sugar until it's fairly thick. Then, mix in your cream cheese or mascarpone until smooth. Continue by stirring your raspberries through the cream and cheese mix. Don't be afraid to be a little rough with them, you want them to break up a bit as it will give your cheesecake a beautiful swirly pink colour.

Add your cheesecake topping to the biscuit base and go over it with a palette knife to smooth it out. Don't go mad, a few peaks here and there looks attractive, I think, as opposed to messy. Drizzle over a bit of chocolate sauce if you like, or miss it out. It's just as good.

As for chilling, I allowed 6 hours, and also gave it a 20 minute head start in the freezer as I was determined that it was not going to collapse. It didn't! Just make sure you don't forget it's in there, 20 minutes is enough!

Enjoy with or without cream. A gorgeous pudding for an al-fresco dinner.

11:58 | Posted by Nim Headland | Category ,

Tandoori Style Chicken

What started as a simple meal of Tandoori style chicken and pilau rice ended up a full on Indian feast, so I thought it only fair to share my chicken recipe along with all the accompaniments that I kept adding... and adding!

Lets do the chicken and marinade first. I would put the chicken on to marinate in the morning before work so it has lots of time to develop into something delicious. You can knock up the paste the night before if that's easier for you. It will sit quite happily in the fridge for 3 days.

Tandoori Masala Paste

2 tsp Ginger paste (Barts do a good one)
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp ground paprika
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground chilli powder.
A pinch of ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon red food colouring
A scant few drops of yellow food colouring
200ml Natural yoghurt

Chuck your garlic, ginger, dry spices and food colouring into a bowl. Combine, then stir in the yoghurt. Mix it really well so you get a nice even red coloured paste. It's great with fish, prawns or chicken kebabs, but here I used it on some chicken thighs. Allow two per person. Before marinading, cut three slits across each thigh, to allow the marinade to sink in and flavour all of the meat. Roll each thigh in the Tandoori paste, making sure they are completely covered, then pack them tightly in a dish, cover and put in the fridge until you are ready for them. I like to give them at least 4 hours marinading.

In the absence of a tandoori oven, I gave mine 20 minutes in the oven at 170 degrees, then handed them over to my Dad the BBQ king. He gave them a quick blast on the BBQ to finish them off, blacken them up a bit and give them that slightly smoky taste. You could cook these all the way through on the barbie, or chuck them under the grill. Whatever you fancy really!

Right, now you've got gorgeous chicken, you're going to want some stuff to go with it. You can knock up all the following while your chicken is marinading and you'll end up with a fantastic Saturday night feast, perfect for when you're having a bunch of friends round for a few beers.

Colourful Pilau Rice

This is my mum's recipe, and very good it is too. I use Tilda basmati rice, as it's the only one I know will always come out cooked. Some of the cheaper versions just. won't. cook! Not good when you've got a crowd of hungry people staring at you while you put the rice back in the microwave for the 5th time!

These are the amounts for three, up everything accordingly if you're feeding a crowd!

Generous knob of butter
Tilda basmati rice (check the packet for amounts, I do it by eye!)
5 cardamom pods
An inch of cinnamon stick
10 black pepper corns
6 cloves
Two drops each green, red and yellow food colouring.

Melt your butter in the microwave (20 secs) then chuck in the spices and microwave for about 40 seconds. Add the rice to the bowl and stir well. Cover to 1/4 inch above the rice with just-boiled water from the kettle. Cover with clingfilm, then microwave on full for 10 minutes. Remove and uncover, fluff with a fork and taste. If it's not quite ready, recover and return to the microwave for a further couple of minutes. When it's done, very carefully drip in your food colouring. Apply each colour to a different spot, then leave it to sit for a minute or so. Then stir well with a fork and you'll end up with really pretty (and delicious) colourful rice.

Cucumber and Mint Raita

This is a great dip to serve with any curry, as it provides a good foil for spicy foods. It's the easiest thing to make, and fab for dipping poppadoms in!

Chuck some natural yoghurt into a serving bowl or ramekin. Add some cucumber which you have chopped into teeny cubes (I remove the seeds, cus I think their texture is a bit spooky with the yoghurt). Add some finely chopped fresh mint and stir.

An Easy Salad

This is the salad I choose to serve with most barbequed meat. It goes really well with the Tandoori chicken cus it's really simple and fresh tasting.

Finely slice some iceburg lettuce that you have washed well and spun dry. Add some sliced cherry tomatoes and some finely sliced red onion. Remove the skin from some cucumber and cube. Serve with a couple of lemon wedges on top for that authentic takeaway look!

