Epicentre – Paignton

Another foodie story from our trip to the ‘English Riviera’ to celebrate our anniversary! I’m doing these all in the wrong order and I’m not entirely sure why – we actually ate at The Orange Tree on Saturday night, Epicentre at Saturday lunchtime and TJ’s on Friday night. But I’ve done them in the opposite order…

So, Epicentre is a vegetarian cafe/bookshop/art centre/music venue in the centre of Paignton. Jack of all trades! I found the cafe while searching for veggie places to eat in Paignton – whenever we travel somewhere I always try and find somewhere that does good vegetarian food so that Benji can sample some exciting new stuff 🙂 Their menu was extensive and varied and they are the only veggie cafe in Torbay so it was pretty much a definite!

We rocked up to the cafe about noon on the Saturday after a morning spent shopping and exploring the pier. When we walked in I was a little apprehensive…the cafe was tiny and there was a big group of about 15 people sat in the middle talking and laughing and singing really loudly. There was one guy sat with a laptop and a coffee and all the other tables were occupied but no-one was eating. Hmmm. No one greeted us or acknowledged our presence…it was pretty awkward. In an attempt to assess the situation and decide what we wanted to do we squeezed through the crowd towards the back of the cafe, where there were a number of bookshelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of books and magazines. We held a brief, intense, whispered conversation where I essentially said I would like to leave and Ben said he wanted to stay and give it a try. He won. Our whispering must have been louder than we thought because a guy came up to us with a questioning look on his face – we assumed he was the owner. I asked him if they were serving food and he said they were and told us to find a seat…he then realised there were none and asked a teenage boy if he wouldn’t mind moving. I’m pretty sure he did mind but he moved nonetheless and we sat down at a table by the window with a nice view of the high street outside. Phew! I really hate to give anywhere a bad review and the food at Epicentre was amazing as you’ll see, I just think they need to work on their first impressions!

I grabbed a couple of menus and we poured over them, trying to decide what to order from the vast selection. We got drinks first – Ben chose freshly squeezed orange juice and I was in the mood for an exciting drink (I almost always order Diet Coke…dulllll) so chose an iced mocha. I got a whole pint of it! The lady who served us was lovely and I love that she asked if I wanted dairy, soy or almond milk. I panicked at this unexpected decision requirement and got dairy although on reflection I should have got soy as it is both delicious and lower in calories. Next time!

After much deliberation we placed our orders. The menu at Epicentre consists of burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs, soups and salads as well as a ‘Mexi Cali’ section which has burritos, quesadillas and nachos! It’s really cool because with all the options you have a choice of which protein to add – tofu, soy burger, bean burger, tofu burger or veggie hotdog! They even have a vegetarian cheesesteak sandwich with wheat steak. Ay-may-zing. After we’d ordered we had about a 15 minute wait in which we could smell our cooking lunch wafting over from the out-of-sight kitchen and making us extremely hungry.

When our lunch was bought out, I was absolutely blown away! I ordered the ‘pesto burger’ with the tofu patty but souped it up with multiple toppings and add-ons because I’m greedy. I really wanted pesto to be a component of my lunch having not had it in ages but I also wanted avocado, cheese and onions which weren’t included with the pesto burger. Possibly because they don’t go? Anyway. The guy was really accommodating and said it was no problem to add on all the greedyboy extras. And curly fries, obviously, we always get curly fries if they are an option. Ben even said ‘Look! Curly fries are the same price as normal fries!’ This is a very rare occurrence and an opportunity not to be missed.

So I think the photos of my burger speak for themselves:

