Monday, 28 September 2009

Simple Pleasures at St John Bread & Wine

I've been meaning to visit St John Bread & Wine for longer than I can remember but somehow I'd never quite got there. I've even had reservations in the past that I've had to cancel for one reason or another. The perfect opportunity to try again that I couldn't miss came when I was planning a day out to celebrate my husband's birthday at the end of July when it just so happened that St John Bread & Wine was a natural mid-point (at around lunch o'clock...) between Murdock's in Old Street (where I'd booked him a traditional wet shave as part of his birthday present) and London Bridge (for the train back to Frank's Bar in Peckham where we were meeting friends for early birthday drinks). I love it when a plan comes together.

St John Bread & Wine is the sister restaurant to St John, a larger restaurant in Smithfields, and is thought of as being less formal with a menu structured around sharing plates. The menu reads a bit like a timetable with dishes being available specific times throughout the day - breakfast, elevenses, lunch (with some plates available only from 1pm onwards and then, only until they run out, which they often do) and supper from 6pm.

It was a bright sunny day and the sun streaming in through the large windows which run along the front of the restaurant lit the dining room up. It's not a huge dining space, but the ceiling is incredibly high which means the room has a sort of warehouse feel about it. It was fairly empty when we arrived and never really filled up completely. I'd love to go when it's full - on a Friday night perhaps - to see what the atmosphere is like then, because it's unusual on a Saturday lunchtime. Not in a bad way, don't get me wrong, it's just a little quiet and empty. What's great about that is that you don't have to shout over the table next to you to make yourself heard! I can picture myself there with a bunch of mates, ordering more food and drinks as more people arrive.

I like the simplicity of the menu. You know what you're getting, like 'Peas in the Pod' or 'Hake & Samphire'. There's no messing around with poncy dish names on the menu here. They say it like it is. And the style of the food matches that no nonsense approach. The produce is top notch and so incredibly fresh. There's no need to dress it up. Many chefs these days talk about showcasing the fresh ingredients or letting the produce speak for itself. Here it's not just talk, they actually achieve it.

In addition to the printed menu (which changes twice a day), there are also specials up on the blackboards around the room. The wine list is good and varied, with many available by the glass (and also to buy and take home which is just what I did on my second visit a week later...). On this occasion we started with a glass of rose each and then moved on to sample some of the reds by the glass. Although it works out more expensive drinking by the glass it does mean you have the opportunity to try different wines, which I like. So many restaurants only serve a limited number of wines by the glass (and at often rather elevated prices) so this was refreshing to see.

We decided to order some dishes to share and then a meat dish for Andrew (it was his birthday after all). The first dish I chose was Peas & Ticklemore. Fresher than fresh raw peas, straight from the pod and thin slices of ticklemore cheese with pea shoots, herbs and a lemon oil dressing. The peas were crunchy and sweet. The cheese was very subtle and it's texture married well with the peas, leafy pea shoots and the viscous lemon oil (which had just a hint of natural lemon rather than being too citrusy or overpowering). A lovely fresh start to a meal and the portion size was perfect for two people to share.

We were undecided on our next choice (not an uncommon state of affairs for two of the most indecisive people to walk this planet). We fancied trying a fish dish, of which there were a handful on the menu, but with my forays into fish being fairly limited I wasn't sure whether I would like the cuttlefish which had caught our eye. After a conversation with the knowledgeable waiter who explained how the dish was prepared and what to expect from the cuttlefish, we did plump for it (Cuttlefish with Heirloom Tomatoes). It was the right choice.

Cuttlefish is not at all what I expected. Our waiter explained that it was braised, tossed together with a mixture of colourful heirloom tomatoes and dressed with a simple olive oil vinaigrette flavoured with fresh marjoram. The texture of the cuttlefish was unusual, but certainly not unpleasant. Nothing like any other fish or seafood I have ever eaten, it has quite a meaty texture. It was rich, slightly sweet and most definitely 'earthy' and took on the flavours of the braising liquor and the dressing. The tomatoes were much needed to cut through the richness of the cuttlefish, especially the green ones which had just the right amount of bite to contrast with the soft fish. I couldn't have eaten the whole plate myself, but then that's the whole point of St John Bread & Wine's concept of plates to share.

Andrew declared his Middle White Faggot & Peas to be simply delicious. He'd never had faggots before and wasn't entirely sure what to expect. He needn't have worried - the single faggot came sat on a bed of cream sweet peas with plenty of the faggot cooking juices. Hearty yet stylish.

