OraganicUnboxed RECIPE: Penne alla Gin

No, these aren't desperate times for a hard working mother. I'm not sloshing liquid sin in every meal I create (just yet).

Remember when vodka sauce was the thing for pasta? (it happened, I promise you, it happened). And if it still seems strange to you, then think of how common wine is to add to your pasta sauces. This is based on the dish penne alla vodka, a rich, creamy sauce. The alcohol isn't really a strong taste, it just seems to amplify the tomatoes and give them an edge.

I like vodka sauce with spice, mainly as vodka has a mild taste in cooking it needs another element for interest. But gin has more character so I think it's best left alone. Same story with the pancetta commonly found in this dish. But the cream and butter? Well, that remains.

This is a dish I have created for #organicUnboxed campaign, so it's totally good for you*

Serves 4

(all ingredients I used were obviously organic!)
10g Butter
1 tbs olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
500ml of passata or a 400g tin of tomatoes, blended
170ml of gin (I used Juniper Green Organic gin)
150ml single cream
400g dried penne pasta
Freshly grated Parmesan to serve

Heat the butter and olive oil in a saucepan and gently fry the onion until softened but not coloured. Add the garlic and continue to cook for a minute.

Add the passata or blended tin of tomatoes, season well and reduce for 10 minutes.

Add the gin and reduce a little for 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and add the cream. Check seasoning.

Stir through drained pasta. And serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

 *OK, probably not.


Do you choose organic foods? It's a nice idea isn't it?

I really do worry about what goes into food production, more so now I have the responsibility of two small children to feed. Consumer demands for cheaper food and well, demand for food in general, must mean corners get cut or additional processes are applied to our food chain. You read some pretty freaky stuff in the press. So I was really interested to be part of #organicunboxed campaign to learn a bit more about organic foods and try some new products out too.

The Organic Trade Board sent me a mystery box of produce to create recipes with - think middleclass Can't Cook Won't Cook. I assumed it would be more meat, fish and dairy based as I delved in, some ingredients and brands I found I already use, but they sent me ORGANIC GIN! I was already sold :)

The campaign aims to inspire the nation to try more organic cooking, and will include recipes and videos from well known chefs and will be launched by health food queen Madeleine Shaw.

Money no object, I would probably convert everything I can organic but that's just not practical for my family at the moment. But selective organic products don't cost the Earth and I have a fab indie food shop that's opened round the corner. And some frankly just taste better or really are worth investing in. I'd put meat in that class and we've really cut back on meat consumption here, for health, but also to be able to buy a lot better. Organic meat does cost considerably more but then it costs more to produce meat in a respectful way that isn't also pumped full of water and Lord-only-knows-what. Plus I can really tell the taste difference in decent meat so am happy to eat it less and enjoy it more.

Cheap staples like grains I've swapped to organic anyway and the local shop I've already mentioned sells lots of organic veg for little more that supermarket prices. I walk past all the time so it's convenient anyway. I am also thinking to swap over most of my dairy to organic too, especially for my milk guzzling kids.

But why should we really buy organic?
  • Organic crops are obviously exposed to fewer pesticides. GM crops and ingredients are banned in organic farming as are hydrogenated fats, artificial pesticides and some crazy chemicals I can't even spell. 
  • I know animals are cute, but I still like eating them. Even so, I absolutely think they should be reared with respect and care. Meat labelling can be quite misleading. Freedom, welfare, red tractor…even "free range" may not be your idea of being free to roam. Organic livestock, however, are truly free range, meaning they have more space to roam and enjoy high welfare standards. 
  • Organic dairy cows are pasture fed which really comes through in the taste 
  • Supporting farmers and food producers, particularly British and local ones is really important. Organic farming is great for farmers and more environmentally friendly. 
  • Recent research has shown that organic crops are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants and that both organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. You are what you eat and all that.

Anyway as part of the #OrganicUnboxed I was challenged to devise some organic dish recipes with my mystery ingredient box. These will follow in separate posts over the next few days. And no, I didn't just drink the bottle of gin. 