I have to say I was slightly intimated by the sheer height of the burger and the obvious difficulty I would have in picking it up.  This was not a lady-like meal – by the end I was covered in ketchup, cheese and avocado and the less said about the crumbs in my hair the better. As you would expect by the appearance of the food in the photos, my burger was delicious. The tofu patty in particular was in fact a bit of a life-changer – I had never thought to use tofu in this way. I asked the guy how he made it and he said it was crumbled tofu, garlic, seasoning, liquid amino and a bunch of other stuff I can’t rememeber and wish I’d written down. I’ll definately be trying to recreate these though as it was seriously the nicest vegetarian burger I’ve ever had. The rest of the ingredients – fresh, juicy tomato slices, caramelised onions, rocket, carrot ribbons and what seemed like an entire avocado were all packed into the ciabatta bun and complimented the patty perfectly. But, the star ingredient was the pesto! I don’t know if it was home-made – it definately tasted like it and judging by the freshness and quality of the other ingredients I would guess that it was. Strong and pungent with a course texture it was spread liberally on both halves of the bun, ensuring a pesto-y taste to every mouthful. My only complaint would be that the ciabatta bun was not toasted and got a little difficult to eat towards the end. But that’s mainly because I’m a wuss and need to man up when it comes to supersized lunch portions.

Ben’s burger looked a little less impressive but that is only because he quite sensibly didn’t add 57 additional toppings to his.

He went for the ‘Western burger’ – a Fry’s patty drenched in BBQ sauce with caramelised onions. He actually wanted to get the tofu burger but forgot to specify when he ordered so he just got the regular one, bless him! He absolutely loved his though and preferred it to mine so it all worked out well. I tried a bite of it and I was really impressed with the rich, smokey sauce. Yum!

So both our burgers were delicious. But, the real highlight of the meal came from a surprising source….

A condiment!

We asked for ketchup with our curly fries, natch, and recieved this exciting bottle of organic goodness! It was the most flavourful, intensely tomato flavour we’d had since the infamous tomato flatbread at Disney’s California Grill. I had no idea ketchup could taste this incredible having been very loyal to Heinz from an early age. We’ve decided we will be tracking down this wonder product ourselves so we can dip curly fries in it to our hearts content.

Our bill at Epicentre came to £17. Not a cheap lunch but a small price to pay for delicious, freshly cooked vegetarian food and the feeling that you are supporting an independent cafe. The group that was in there when we arrived left about 40 minutes later, leaving the place nice and quiet. We think it was a walking group or something that meets in the cafe due to it’s central location. Just something to bear in mind if you visit Epicentre on a Saturday lunchtime! Overall though we had a wonderful experience here and we will definitely be back if we are in the local area again.

Advertisements

The Orange Tree – Torquay

We just got back from a delightful weekend away to celebrate our anniversary. Eight years! Goodness me. We visited the English Riviera and stayed in the adorable town of Paignton; partly because we love a good seaside visit and partly because I got some bargain hotel prices during the Christmas Travelodge sale. £12 a room cannot be scoffed at. The hotel was more than adequate and after a slightly tense arrival where we discovered the carpark was full and we’d have to park my beautiful red Nissan Micra Marilyn a few roads away in a decidedly dodgy spot, we had a wonderful stay there.

But obviously the most important part of this trip, as with all trips, was the food! We ate at some lovely places and I’ll be sharing all the details in good time but I have to start with the highlight of the weekend – our meal at The Orange Tree restaurant in Torquay.

I booked a table online a couple of weeks ago after being warned that it gets very busy on Friday and Saturday evenings. Our table was booked for 7.30pm and we arrived promptly after getting absolutely soaked from the rain beating down outside.

We were greeted warmly, relieved of our coats and led inside the cosy eatery to a lovely table for two. We noted that the tables were nicely spaced apart which we were very pleased about; nothing worse than feeling like you are essentially dining with the couple next to you! We ordered our drinks and perused the menu which was looking amazing. After ordering our starters we were bought out warm parmesan and olive bread with butter. This warranted a photo although I am apologising in advance for the photographs of this meal – the restaurant was very dark and intimate and I really didn’t want to blind our fellow diners with the flash. I promise my other photos from this trip are better! A bit better.

After a pleasant wait, our starters were bought out. I chose the ‘Gevrik’ Goats Cheese with Red Currant and Fig Chutney – Cornish Goats Cheese Parcel baked in crisp Filo Pastry accompanied by Red Currant and Fig Chutney.

Oh, it was pretty! The goats cheese was incased in the crunchy, buttery filo pastry and it was perfectly melty and gooey inside. The chutney was sweet and fragrant and provided the perfect accompaniment to the cheese. Pretty much my perfect starter!