Maybe it was the wine, or just the fact that when you're relaxing over a long lazy lunch you don't want it to end, but we both decided there was room for another dish before we considered the desserts. I'm so glad we did. Although simple (again), the Brown & White Crab served with toasted sourdough was good. There was plenty of both the brown and white meat - in fact there were some lovely big pieces of white meat which I tried to snaffle whilst Andrew wasn't looking. My only criticism would be that the toast was slightly too oily and could have done with being a dry toast to contrast with the rich crab. That certainly wouldn't stop me from ordering it again though.

The only real let down of the meal was the dessert. We both love all things almond and decided to go for the Raspberry & Almond Tart. Whilst it was OK it wasn't anything more than that which was a little disappointing. I've made many almondy tarts with summer fruits so perhaps I was expecting something far superior to what I can create with my own fair hands, but it just didn't deliver for me - there wasn't enough almond filling and the pastry was a little too thin and soft.

All in all, St John Bread & Wine was perfect for a splendid lazy weekend lunch. There is a relaxed feeling and service is calm, friendly and spot on when it comes to explaining the dishes. I could almost taste the dishes from our waiter's description of them! The dishes have a distinctive style which makes this a restaurant which knows exactly what it has to offer and does so sublimely.

I went back just 1 week later with my mum, for a second visit which confirmed my opinion that St John Bread & Wine is all about top quality, simple food. The Smoked Mackerel & Horseradish was just that - a large piece of delicately and naturally smoked mackerel with a small dollop of horseradish creme fraiche. Paired with a simple salad of lettuce leaves and herbs and Jersey Tomatoes & Wild Marjoram made for a second stunning lunch.

St John Bread & Wine Spitalfields
94-96 Commercial Street
E1 6LZ
Tel: 020 7251 0848

St John Bread & Wine on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Smoked Haddock & Spinach Tart

A big bunch of lovely dark green large leafed spinach turned up in my weekly vegetable box last Monday. The sort that has that really rich irony taste and which has some bite to it. A far cry from the baby leaves of the summer.

By Saturday it really was time to get it used up before it reached the point where it would only be fit to be chucked into the pot with the rest of the not-quite-so-fresh veg which make their way into soup at the end of the week.

My first thought was to make the Valentine Warner recipe I'd made a couple of weeks ago - Moroccan Spiced Spinach & King Prawns - which calls for these tastier, more mature spinach leaves. But then seeing Nick Nairn's dish using natural smoked haddock on Saturday Kitchen had me craving good smoked fish. For once I managed to leave the house and make it to our local fishmonger - Moxons in East Dulwich - before they'd sold out of everything (I usually don't have much choice, arriving after 4pm on a Saturday afternoon...) and picked up a lovely piece of smoked haddock.

The combination of smoked haddock and spinach is not a new one. It's a perfect marriage in my view - soft, flaky, lightly smoked fish and vibrant earthy leaves. The other flavours which work well are no mystery either and the one that leapt to mind on Saturday was cheese. And so a recipe came together...

We ate the tart warm and straight from the oven in the evening with some buttered samphire and then cold the next day for lunch with salad. I'm not sure which I liked best - the tart was more moist when it was warm, but then the pastry was certainly crisper when we ate it cold. Whichever way, it's a good early Autumn dish to eat when the days are still bright with that gorgeous big sun low in the sky.


For the pastry:

6oz plain flour
3oz butter
3 or 4 fl oz water
2 tbsp finely grated parmesan
1 tsp mustard powder
salt & pepper

For the filling:

12oz natural smoked haddock
10fl oz full cream milk (or half and half semi skimmed milk and cream which I did because I had both to use up in the fridge)
1 egg
a big bunch of large spinach leaves (thick stalks removed)
1oz butter
1oz plain flour
1 shallot (finely chopped)
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
salt & pepper


Start by making the pastry. Blitz everything except the water in the food processor (or work together to make fine breadcrumbs by hand in a large bowl) then add the water a little at a time to form a soft, but not wet pastry. Wrap in cling film and leave in the fridge for around 30 minutes. Then roll out to around 1/4 " thick and line a 9" loose bottomed fluted tart tin. At this stage I often pop my lined pastry case in the freezer for 5 minutes to firm up and reduce the risk of the pastry shrinking down the sides of the tin when you bake it.

