weekenders on our own

Just a perfect day
Problems all left alone
Weekenders on our own
It's such fun
- Lou Reed

Sometimes the best days are the unplanned ones. 

shoreditch-street-art-a-nahu

We expected rain, being stuck indoors, winter still blowing its frosty breath over the city. Instead, it was pleasantly overcast when we met our friends at Old Street tube and took the scenic route, through the streets of Shoreditch which are like galleries with vast, colourful murals everywhere you look, to a cafe for the best vegan burger in London:

essential-vegan-burger
cassava-chips
street-art-broadway

 

Then we walked around Columbia Road, past Hackney City Farm where we saw baby goats frolicking in the grass, and then up to Broadway Market where we stood elbow to elbow with East London's hipster population jostling for vintage clothes, killer brownies, raw milk, giant cheese toasties, coffee and sourdough bread. I came for Frida.

 Actually, I think it's meant to be a blend of Frida and Diego!

Actually, I think it's meant to be a blend of Frida and Diego!

 

Then we walked back to Haggerston along the canal. The sun came out and we unpeeled ourselves from our coats with glee. We made a brief stop at Proud East for probably the best Virgin Mary I've ever had:

virgin-mary
phil-and-lisa
phil-and-tom

Refreshed, we walked further along Regent's Canal up to Islington. The air was cold but the sun was out, and I could smell the sweet perfume of violets on the banks, wood-fired stoves in the canal boats, and coffee from the riverside cafes. We saw a group of friends drifting along the river in a floating hot tub. I took note of the company for future reference!

We wandered through Camden Passage, as the stallholders began to wrap their unsold wares in newspaper and box them up, and there was still a queue at the Breakfast Club. We stopped for a pint in the Camden Head (our new favourite place in this part of town).

tom-camden-head

When a day turns out to be unexpectedly fun, in the gentle company of true friends with whom you can just be yourself, with delicious food, refreshing beverages, the weather surprisingly fine and the promise of spring hovering on the horizon.....these are the days that I live for. 

leftover easter* chocolate brownies

chocolate brownies

I'm sure most of you are thinking..."leftover chocolate? Are you crazy?! When does that ever happen? Thank you Phil, rub in my lack of self control!"

Oh, dear reader, I meant nothing of the sort. But if you're anything like me, you might have found yourself over the holidays with chocolate that perhaps wasn't nice enough to eat on its own but could be transformed into something magical via the wonder of brownie batter!

If you're going to have it, make it worth your while. Nothing irritates me more than wasting calories/points/tastebuds/time/money on food that just doesn't satisfy or deliver. And I abhor waste as well. So if that's you too, here you go, you're in luck!

Leftover chocolate brownies

125g unsalted butter
150g caster sugar
80g cacao powder
4 eggs
90g fine '00' flour (the kind you'd use to make pasta)
Pinch of salt
Approximately 100g chocolate-box chocolates 

Preheat your oven to 180 C (fan). 

Melt the butter, sugar and cacao in a bowl (not plastic!) over a saucepan of simmering water until combined and the butter has melted. It will look gritty, but fear not!

Beat in the eggs one at a time. Then add the flour. Beat well (use an electric mixer if it all gets a bit much!). 

Pour into a 20cm square cake or brownie pan and dot the chopped chocolates evenly on top. Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes. You want a skewer to come out almost clean, but not quite, as you want to keep everything moist. A dry brownie is a miserable thing. You may need to bake for a little longer if your oven is a little cooler than mine.

brownies

Allow to cool and then devour, marvelling at your genius!  

* Full disclosure: I made these in January after the chocolate coma that is (usually) Christmas. Any chocolate you want to use up will work well! 

stronger in the broken places

favourite-mug

My very first job was working at homewares store in Hobart. In the three years I worked there I ended up with an enormous Spode collection, some very fine cookware and intimate knowledge of knife sharpening and Wedgwood china patterns; all of which I'm sure was not usual in a girl of nineteen.