Ben chose the Tian of English Asparagus – Tian of Asparagus Mousse with Tomato Chutney and Parmesan Crisp, served with Tempura baked Asparagus Spears. He was wary of ordering this as he’d spotted that the veggie main course was asparagus based and quite frankly he wasn’t sure if he wanted that much asparagus in his life. I thought he’d choose the goats cheese but as the waitress asked what he’d like he changed his mind and plumped for the asparagus. He was really pleased he did as his starter was delightful.

The mousse was creamy and fluffy with a delicate asparagus flavour and the tempura was light and crispy. There was no denying this was a lot of asparagus but he really enjoyed all the different textures and flavours. As the waitress told us, you have to make the most of them while they’re in season! The parmesan crisp was gone in a matter of seconds as anything cheese-based generally is on borrowed time when it’s around Ben, but I am assured it was divine.

We had a nice 10/15 minute break between our starters and main courses which I have to say we really appreciated. You don’t often get this at restaurants but I love the opportunity to relax in between eating and savour the experience of actually being in the restaurant.

Our main courses were presented to us and I was instantly a very happy girl! These photographs really are getting better and better, don’t you just love the increasingly jaundice tint!?

I, of course, ordered the Grilled Prime ‘South Devon’ Fillet Steak with a Devon Blue Cheese Sauce. I have mentioned numerous times (possibly too many?) that steak and blue cheese sauce is my idea of heaven and I find myself going to restaurants specifically to have this dish. Very sad and repetitive and not very food blog friendly but I just can’t seem to stop.

(In fact, I talk about steak and blue cheese sauce so much and eat it so often that there may be a post coming up discussing my deep and unflinching love for this seriously underrated food combination.)

Anyway, The Orange Tree’s version was right up there with the best. A thick, generous fillet with an impressive girth, perfectly cooked medium rare. I am aware that a good steak should not require a sauce but what food is not enhanced by a sauce comprised entirely of blue cheese and cream? This blue cheese sauce was thick, creamy and most importantly, salty!

You can see how perfectly the steak was cooked and even though I had to sacrifice all some of the vegetables in order to finish it, I did. What bravery!

This was Ben’s vegetarian main course – Vine Tomato and Asparagus Tart – Puff Pastry Tart of roasted Vine Tomatoes and char-grilled Asparagus finished with Roquette, Parmesan Shavings and Rosemary Oil. I didn’t get to try the tart (and quite frankly I had enough food to contend with on my own plate) but he cleared his plate and I think I actually saw a hint of saliva fall from his mouth when I showed him the photo a couple of days later.

We were bought out accompaniments of garlic roasted new potatoes, spring onion mash and carrot and green bean batons to go with our chosen dishes which we found complimented them perfectly. We felt the portion sizes overall were very generous, especially for the prices!

Once we’d finished eating our lovely waitress came over and removed our plates and said she would give us a few moments for our food to settle before we looked at the dessert menu. We knew there was absolutely no way we could manage dessert though so we just sat back and enjoyed the last few minutes of our special dinner. When she came back with the menus we told her unfortunately we were stuffed and she looked very disappointed! Not as disappointed as we were, believe me. I’d seen photos of the desserts online and they looked incredible!

We were then getting ready to ask for the bill when our waitress bought us out a little surprise!

How amazing is that!! We were so surprised and so pleased, we thanked our waitress profusely and she thanked us for choosing to celebrate our anniversary with them! Obviously my special occasion dessert stomach came into action and we were able to force down the beautifully prepared bites of chocolate fudge and almond cake with minimal effort. What a lovely, thoughtful gesture.

We were even more pleased when we received the bill! Our meal came to £57 which included drinks and 2 courses each which we thought was extremely reasonable for the quality of food, atmosphere and ambience in the restaurant and the great service we received.

I would recommend The Orange Tree to anyone who is celebrating a special occasion or even just wanting a nice dinner out, there is a reason it is the number 1 restaurant in Torquay on TripAdvisor!

Thank you for making our anniversary celebration so special, we hope to come back and visit one day!

BBQ Seitan ‘Ribs’

For our second experience with seitan, it was time to get trashy. The posh, dinner-party-worthy stuffed roulade was a distant memory and I treated Benj to a bit of an indoor cowboy cookout complete with mock barbecue ‘ribs’, corn on the cob and fluffy mashed potatoes.