Blind bake the pastry case for around 15 minutes at 190 C. Then remove the baking beans & parchment and bake for a further 5 minutes.

In the meantime, poach the smoked haddock in the milk (or milk and cream) in a shallow pan for 6 or 7 minutes. Pop the fish onto a plate, remove the skin and any bones and then flake. Reserve the poaching liquid.

Roughly chop the spinach and wilt in a non stick pan, making sure to stir to prevent the spinach from sticking. Put the wilted spinach in a sieve. Once cooled slightly, squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible.

Saute the shallot in the butter until soft. Add flour, stir to combine and then cook out the roux for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently. Add the warm poaching liquid and whisk until smooth. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Once cooled slightly whisk in the beaten egg and then stir in the fish and spinach.

Put the fish mixture into the pastry case and bake at 180 - 190 C (depending on your oven) for around 25 minutes until slightly golden and cooked through. Serve warm or cold.

Not Aunty Lisa's Top Houmous Tip

We eat a fair amount of houmous in our house. It's a super quick pre-dinner or lunchtime snack to whip up from the tins and jars lurking in the kitchen. With sticks of carrot, celery, cucumber, whatever is knocking around in the bottom the fridge really, it's a healthy snack too.

There are some days though, when I'm making a Middle Eastern inspired banquet for example (you know the sort of thing - falafel, tabbouleh, broad bean and preserved lemon salad, sumac roasted aubergines...), when I want my houmous to be a bit 'special'. On these occasions I've experimented with adding more olive oil than usual, adding a different olive oil or by sprinkling toasted pine nuts on top before serving. All with good results.

But whilst I was staying with my littlest sister in Newcastle a couple of years ago we decided to go for some food at the Flatbread Cafe. There you can choose to order a Bedou Feast of 3 dishes and a freshly made flatbread which we both did and then shared everything. Besides all the other mouthwatering dishes they have (including the Cucubita with pumpkin, chestnut and sweet potato and a fantastic Chana Dahl), we were bowled over by the houmous. There was something about it that I couldn't just put my finger on... It was smooth, light and so incredibly tasty. A delight!

As you can imagine, like every determined home cook, I scurried away to try to recreate it at home, wondering about the quality of the chickpeas, the way in which the chickpeas were cooked, the flavour of the olive oil, the balance of the other ingredients... All of these things do have a huge impact but the smooth texture continued to elude me. It wasn't until I was staying with Not Aunty Lisa a year or so later that I learnt a little trick that turns my everyday store cupboard houmous into the something special I'd been looking for, without the rigmarole planning in advance and cooking dried chickpeas or having a glorious earthy olive oil to hand.

It's as simple (albeit time consuming) as popping the little skins off each individual chick pea. It really does make a difference. And whilst I can't be bothered to do it every time I make houmous, I enjoy it all the more when I have gone to the effort.


1 tin chick peas (drained)
1 dessertspoon light tahini (or more if you are a big tahini fan)
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove garlic (crushed)
salt & pepper
2 or 3 tbsp good olive oil
splash of water (if needed)


Pop the chick peas out of their little skins. This is quite simple to do but will take time - I find it best to do it with the distraction of the radio or TV so I don't notice the time passing. Or I delegate this part of the process to unsuspecting friends or family.

Add all the ingredients (except the water) to a food processor and blitz until smooth. You may need to add a little water to reach your desired consistency or you can add more olive oil.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Chocolate Brownies

A few weeks ago my Mum and I spent the day selling our homemade goodies at the Covent Garden Real Food Market where one of our best sellers was our chocolate brownies. They flew off the stall like little hot cakes!

Now I've never been a massive brownie fan. For starters, I'm generally more of a savoury person - I'd much rather go for starter and main and skip the dessert (unless there's a good cheese board of course in which case I'd be sure to leave room for that). Added to which I'm not a huge lover of chocolate cakes or desserts. Don't get me wrong, I love a few squares of quality dark chocolate but you'll rarely find me choosing a chocolatey pud. I much prefer something fruity.

So it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I first had a go at making chocolate brownies and even then I had no intention of eating them... I always make cakes to take to work and share with my colleagues on my birthday and this particular year someone asked me if I was any good at making brownies. Never one to turn down a challenge where food is concerned I set off on finding (and perfecting) a good brownie recipe.