For more information follow www.facebook.com/organicuk  http://www.organicukfood.com/organicunboxed or watch their video featuring Madeleine Shaw:

I was sent Organic ingredients to produce some recipes. Words, thoughts and recipes are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Hemsley + Hemsley Good + Simple, Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley

This is the second pretty book from healthy eating queens, Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley - the pretty sisters that made the spiralizer last year's must-have kitchen gadget.

But it's not just all nice dresses, lipstick and fluff, I cooked a straight three weeks from this book and think it may have even changed the way I eat for good. Although I thought I ate quite well before, this is a different way of cooking for me that I, and thankfully my family, are really enjoying. Hey, I'm not throwing the bread bin and pasta cupboard out anytime soon but what I have learnt brings a greater nutritional balance to my table which can only be a good thing.

There is a section at the front of the book about their principles of eating well which is sensible, sound advice, then some sort of "reboot" eating plan that personally I just skimmed through as it doesn't suit my lifestyle. What I do like is this movement toward a more positive and nutrition based food attitude rather than faddy diets. Even exercise is leaning towards fit over thin. It's all good.

The title, Good and Simple rings true; there is nothing in here that is particularly tasking to make and everything is nutrition focused. Healthy eating in the current fashion can be quite expensive with cult ingredients but the recipe lists in this book are generally sensible with only a handful of health food shop items. You won't find the need to source any obscure Bulgarian grain that is only harvested by moonlight on the last day of October, thankfully.

As we all know, low fat cooking is so old hat. It's all about eating with nutrition and health in mind but I still have a slight calorie conscious hangover from the 90s that was bothering me during making the quinoa kettle porridge. 8 tablespoons of coconut oil as well as energy packed nuts, dried fruits and coconut, I dread to think of the tally at the end. Still, it was easy to prepare and what parent of small children wouldn't want a grab and go breakfast that isn't a slice of toast? This really did keep me powered until lunch, which for someone that gets up at 5.30 these days (darn you baby!) is no mean feat.

For such a simple recipe, I was most surprised by the quick dahl. It was absolutely delicious and packed with flavour. Even the "you're not turning me vegan are you?" husband loved this. Also, I wasn't sure about serving it with a raw white cabbage slaw but the textural contrast and sharp notes was the ideal partner to the dahl. I've made this four times so far and my fondness isn't waning.

The fish curry again was straight forward. Luckily I have quite a decent larder so didn't need to buy anything special for the curry paste and I made enough to freeze for next time. The coconut milk and tomato based sauce was thick, silky and indulgent with good flavour. Cauliflower rice is something I've turned my nose up at before but now trying it I'm totally on board. I didn't miss real rice at all. Who'd have thought it!

Broccoli rice was another new one on me and good with a simple salmon dish. Also heros of the mid-week were a chicken tray bake with watercress salsa verde and a fiery quinoa biryani.

I'm really loving raw and alternative baking so was keen to try the date and tahini "fudge". The texture was melting, really lovely but the flavour was so soapy from the coconut oil. I have a feeling it was the brand I was using though as I've sourced a much milder version now. Still, the teeny tiny squares stored in the freezer satisfied any sweet cravings I had and the bitterness of the dark tahini I used suited my taste.

Some of the recipes are a bit too simple, the sprout salad was dull, liver and bacon quite standard, I have no need for sandwich recipes and a slice of cucumber with cream cheese on or roasted sprout on a stick won't be featuring at any of my dinner parties anytime soon.

However their version of pesto has come in handy with my own cooking for jazzing up some dishes and the sauces and dips section are also worth trying.

Luckily I'm not really one for dessert or sweet things but was surprised by the amount of cakes and desserts included. See you don't have to swear off the treats!

The book was well laid out and attractive but does contain a few issues. I found some inconsistencies like the recipe method not mentioning one of the listed ingredients and I get really irritated by abbreviations in recipes. EVOO, ACV... it makes the content seem unfinished. 

Will eating these recipes make you as pretty as a H+H girl? No. But the book contains sound ideas for sustainable healthy eating which is a welcome break from the kale and chia brigade.

Hemsley + Hemsley Good + Simple is published by Ebury Press and costs £25.

I received a copy for review but all words and opinions are my own.