There you have it, a fab Indian style feast. I served all this with warmed poppadoms, Sharwood's Mango Chutney and some onion bajis. Ours were from Waitrose and I think they are the best of the supermarket offerings. The Tesco ones are revolting, so stay away from those. If you've got time and want to make your own, Jamie Oliver has a great recipe in his Ministry of Food cookbook.

18:21 | Posted by Nim Headland | Category

Bearslake Inn, Dartmoor

Last night, my Dad took us for a Last Night on Earth style meal, his reasoning being that if Cameron gets in, we will spend the next 20 years eating gruel made from benefits cheats.

We drove to Sourton near Oakhampton to The Bearslake Inn which is walking distance from Dartmoor and really, really pretty. The photo I have really doesn't do it justice, shame on me for only remembering to take one after it had got dark. It's a beautiful old Devon longhouse, and they've just given it a makeover and a new thatch. Check out the website at www.bearslakeinn.com for some better pictures and information about the area. It's well worth staying if you aren't local, accommodation rates look very reasonable.

We arrived quite late on in the evening, and had a drink in the bar before moving through to the restaurant. It was very quiet, being late on a Thursday, but it didn't feel graveyardy like some empty bars can, the atmosphere stood up. You could easily while away a few hours in the bar area on the leather sofas, playing the provided backgammon or chess with a glass of wine that comes served in an enormous bucket of a glass (luckily they measure every serving, else you'd be over the limit in a matter of minutes). Moving through to the restaurant has a different feel, while the rest of the pub has had a very successful and sympathetic modernisation, this room isn't really sure what it wants to be. Horse brasses mix with organza curtains and a very loud floral carpet. Still, the bits that matter were good, beautifully laid tables and white linen with comfy chairs. We skipped the starters, having drawn a sharp intake of breath after seeing the menu prices. It is fairly expensive. This isn't £6 fish and chips, but it's really worth it.

I ordered a roasted duck breast which came with a chive sauce and a little tower of mushroom risotto, It was so perfect I can't think of anything to nitpick about at all. The duck had been roasted after a salt rub, so it's skin was perfectly crispy-soft. The chive sauce surprised me by turning out to be a really clever and unusual compliment. It made a great change from the more normal sharp-fruit jus or sauces, designed to cut through duck's sometimes fatty flavour. This sauce just enhanced the richness and texture of the meat. I was impressed that the waiting staff asked me how I wanted my duck cooked, it's so fashionable to serve duck pink but in my opinion a well-roasted duck is yards ahead in flavour, particularly off the bone like this was. The risotto served here was a masterpiece and again such an inventive accompaniment. The earthy flavours matched the duck well, and gorgeously creamy arborio made this both a serious foodie meal and great soul food at the same time. I ate it with a side dish of kale and tenderstem broccoli shared with my Mum, who was eating a very elegant piece of Cornish megrim sole and homemade tartare sauce. Perfect fish, served plain so you could savour it's subtle, almost lemony flavour. Megrim sole is at it's best from Cornwall, and is fast becoming the new fish of choice in gastro-circles.

Dad ate a sirloin steak, expensive at £16 and probably the only disappointment in our meal. The steak itself was a fantastic example of how good a sirloin can be, particularly if, like me, you are a confirmed fillet lover. It was perfectly chargrilled, dense with no hint of marbling and fantastically flavourful, that intensely meaty hit of a good sirloin. It came served with button mushrooms which had sadly just been dumped on the plate with tonnes of sliced red pepper. A proper side salad and grilled field mushrooms would have been a much more satisfying side. In a separate bowl came the ubiquitous chips. They were frozen, which I think is a little unforgivable for a restaurant of this calibre. Sort it out Bearslake, how much does it take to peel a potato and fry it?

Pudding next, which I didn't need, but I felt I owed it to you lot to test. I ordered a white chocolate and raspberry brulee which I was expecting to be excrutiatingly sweet. I have a problem in that I order brulee often, and forget that I actually don't really like it until it is there in front of me. Luckily my Mum was on hand to help, and she ate the brulee topping to get it out of the way for me (it did crack, by the way) The white chocolate wasn't too sweet at all, it was gorgeous, custardy-creamy and tasted exactly like really, really posh white chocolate should, with hints of caramel and vanilla. Mum swore she detected almond, but I didn't. The raspberries gave the expected fruity hit to cut through the sweetness, but they weren't fantastic flavour wise. Although, if they had, I would have accused the chef of alchemy. Raspberries are not in season, so I wasn't expecting them to be dreamy. As it was they weren't bad.