I remember a slow Sunday, unpacking a recent delivery, checking the contents against an invoice and then pricing them and putting them on the shelves.  I unwrapped this beautiful mug and as the last of the packing paper fell away, the mug promptly split into two neat halves in my hand.  It was such a shock, and I was horrified!  It was so beautiful and I was worried I'd broken it, but my colleague reassured me that with such a clean break it had probably happened in transit on the way down from the mainland.  We put it on the "write off" sheet and continued.  I asked what would happen to the pieces and was told they would just be chucked away.  I was so sad at the thought.  I am always full of intentions for creative projects (ask Tom about the time I brought a door home), and had visions of making something arty with the pieces, so I asked if I could have them.  The manager said yes, so they were wrapped in a piece of tissue and tucked into my bag, ready for a salvage operation at day's end.

When I got home, having abandoned the idea of a creative project with the pieces (again, ask Tom about the time I brought a door home!) I just went to my Dad's shed and glued them back together with superglue.  There was a slight chip at the top, just missing the iris.  I figured I'd see if it was watertight once the glue had dried.

Once it was established it was watertight and cleaned to within an inch of its life to wash away anything toxic, it was my favourite mug.

A good five years later, the repairs were still intact and I took it to Melbourne with me when I moved there. I used to make T2 herbal tisanes and drink them on my porch, looking around the garden.  I think the smell of dried lemongrass will always make me think of the first nine months in that city, discovering new places and people, having my senses reawakened.

When I packed up my belongings about a year later to move to the UK, the mug for some reason was placed in one of the boxes.  I don't know why but I couldn't bear to leave it behind.  Somehow it symbolised the years it had accompanied me through my life so far: a flawed but beautiful thing, and with the right binding to put it back together, it had been made whole and useful and beautiful again. 

By the time I was reunited with my boxes a few months later I was surprised to see it.  I had forgotten I'd packed it.  I suppose at the time I was only thinking about essentials.  What did I need?  Books, that was a given.  Warm clothes, for England was a cold country.  A teapot.  A mug to drink tea with.  That was about it.

I remember my first flat in London, my room on the ground floor of a dilapidated house in Clapham, with the fireplace in it.  I lined up all my books on the mantlepiece, and my mug went next to them.  I remember nights when I'd stay up late writing well into the night, only interrupted by hasty suppers of hummus and pitta bread, or an apple and a triangle of camembert, and always followed by a hot chocolate made in my mug.  I'd put a shot of Bailey's in if I was feeling indulgent.

Eleven years and five flats later, it's still in my cupboard. Well, more accurately, it's on my writing desk. 

Things that are broken can sometimes be put back together, and they are all the more beautiful because of the cracks, the life marks.  That's where the stories are.

You can always pick up the pieces and start again.

best-ever vegetarian nut roast

vegetarian nut roast

If you think nut roast is a boring vegetarian cliche, think again!

This little beauty is chock full of delicious nuts, seeds and spices that come together in a taste sensation. Don't be put off by the number of ingredients - most of these are lurking in the average spice rack and it comes together really quickly and easily. It works brilliantly as a roast dinner but also anywhere you would normally use mince, such as in a bolognese sauce, "meat" balls, rissoles, chilli or shepherds pie.

If you're making it for Christmas or Easter, you can add lots of allspice and nutmeg in addition to the named spices for a lovely festive flavour, and wrap the nut mixture in puff pastry to make a delicious Wellington-esque dish, or make sausage rolls with the mixture. The possibilities are endless! I hope you'll love it as much as I do.

BEST-EVER VEGETARIAN NUT ROAST

Serves 6

  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 200g (1 large bag) walnut pieces
  • 100g (half a large bag) whole almonds
  • 200g other mixed nuts (I tend to use cashews, pine nuts and pecans)
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons mixed spice
  • Roughly 1½ cups breadcrumbs (add more if too wet)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes, drained (reserve the juices for gravy)
  • 2 large handfuls fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 2 teaspoons Vegemite or Marmite
  • Juice of ½ a lemon
  • 1/4 cup grated strong vegetarian Cheddar cheese
  • ¾ of a medium red onion
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Grease and line a large loaf tin and set aside. If you're cooking the roast straight away (see further), preheat the oven to 180C (fan).

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan on medium-high heat. Once the pan is hot, toast the nuts, seeds and spices, tossing everything to coat well. Be very careful and do not let it burn. Toast for a few minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant and starting to turn golden, then turn off the heat and let it cool slightly.

Add the cooled nuts and spices to the bowl of a food processor. Add all other ingredients. Blitz until thoroughly combined, or combined to your liking (it can be nice if left a little chunky). You might need to stop and scrape it down a few times. If it's too wet, add more breadcrumbs. If it's too dry, add a little water, reserved tomato juice or even a dash of red wine if you've got some handy!