PRODUCT REVIEW: Fin and Farm vegetable boxes and local produce, Brighton

Having tried a few of the national veg box schemes, it never occurred to me to seek out a company around the Brighton area. And Fin and Farm are just that; a small company who have grown from supplying commercial kitchens to domestic over the last 8 years. It makes sense to source as local as possible, especially with all the farms and food producers just on or past the Sussex Downs.

As well as fruits and vegetables, they also supply Sussex meats (and charcuterie made with it), local eggs, cheese and milk, soft drinks, raw Sussex honey, oils and treats.

But the core boxes (available as fruit, juicing, salad or vegetable) are a good place to start. I received the Medium veg box (£12 - feeds 2-3) which had a good variety included. Sometimes the veg boxes try too hard and you end up wasting a bit with obscure items. You need some basic staples every week (carrots, potatoes, onions, salad and the like) as well as some highlights. The box was perfect for that, and actually, I didn't waste a single thing.

Included was:
  • Bunched carrots
  • A couple of leeks
  • 3 small red peppers
  • Parsnips
  • A pack of mixed stir fry leaves
  • Spring greens
  • Bunch of beetroot
  • Two small round head lettuce
Now they don't exclusively sell local veg, the box was made up of Sussex, English and imported produce. (Hey, you want avocados, they are going to have to come from somewhere.) The origin of the products are transparently labelled on their site. 

I supposed the main USP, other than the local link, was that everything was excellent quality and fresh, the beetroot in particular, something I buy a lot of, was amazing. Often the supermarkets cut off the beet tops as they wilt quickly but these were so fresh it would have been a crime to waste them.

The salads were crisp and vibrant and I loved the stir fry leaf mix. I really struggle finding interesting leaves in the usual supermarkets but this contained mizuna, tatsoi, mustard greens and chard. Delicious. 

They had also included a couple of egg boxes from the award winning Holmansbridge Farm near Lewes. I can really taste the difference of decent eggs, they don't cost the Earth so I think it's worth the switch. 

If you are considering a veg/fruit box scheme then serious consider Fin and Farm. As well as using a company that is part of the local community you are supporting our local producers. Plus as they operate a no-frills attitude, what you lose in nice, branded packaging and brochures (not something I technically agree with as a branding designer ha!) you gain by cost saving. Fin and Farm are much cheaper than the big brand veg schemes. They are also a small company with a handful of people too so you can be sure of a personal service. 

I was sent these products to review, words and opinion, as always, are my own.

REVIEW: Mediterraneo, Brighton

I can't say I ever take much notice of the listings on TripAdvisor for restaurant recommendations, but sometimes you spot a quirk that gets you wondering. For a long time a tiny, itty bitty, side street Italian restaurant with barely a handful of covers, took the top Brighton restaurant spot, despite the likes of 64 Degrees, Silo and the Ginger Group. Running the show are just Georgio on front of house and his wife Sonia in the kitchen. 

Now I think the main USP of Mediterraneano is the intimate atmosphere. The impossibly romantic candelabras, low lighting, rich, deep hues of the furnishings and the, er, unique, artwork on the walls (previous diners know EXACTLY what I'm talking about, new diners, I'll leave it to you to discover).

Service is as charming as it gets. You are treated like royalty, your water glass filled with a silver and crystal jug and the tables are laid out impeccably. It's probably the last place in Brighton to roll your menu and secure it with a silver napkin ring. They seem to have created a quirky luxury that would be impossible to recreate which I absolutely adore and is totally unique in Brighton. Want to impress someone special? Here's the place to do it.

I have eaten here before, maybe even as long as a year ago and whilst the above still rings true, I wasn't too overwhelmed by the food. Sonia isn't professionally trained (I don't think) so the food is home style yet nicely presented. However on this recent visit, even though the menu was very similar, the cooking had vastly improved.

Still on the plate was a quaint salad filled
 bread "basket" with a trio of mini arancini filled with either meat ragu, spinach and salmon. There was an over-sweet balsamic glaze, possibly rose infused, which aged the presentation and didn't suit my savoury palate.

The filled aubergine starter really worked as a dish though and even I appreciated the sweeter tones of the carrots and pomegranate seeds this time which contrasted nicely with the parmesan crisp and fillings. Textually it was spot on and showed just how far the cooking had come along.