I followed the recipe for seitan ‘ribz’ from Fat Free Vegan Kitchen with a few tweaks and lazy-boy changes, notably the complete omission of my own homemade BBQ sauce and the introduction of one Budweiser Honey BBQ glaze that we were both extremely excited for. That is, until I checked the back of the jar in a rare ‘lightbulb’ moment to see that the ingredients included worcester sauce, which included anchovies. Not very vegetarian. This would be fine, except we’d already bought the sauce and were nanoseconds away from slathering it all over the very much vegetarian ribs. Plus, both of us had an alcoholic beverage in hand, thus removing the ability to replace the offending item. So, I ended up making my own BBQ sauce after all! Which turned out wonderfully, despite the limited ingredients on hand.

The recipe was really easy to follow and once the dough was made (literally a 5 minute job!) I pressed it into a glass baking dish and cut it into strips to replicate actual ribs. It looked so appetising!

Not. It looks like brains, lets be honest. But I was confident it would be a flavour sensation with some quality oven time, a generous covering of sauce and a stellar line-up of side dishes.

Once the seitan had baked for about half an hour I removed it. I was really impressed with the texture of it – much like the roulade it was chewy and dense with a lovely browned, slightly crispy top from the oven. I’ve bookmarked lots of recipes for boiled seitan and we’ll definitely try it one day but for now I can’t stop making the baked version!

So the seitan was out of the oven, cooling slightly on the counter and all ready for some serious sauce application and then we had Saucegate. I was slightly livid because the whole meal was based around this sauce and now poor Benj couldn’t have any. Panic not, my boy! I hit up Google and using a combination of about 5 ‘Simple Barbecue Sauce’ recipes I came up with a satisfactory combination that miraculously mixed together to actually taste like BBQ sauce.  For the record, I used ketchup, brown sugar, mustard powder and soy sauce in varying amounts until I hit the jackpot. Heated up gently in a pan it was even better! With the seal of approval from Ben, we were back on track. Wearing my special smug face which I reserve exclusively for kitchen successes, I sliced the rib slab into two (cutting the dough before cooking it was a real help as the perforation ensured a clean cut afterwards) and put them into two different baking trays as we now had a Code Red veggie vs meaty situation on our hands and needed to avoid cross contamination.

Ben said I was more than welcome to use the homemade BBQ sauce since I made a lot but I really had thought of nothing but the Bud sauce since we bought it a few hours earlier, and nothing was going to get in the way of that. I do think the surprise addition of anchovies in the sauce has made Ben think a lot more about what he’s buying though and he thanked me profusely for ‘saving him’ afterwards! Bless. It’s surprising how many products that you would never think twice about do contain animal products.

I spread the Bud sauce on my ribs and the homemade one on Ben’s and we put them in the oven to finish off for the last 10 minutes. I was hoping the sauce would get a bit caramelised and sticky and seep into the seitan. Yum!

While the ribs were finishing off we completed our side dishes. Lovely, fresh whole corn on the cob with butter and salt alongside smooth, fluffy mashed potatoes with milk, garlic and slightly more butter than was really necessary. After years of forgoing mashed potato I am now firmly back in the MP camp after learning to make it myself. My favourite way to eat the carby wonder product is still in baked form (with super crispy, olive oiled and salted skin) but I find myself longing for the comfort of mash a lot more now.

We removed the ribs from the oven and the sauce had indeed caramalised nicely, making them smell amazing and even look very similar to actual ribs!

The final verdict? These are amazing! I actually preferred them to real ribs because they are so much easier to eat and obviously a lot less messy. Plus unbelievably lower in calories and fat which is always a bonus (especially when you are still soldiering on with My Fitness Pal, as I bravely am. I’ve lost nearly a stone though! I love seitan!!)

I love how the mashed potatoes in that photo would almost not look out of place on a pavement…if you catch my drift.

The recipe made enough for 8 ribs and due to the thickness and sheer size of each one, we could only manage a pitiful 3 each. Embarrassing. That meant leftovers though! Lunch the following day, in a bread roll with extra sauce. Yum!