We had a great evening at Bearslake and all of us felt spoiled upon leaving. I was so impressed with the food, and really think it's worth the money. We paid about £25 a head for 3 mains and one pudding with wine, the final bill coming to around £70 which is what this kind of food is worth. High end food at a mid range price can't really be argued with. Just don't order the pub options, try something a little left of field and they'll surprise you.

18:22 | Posted by Nim Headland | Category

Spaghetti Carbonara

Spaghetti Carbonara is a bit sexy isn't it? Sort of slurpy, carb-coma inducing and indulgent. It's what Queen Nigella suggests you cook when someone first stays through the night, and it's what Meryl Streep cooks for Jack Nicholson in 'Heartburn'. This is my take on it and it is a bit dangerous. Lots of calories, but you'll be burning them off after, right?

For 2 ravenous bodies:

A knob of unsalted butter
half a white onion, chopped
A double handful cubetti di pancetta
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
Two eggs. These must, MUST be the best you can get your hands on. Free range, organic and super fresh. Preferably from your very own chickens, but I understand that's not always an option...
About 75ml double cream
25g parmasan, and a little extra for serving
Lots of freshly ground black pepper
Enough good dried spaghetti for three. I know there's only two of you, but you'll regret not doing extra.

Put your pasta onto boil in a big saucepan of salted water with a splash of olive oil. It'll take about 10 minutes, but remember to taste it.
In a frying pan, melt the butter and then throw in the onion and pancetta. Cook until golden brown and sticky, throwing in the garlic for the last minute or so. Remove from the heat but keep warm.

In a measuring jug, beat your eggs and add to them the double cream, 25g parmasan and lots of pepper. Set aside until your pasta is done. When it is, remove from the heat and drain, then return to a very low heat and stir through the onion and pancetta, stirring until the pasta is coated with buttery, bacony goodness. Turn the heat off completely and then briefly stir through the egg and cream mixture. Serve using tongs, to warmed but not hot plates. Sprinkle with the rest of the parmasan and eat with someone you love.

And for those days when you just don't love anyone? When you have a cold and it's raining? You need this recipe. NEED it. It is comfort food of the highest order. Grab yourself the above ingredients, but enough for one. Replace the cubetti di pancetta with your favorite bacon, cut into strips. Peel a couple of mushrooms, chop them into chunks and fry with the onion and bacon strips. Use big fat rigatoni pasta tubes instead of spaghetti. Eat alone, wrapped in a blanket in front of the TV, and prepare to feel restored.

17:54 | Posted by Nim Headland | Category

Carrot Cakes

This is my recipes for epic little carrot cakes. They are so easy and really just about getting cake down neck in the shortest possible time. They are my middle finger to poncy, overpriced cupcakes that are more icing and glitter than substance. There is a time and a place for fancy, self-important cakes and this is not it. These are cakes for hungry friends with builders tea.

This makes about 12 fat little cakes, but feel free to make one big one in a greased and lined tin or oiled silicon tin.

You'll need to get yourself:

175g sifted self-raising flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
125g soft brown sugar
1 and a half teaspoons of ground cinnamon
3 beaten eggs
150ml of sunflower oil
1 teaspoon good vanilla essence (splash out on the posh one)
250g grated carrots
A handful of sultanas (optional)

For the cream cheese frosting:
150g cream cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
75g icing sugar
Juice of half a lemon

First of all, get your oven preheated to 180oc or Gas 4.
I used my silicon muffin tray, which is an awesome investment and only needs a cursory oiling, but if you are still using a tin muffin tray, pop in some paper cases else you'll get stuck.

Wack your sifted flour, baking powder, sugar and cinnamon into a big bowl and stir to mix well. Make a hole in the centre with your fist and with a big wooden spoon mix in the eggs, oil, vanilla, carrots and sultanas (if using)

Spoon the mix into your muffin tray or paper cases and chuck in the oven for about 25 mins until they have risen and turned and inviting golden brown colour. Test with a skewer if you're not sure. When cooked, remove to cool on a wire rack or a plate if you're desperate!

While they're cooling, make your awesome cream cheese frosting. Mix together cream cheese, icing sugar, vanilla essence and lemon juice, then swirl a generous and messy spoonful over each cooled cake. These last a good few days un-iced and travel well. Even children like them, although I think the frosting is more for grown ups. The child that tested mine ate the cake and left the icing!