For main my Involtini di Pollo was skewered with pieces if toast which I find strange (it could be an Italian regional food thing I'm not familiar with) but the chicken was succulent stuffed with mozzarella and ham. The accompanying potatoes with rosemary is what I expect to see served with an Italian meat secondo. Mr. GF's veal version was much the same so he was happy. 

The Merluzzo in Umido dish on the table, which I snuck a taste of, was excellent. Plenty of flavours pepped up the soft, steamed cod; white wine, fresh herbs, capers... just a gorgeous, enjoyable plate of food. On the menu there are also other classic like lasagne, Parmigiana di Melanzane and pasta.

I will say that the forte here is the desserts. No one really does Italian desserts too well (not even most Italians half the time) but Sonia makes exquisite cakes. My Limoncello torte was feather light, plenty of cream and sponge layers and a good kick of booze. The amaretto cake was similar and classic flavour combination. The dessert course rightfully silenced the table.

These is a well selected wine list and an exceptional liqueur list. Italians commonly finish a meal with with a spirit or fortified wine so the Vecchia Romana and Terre Arse (yes, I know) were in full flow. 

As you would expect for a restaurant that only opens Friday and Saturday evening and has just a few tables you need to book well ahead. It may not be the most refined meal of your life but it's cooked with love and you'll remember your visit for a very long time.

A Brighton gem. 

2a Clyde Road, Brighton BN1 4NP

REVIEW: Issac At Gloucester Street, Brighton

We're getting quite spoilt for good food in Brighton so diners are naturally seeking out more than just a good meal, they want an experience. Be it a pop up, residency or even the showmanship of the de rigueur open kitchen, it seems being more than a restaurant gives you the edge.

Issac At is one place that's been on my list for a while due to having one of the more unusual locations and formats in town. Located in Gloucester Street in some sort of former shop, this little space has been transformed into a quirky (but elegantly executed), intimate restaurant. A close team of chefs, headed by owner Isaac Bartlett Copeland, silently work in an impossibly tiny open kitchen and engage with you throughout your meal, introducing each course to explain the ingredients and methods. They only open two nights a week (the rest is for food development) which adds to the exclusivity.

The room is served together and although there are vegetarian and pescatarian options, the menu is set, so this does feel like an event rather than traditional dining.

So to the food...we started with (yes, it's the sort of place that lists four ingredients on the menu) Charred and Roasted Carrot, Puffed Rice and Star Anise. The humble carrot was definitely given a makeover here, with superb flavour from the charring. Although my "I don't want cereal with my dinner" klaxon was going off in my head, I'd say this was one of the very few occasions that I think it worked, complementing the smoke and earthiness of the carrot well.

Next was Baked Cod, Salt Baked Celeriac, Smoked Apple and Rosemary. This was a subtle, sweet dish with the mellow flavours of the cod and celeriac. The rosemary dust and oil here really transformed the plate though, adding a much needed punch. Again, the fish and fruit is a combination that shouldn't work in my head but The Little Fish Market's seabass and grapefruit dish I had in 2013 is still one of the nicest and most memorable dishes I've eaten, so maybe I'll just have to embrace it.

Dish of the night for this carnivorous girl though was the Beef Jacobs Ladder, Parsley Root, Wild Garlic and Wilted Gem. This is a fantastic cut, the thin layers of fat that run through it give it a soft, tender texture and rich flavour. It was perfectly put together with wild garlic emulsion and I always have time for charred lettuce, it's lovely.

I could have easily eaten a whole bowl of the Rhubarb Sorbet and Thyme palette cleanser that came next. So prettily pink with new season rhubarb too.

The Apple, Oats and Whisky Ice Cream was more elegant than I was expecting with a real lightness of touch. I will always choose fruit based desserts over chocolate so the tart granny smith butter puree was right up my street.

Big shout out to the little treacle and stout bread as well. I appreciate attention given to the breads and this was so good, almost cake-like and I always think you need bread on the table. To hell with all this anti-gluten business.

We polished off the meal with some petit fours; a lemon and almond drizzle cake and fennel shortbread with chocolate ganache.