Please make these if you have any interest in vegetarian barbecue food – they were so quick and easy and so much more exciting than the usual veggie burgers or sausages that find their way onto barbecues in the summer. Surprise the vegetarian in your life!

You could even push the boat out and make BONES for the ribs a la A Vegan For Dinner! Love that commitment!

Seitan Roulade with Spinach, Red Onions and Mushrooms

Finally. I finally made seitan roulade. Really impressive, posh looking seitan roulade!

I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to make seitan roulade for Benj. Ever since we first sampled this king of fake meats many moons ago, I’ve been keen to attempt it at home and impress Ben with a tastes-just-like-meat-but-isn’t treat. Ironically, when asked if there is anything he misses now he’s a veggie, the only thing he says he very very (very!) occasionally longs for is fish. It’s notoriously tricky to replicate fish so I pretty much ignore him and pretend he craves a huge fillet of steak with potatoes and veg (possibly because I think that is what I would miss most?) Hence the constant need to recreate this combination of food in a vegetarian way.

This roulade was a belated birthday meal for him, having received my vital wheat gluten a few days after his birthday. I based the roulade on a combination of the Post Punk Kitchen Seitan Roast and the infamous ‘Seitan O Greatness’ recipe that everyone and their Mum has made.

Apologies but due to time elapsed since cooking and slackness of note-taking during, I am unable to provide a recipe. I’d say it’s more the Seitan O Greatness though with a few modifications (no tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce or cumin, for example.) Once I had made the seitan itself I faced the difficult task of flattening it out enough into a shape suitable for being stuffed and rolled. The dough was really elastic and stubborn and every time I kneaded a section out it would just spring back into the original shape. A LOT of elbow grease was required and I was beginning to think I’d done something terribly wrong as it was looking less and less likely this ball of dough was ever going to be edible. But, I persevered and was eventually rewarded with a submissive rectangle of dough sitting pretty on the counter, waiting for the stuffing to be applied.

I don’t particularly like shiiitakes OR leeks and so chose to use my current favourite tart filling of caramalised red onions, finely chopped mushrooms and lots and lots of garlic and herbs. I also added wilted spinach as I thought it would provide a nice punch of colour amongst all the brown.

Once cooked, I applied the mixture to the dough and spread it all out.

Yummers! I then rolled the dough around the filling and wrapped it up in tinfoil…like a big sweet.

It went into the oven for about an hour, during which time I was obsessively poking forks into it to see what was going on in there. Honestly, the suspense! After an hour it was ‘firm to the touch’ as advised by PPK so I took it out, unwrapped the tinfoil and we looked on in amazement at what had happened. The dough was crisp and crunchy on the inside, a lovely golden brown colour. The dough nearest the stuffing and obviously the stuffing itself was moist and soft, creating a lovely contrast of textures. I sliced it into big, greedy, 2 inch or so wide rounds and placed it proudly on the plates alongside my BEST EVER potato dauphinoise (I added cheese and although technically you shouldn’t, it really took it above and beyond!) and Ben’s all time favourite vegetable, broccoli.

The texture was a little spongy as I think I overcooked it ever so slightly but this was easy to overlook due to the amazing taste! The stuffing infused the actual seitan making it very herby and garlicy which was fabulous. Paired with the potatoes, the broccoli and a big glass of wine, this was a very special celebration meal and I know Ben thoroughly enjoyed it. I am pleased that my first forey into seitan-making was a success and I feel like I started with the trickiest recipe so everything now will be a doddle! In theory. If I did make the roulade again I would make sure to double wrap the tinfoil as I feel it could have held together better, but that’s just me being annoyingly critical. I also think a sauce of some kind would be lovely with this, any suggestions?

I have promised that our next adventure with seitan will be a far trashier one – currently thinking along the lines of seitan ‘ribz’ or buffalo seitan wingless ‘wingz’!

InSpiral Vegan Cafe, Gloucester Arms and general London eating

We were in London recently for the weekend to see an amazing folk band called Show of Hands at the Royal Albert Hall (for a fabulous review of our evening check out my boyfriend Ben’s post on his music blog, BamRambling!) I booked tickets as a surprise for Ben (what a good girlfriend!) and arranged for us to stay with our good friend Sam on the Saturday night. We had National Express tickets early on Saturday and late on Sunday so we had lots of time to kill which was mostly spent eating.