Place in the prepared pan and ideally leave for a few hours (or overnight is even better) in the fridge to let the flavours deepen and the loaf firm up. If you're in a hurry you can cook it straight away, but ideally give it at least an hour's resting time.

Preheat oven to 180C (fan). When ready, cook the roast for 45 minutes to an hour until firm and golden. Allow it to cool slightly before carving then serve with gravy and all your favourite roast vegetables.

chilli cheese toast with a fried egg

chilli-cheese-toast-fried-egg

My standard brunch tends to go through phases. After having one of the tastiest breakfast rolls in my life in Sydney in December 2011, my standard go-to Sunday brunch for years was a ciabatta roll with pesto, halloumi, red pepper and a fried egg. For which I am still happy to provide the recipe. It really is so good - for a time, I considered setting up a stand outside Amersham station (which was our local station for a while, in 2013-14) to rival the bacon sandwich man. I thought it would be a lucrative venture. Seriously, those egg-halloumi-pesto rolls were the best. 

But lately things have shifted and chilli cheese toast with a fried egg on top is what Tom and I find ourselves eating on the weekends. I had a similar dish at Dishoom for brunch and loved it so much, making it at home was the next logical step. 

The chutneys that I make this toast with are something of a revelation, and making them has become an obsession of mine. I have embraced my inner Mary Berry and become something of a chutney-maker this last year. There's something so satisfying about putting a pan of ingredients on to simmer on a Sunday afternoon, coming back after an hour and the house has been infused with the sharp smell of spices, ginger and chilli and the sweetness of garlic and tomato.

I much prefer chutneys to jams. They are so versatile, you can put a dollop on top of a curry, soup, a piece of grilled tofu, halloumi or fish. Or spoon directly out of the jar, as I sometimes do.

The two I currently make in regular rotation are: the tomato kasundi from Anna Jones' excellent cookbook The Modern Cook's Year, which I highly recommend; and the aubergine and tamarind chutney from Jackie Kearney's Vegan Street Food, which is also one of my most cooked from cookbooks. Both of them are spicy and have a fierce kick from the chilli, and a tangy sourness that I find so addictive. I couldn't find these specific recipes made available by their creators online but if you google the names, you should be able to find something similar (or buy the books, they are both wonderful and I cook from them a lot). Or use a store-bought chilli chutney, they are very easy to find. But it goes without saying that you should buy the best you can afford. This not a dish on which to skimp, particularly the cheese!

Cheese on toast was one of the first things I learned to make as a child (Anzac biscuits were the first, then pancakes) and while what follows here is hardly a recipe, this is how I do it. 

Chilli cheese toast with a fried egg

For 2

4 pieces of good sourdough bread
Your favourite chilli-spiked spicy chutney or sauce, as much as you like
Some piquant mayonnaise (optional, but does help offset the spiciness. I like to use Japanese Kewpie mayo)
Grated mature cheddar cheese, as much as you like
2 or 4 eggs (depending on whether you're having one or two each)
Olive oil or cooking spray
Freshly ground black pepper
Sprigs of fresh coriander or parsley, or finely chopped spring onion (optional)
A side of wilted, lemon-dressed spinach if you're feeling virtuous (optional)

Preheat your oven to 220 C (fan-forced).

Line a baking tray with foil or baking paper. Place the bread on the tray. Top each slice of bread with spoonfuls of your chosen chilli chutney and spread around to cover the surface of the bread. Evenly squeeze on a little bit of mayonnaise, if using. 

Top the bread with grated cheddar to completely cover the bread.

Bake in the oven for 5 minutes or until golden and bubbling. 

While the toast is in the oven, heat a splash of oil in a frying pan over high heat (or spray the frying pan with cooking spray). Once the pan is hot, crack in your eggs and fry until they are cooked to your liking. I usually cover the pan for a minute so the top of the egg steam-cooks but the bottom remains lacy and crispy.

 The toast prior to egg being put on top! 

The toast prior to egg being put on top! 

Put the chilli cheese toast on plates, place the fried egg/s on top, grind some freshly ground pepper on top and scatter the fresh herbs/spring onion if using.

Allow the toast to cool slightly. Then prepare for a taste sensation.