The food is fastidiously well sourced, plenty of which is local and shows off the asset of living near both the coast and the South Downs, lucky us. Part of the menu gives the distance in miles to every ingredient used which I think is the only restaurant in Brighton that does so. The wine list here could also be my favourite in the city. I wish all my meals started with a glass of Ridgeview Bloomsbury Sparkling. We also had wines from Sedlescombe Vineyard and an amazing white - the Horsmondern Dry from Davenport Vineyards.

I also bloody love Blackdown drinks but this was my first taste of their Elderberry Port which is a must-try, really fruity but with liquorice undertones. This will be on my Christmas table this year for sure.

So yes, there were some fashionably cheffy dusts and the like but they were used with purpose and in moderation here. Dishes here show some innovative touches but it still feels quite sensible - food that diners are still happy to eat. Sometimes I feel that these flourishes are on the plate for dramatic effect (really, noone wants to eat lambs heart dust or dehydrated trout tail...noone). It's interesting to know that when they opened a year ago the food was more complex with up to 13 elements but they have the balance right now. As with all creatives, me included, it's hard to step back when you are trying so hard to impress with your work. Simplicity is actually quite an art.

Everything has been nicely done, the attention to detail in the interior, table setting and food is good and the presentation slick. For such a young chef in quite the early stages of his career, it's impressive stuff not just for cooking skill but for the balls to branch out alone.

Seating can be communal but I have no issue with it, but I know some feel uncomfortable about it, including my dining partner on the night. To be fair, if the people next to you are the sort of couple that don't utter a word to one another it can feel like eves dropping but I've generally met some fun people in this situation. To overcome this you can actually pre-book a table online, including a few tables for two if you really don't like sharing.

In all, if you are interested in dining out then this should be on your visit list. For £45 for the meal, I think it's really decent value. Due to the quality of wines, these are of the higher price point but worth it to try them.

Issac At
2 Gloucester Street
Brighton  BN1 4EW

I was invited to review Issac At. Words and opinion, as always, my own.

REVIEW: Black Mocha (formerly Chocaffinitea), Brighton

I don't think I've ever been so happy to see a business refresh their identity. Honestly, I absolutely despised the mouthful name and the branding of Chocaffinitea. The name set my teeth on edge and logo looked like a 70s technology TV program for heaven's sake. It's the one thing that actually put me off coming for so long!  I just had in my mind that the products would be as amateurish and unrefined as the outside aesthetic was. Which, as it turns out, is not the case. Anyway, it has been happily renamed Black Mocha with a far less quirky look.

Once inside, you'll find one of Brighton's best single origin chocolate shops with a large selection of bars from quality brands like Marou, Roccoco and the slightly bonkers Lobooko. The glorious packaging alone of all the bars is an absolute feast. They also sell Green Valley honey with some really unusual flavours.

Now, I never thought I'd be saying this but I am fully on board this vegan/raw/gluten free cake train. Not that I have any dietary requirements, just that I find them delicious and nutritious, packed full of energy boosting nuts, seeds and fruits. I think it's a textural thing too, I just find them far more interesting, and often less sweet, than a plain old slab of carrot cake. I even have a constant supply of homemade raw cacao energy balls in my fridge. Yes really.

There is always a good selection on offer and the display is really attractive; vegan salted peanut chocolate "snickers" slices, dairy free cheesecakes, chocolate cashew slices, flapjacks, cookies and brownies. It's all here.

I tried a few things now and loved them all. The vegan key lime cheesecake was particularly gorgeous. Funnily enough, I hate traditional cheesecakes but the silkiness of vegan versions I adore.

Although Brighton has a love affair with Small Batch coffee, it's good to have a change and they serve Monmouth brand here along with a large selection of Tea Studio blends. The single origin hot chocolate here is also remarkable. If you try noting else, try this. You will never catch me with one of those creamy, pumpkin spiced seasonal monstrosities from the coffee chains so this hot chocolate is as close as I get to an indulgent sweet drink. I've not had a hot chocolate like it before, full of flavour with a grown up savoury undertone.

But if you really don't have a sweet tooth they also have soups, quiches, salads and sandwiches that look fresh and inviting as well as toasted granola breakfast pots so it's a really useful address to have for an all day drop in.

Also as there is a high proportion of self employed people in this city there is a really useful working space upstairs too although at the time of writing the plugs were broken!

Black Mocha
103 Gloucester Road
Brighton BN1 4AP