My favourite place we ate at was a vegan cafe in Camden called InSpiral. It’s a small, busy place with a big counter brimming with vegan and raw treats and a few tables with lovely views of Camden Lock.

It wasn’t too busy when we got there and I was able to spend a few minutes agonising over the array of choices – they all looked so good!

In the end neither of us could resist the amazing looking vegan lasagna which came with a choice of three sides. I got an apple juice and Ben got an orange juice and we got a little table for 2 over by the window.

The portions here are HUGE! Our food came on very smart black rectangular plates which had plenty of room for the delicious side dishes that were generously spooned on next to our lasanga. I chose to have the channa masala, root vegetables and curly kale, all of which were really good. The root veggies were roasted and covered in a sweet nut and herb mixture which was incredible! I chose the channa masala in a moment of panic as I felt I couldn’t get potato wedges as I already had root vegetables (schoolboy error) but they turned out to be my favourite part!

The lasagna itself though. Oh my goodness. It was roasted vegetables in a rich tomato sauce with the most amazing cashew nut ‘cheesy’ bechemal sauce. I could have drunk a glass of it, it was that good. We also opted to have vegan pesto on the top of the lasagna which just took it above and beyond! I felt so virtuous eating this lunch knowing that everything was meat and dairy free and so fresh and wholesome. I managed to eat all the lasagna but was very upset that I had to leave some of the side dishes. Tears were nearly shed.

The juices we ordered were made fresh and I was slightly alarmed when my apple juice came out all frothy and bitty…but it was delicious! I will never again judge a juice by it’s frothyness.

Tragically we were too full for dessert and although I had plans to sample some of the raw chocolate truffles and vegan ice-cream, I never got the chance. We will be back though! InSpiral is not a cheap lunch option (especially compared to the rows and rows of Chinese, Indian, Mexican etc food stalls in Camden Market) and our lunch came to £30ish but we couldn’t pass up the chance to try some authentic vegan food and are really glad we visited.

While we were in Camden we also visited Whole Foods – one of the UK branches of the huge American health food store. We tried to visit the one in Orlando while we were in Florida last year but it was a lot further away than we thought so we couldn’t which was very upsetting. I was excited to visit the Camden one but I had lowered my expectations considerably because lets face it, it’s Britain, not America. It was a nice shop, loads of awesome hard-to-find products and a fabulous hot and cold salad and soup bar. Although we didn’t need a meal (or even really a snack…) we couldn’t resist buying a couple of goodies and ended up with some items from the fridge.

I had a vegan spinach and tofu pancake.

The brand was ‘Lauras Idea’ and there were lots of similar items in the shop. The pancake was delicious – light and fluffy with a slightly toasted flavour. The filling was rich and indulgent with an intense creaminess from the silken tofu and a satisfying bite in the spinach from a sprinkle of nutmeg. I really wouldn’t have guessed this was vegan as the tofu confidently takes the place of what would normally be ricotta.

Ben chose a vegetable calzone. We were pretty sure it was meant to be heated up but he really fancied it so threw caution to the wind and ate it straight out of the fridge.

It was filled with a mixture of roasted vegetables in a rich tomato sauce. No complaints from Ben and it was gone pretty quickly!

The other eating experience from our London trip was a visit to the Gloucester Arms pub, about 10 minutes walk from the RAH. I was looking for somewhere to eat before the show that wasn’t eye-wateringly expensive (nigh-on impossible in that area!) and the Gloucester Arms seemed to have pretty bargainous food and drink prices.

The menu is very extensive and it seriously took us about 15 minutes to decide what to order as everything sounded amazing! Eventually though I selected the very item that had first piqued my interest when viewing the menu online – Vegetarian Fish and Chips! And the best part about it? The ‘vegetarian fish’ was IN FACT battered halloumi! Can you blame me for ordering!? I also couldn’t resist ordering a side of onion rings and for reasons known only to myself at the time, a pot of curry sauce. And the meal came with bread and butter anyway. So basically, I looked like a huge greedy beast with 5 plates of food around me. In my defence I was hideously hungover and after coming back from a near-death state in the early hours of the morning when I first woke up and enduring 2 hours on a coach then 5 hours walking round London, I think I deserved it.