Now, family aside, I know of two queens of baking whose tried and tested recipes never fail - Mary Berry and Sue-L. As anyone who visits the BBC Food Message Boards will know, Sue-L 's prowess in the world of baking is much revered! Where better place to start than with her brownie recipe? I know everyone has their own interpretation of what a brownie should taste like - some like them with nuts added - but the bottom line is that a brownie needs to be squidgy on the inside. And believe me, these little beauties are! They went down a treat at work, so much so, even I ate one and have been making them for people ever since.

Sue-L's recipe has a little vanilla extract which I haven't included here. I think whether you need it or not very much depends on the type of chocolate you use and your own tastes, but that's a story for another blog post altogether as my recent chocolate tasting with the chocolate master himself, Paul A. Young, taught me...


200g butter
200g good quality plain chocolate (as Sue-L says, 70% cocoa solids makes the best brownies!)
600g golden caster sugar
4 large eggs
250g plain flour
4 tablespoons cocoa


Preheat your oven to 180C (170C fan assisted).

Grease a rectangular roasting tin or oven proof dish which measures approximately 8" x 12" (20 x 30cm) and line with baking parchment (not greaseproof paper as this will stick to the brownies!).Melt the butter and chocolate in a glass bowl over a pan of simmering water. Make sure that the bowl doesn't touch the water inside the pan and be careful not to let the water come into contact with the chocolate as this could make it all go horribly wrong.

Cool the chocolate and butter mixture slightly and then stir in the caster sugar. Whisk the eggs and add then a little at a time, making sure they are well blended before adding more.

Sift the flour and cocoa into the mixture and beat until smooth.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin. It may take up to 50 minutes to cook, depending on your oven, but you don't want to over cook it or your brownies will be too dry. To get the right consistency the mixture needs to be just cooked, so start testing with a cocktail stick after about 40 minutes – there should be moist crumbs clinging to the cocktail stick, but not wet batter.

Cool the brownies in the tin slightly and then mark into pieces. Depending on how big you want your brownies to be, this mixture will make between 15 and 24 pieces. It is fairly rich though so you may just want to make mini sized brownies, in which case you could make 32 pieces.

Leave the brownies in the tin until they are completely cold, then turn out onto a board and cut into pieces along the pre-marked lines.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Bank Holiday Madeleines

Every time I'm rooting through my baking cupboard to find something or other Andrew seems to spot the madeleine tin. Not the loaf or bun tins...always the madeleine tin. This is usually accompanied with a friendly jibe about how long it must be since I last made madeleines - have I made them since living at this house (where we've been for over 18 months)...?! The answer is probably no. So over the August bank holiday weekend, after two very full on weeks at work which left no time for eating and sleeping, let alone cooking, I decided to get back in the saddle by cooking up an Ottolenghi inspired feast on Saturday evening and a lazy bank holiday breakfast in bed for my (clearly deprived) husband.

Instead of my usual (and preferred) method of making it up as I go along, I decided to follow the recipe in my much loved and well used copy of French Regional Cooking (by Anne Willan and the Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne) which I picked up at Oxfam a few years ago before our Bourgogne-Odyssey (that was the holiday when it rained, a lot, and when I managed to used around 8 packs of butter in 10 days on my cellulite inducing cook-a-thon).

Well, when I say I decided to follow the recipe that's not strictly true. I'm not the world's greatest recipe-follower. I tend (unless it's a Denis Cotter recipe) to make my own little adjustments as I go along. Today was no exception, although I did follow the method word for word!

Freshly baked, warm madeleines with a cup of Williamson Earl Grey. Lovely.

This recipe makes around 16 madeleines.


2oz plain flour
1/2 tsp banking powder
2oz caster sugar
2oz melted butter
2 eggs
zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon


Whisk the eggs and sugar until thick and light. Add the orange and lemon zest. Sift the flour and baking powder and gently fold into the egg and sugar mixture in three batches. When the last batch of flour is almost mixed in, add the melted butter and fold in quickly and lightly to retain as much volume as possible.

Chill the batter for 20 to 30 minutes in the fridge. Heat your oven to around 230C (I heated mine to around 210C in the fan oven). Brush your madeleine tins with a little butter and then sprinkle with flour and knock the excess out of the tins.

Fill each of the madeleine to around three quarters full. Bake for 5 minutes then reduce the temperature of the oven to 200C and bake for a further 5 - 7 minutes until the madeleines are golden brown.

Transfer the madeleines to a rack to cool (or alternatively eat them all whilst they are still warm and skip lunch...).