The halloumi was perfectly amazing in the way only battered cheese products can be. The batter was extremely thick though and unfortunately (although not surprisingly given my side dishes) I was unable to finish it and had to make the tough decision to just eat the halloumi. The onion rings were also delicious and obviously you can’t go wrong with bread and real butter!

Ben got the same as me but Sam went for the burger and very kindly paused to let me take a photo.

Overall we all loved our meals at the Gloucester Arms and if I’m ever in that area again I will definitely be going back! The food in London was brilliant as ever and I never cease to be amazed by the huge range of choices everywhere you go. I love it!

Piccola Roma – Bishops Waltham

We’d been wanting to try this new Italian restaurant for ages but only got a chance last Thursday, a good excuse to celebrate the start of the long weekend!

We went for drinks in the newly refurbished Crown Inn beforehand – absolutely beautiful inside and worlds away from it’s previous incarnation – I actually struggled to believe it was the same pub once we were inside! Definitely worth a visit if you are in the village and the perfect place for a cozy glass of wine before dinner.

We arrived at Piccola Roma about 8pm and it was very quiet in the small restaurant with only a couple of tables occupied. The lovely owner greeted us and said we could pick any table we wanted, a huge bonus in my book! We chose a little table for two right in the window and ordered a glass of wine and a beer.

The decoration is really lovely inside with dimly lit tables and a generally romantic atmosphere. There was a couple on the table next to us and a family  on a larger table near the door. There was a huge print of the Colosseum stretching over the wall next to us which got us chatting about how much we’d like to visit Rome one day.

We perused the menu first and decided to share a couple of starters in order to leave room for what sounded like a stellar line-up of main choices.

We ordered mixed olives and the bruchetta. Both came out looking magnificent!

The olives were perfect – fat, pitted and doused in a flavourful garlic, chilli and herb oil. The bruchetta was presented as a trio and we halved each one to ensure a complete tasting experience. My favourite was the chopped olives – perhaps an olive overdose for some given our second starter but the intense olive hit was just perfect teamed with the crispy grilled bread. The mixed pepper and sliced tomato bruchetta were also lovely and we obviously scraped the plate clean of balsamic glaze.

I was having some trouble deciding what to order for my main and was stuck between a having a bowl of cheesy, creamy, comforting tortellini or just going for it with a massive steak. The owner came over and chatted to us for a bit and eventually I plumped for the steak after she declared it “the best I’ve ever eaten!” Obviously biased but I’m not going to let a declaration like that pass me by and before I knew it I’d ordered it, medium rare please.

Ben was absolutely spolit for choice at this restaurant and had a choice of at least 3 different main courses! We had seen on the online menu that they served an aubergine parmigana which he was quite keen to try but after asking our server we learned it had been taken off due to lack of interest. Unfortunate but understandable. In the end he went for the pesto pasta with a side salad of onions and tomatoes.

Our main courses were brought out and I literally could not have been more excited to see the sheer size of my steak. Ben said as soon as he saw it he knew we’d be coming back! It was a 10oz rib-eye steak with a creamy dolcelatte sauce, chips and a salad. I have recently become obsessed with blue cheese and have been adding it to pretty much everything I eat so the chance to have a steak slathered in it pretty much made my day.

We were both impressed because I have only ever had a steak like this in Florida – sitting proudly on the plate, taller than everything else. Normally I get a bog-standard sirloin or similar which, while delicious, cannot match the impressive appearance of a fillet or rib-eye. The steak was perfectly cooked and in fact next time I may have to chicken out somewhat and order it medium as  the thick, meaty centre was very very rare. As it should have been! Only I wasn’t expecting the sheer girth of it and overcompensated thinking they would err on the side of caution.

The insanely rich sauce complimented every single bite of the steak. I was so tempted to ask for more sauce (pretty much to just drink) but I remembered I am actually on a ‘diet’ (using the MyFitnessPal app, it’s amazing!) and although we had walked to the village and so burned an additional 300 odd calories, I really shouldn’t push my luck. As it was I really scraped my plate clean, using the chips more as a vehicle to get sauce into my mouth than a side dish in their own right. They deserved more than that really as they were lovely chips.

Ben was very happy with his main course and although it appears quite small and forlorn in the vast bowl, he was actually struggling to finish!

His side dish of onion and tomato salad was somewhat resplendent in appearance and rather stole the show from his main.

More balsamic glaze, score! He was pleased because the pasta was cooked al-dente (they actually state this on the menu and you can ask for it to be cooked longer if you prefer) and the pesto was fresh and flavoursome. The salad provided a lovely contrast to the pasta and helped break up the unavoidable monotony that afflicts most pasta dishes.

We were contentedly full after our main courses and I was pleased we had shared a starter (although does it really count as sharing if you order 2…) and happy to leave without dessert in order to avoid the wrath of MyFitnessPal. Our dinner came to £42 which we thought was really very reasonable with a drink each and starters. Saying that, I did order the most expensive thing on the menu so we could have quite easily kept costs down if I’d gone for the tortellini. Oops.

We will definitely be going back to Piccola Roma given it’s fantastic food, convenient location and friendly service. The owner was very pleasant to chat to and we learnt that she lived in Rome for 6 years and actually met her husband there, the chef at Piccola Roma! Fantastic to hear we were receiving real authentic Italian food and for me, lovely to hear the back story from someone who is so obviously passionate about Italy and Rome.

Jalapeno Cream Cheese Stuffed Pretzels

THIS is the best snack in all of Walt Disney World, in my humble opinion. We had these for breakfast while at Animal Kingdom and even though I was initially worried they were unsuitable as a breakfast item (even though the other options were cinnamon buns and chocolate muffins…) I was soon proved wrong. This is a jalapeno pepper and cream cheese STUFFED soft pretzel. And yes, they are as good as they look!

Ever since we had these delicious heaven-sent pretzels, I know Ben hasn’t been able to stop thinking about them. So, I decided to be a really good girlfriend and recreate them for him as the only pretzels we get over here are of the party food ‘snack selection’ variety. Not quite the same.

I started with a simple sounding pretzel recipe – Alton Browns. I was going to go for one that avoided the boiling-in-water step as it sounded way too difficult but in the end I decided to just man up and go for it.

I started by adding all my wet and dry ingredients into the bowl and stirring them together. We were house-sitting and they didn’t have a Kitchenaid so it was unfortunately all done by hand. Quite the work out!

Once the dough was formed I kneaded it for about 5 minutes before putting it into an oiled bowl, covering with clingfilm and leaving it to rise for about an hour.

Once it had doubled in size I removed it from the bowl and cut it into 8 equal pieces. This recipe makes 8 large pretzels but you could make lots of mini pretzel bites which would be perfect for parties and a possibly a little bit simpler – I imagine it would be easier to get the filling inside.

From this point on I was pretty much on my own, couldn’t find any recipes that were exactly like the Disney pretzels so I was very much making it up. Eek!

In a bowl, I mixed together a tub of Philadelphia cream cheese and a handful of jarred green jalapeno peppers. I finely chopped the peppers (removed the seeds first! I’m a wuss!) and then chopped them even smaller so that it was nearly a paste. I also added in some of the brine from the jar to moisten the mixture until it was pliable. Finally, I grated some cheddar cheese to really maximise the cheesiness.

Then it was time to get my roll on. I rolled each ball out into a long strip and then rolled sideways until the dough was wide enough to hold a good portion of the cream cheese filling in the middle.

I spooned the mixture all along the length of the dough. Not going to lie, it was fiddly…but I knew the end result would be rewarding!

As you can see, it got a little messy toward the end as I was getting impatient and just wanted to get to the exciting part of plunging them into boiling water. It didn’t matter though as I found it easy to pinch the edges together even if the cream cheese was spilling out a little bit – if anything it helped it stick better!

I then Youtube’d a selection of videos of people making pretzel knots until I felt confident enough to try it myself. It was so easy! Knotted up a treat! I knew my childhood years spent in the Brownies would come in useful.

I was so nervous about putting them in the water because I was convinced they’d collapse or unravel and let all the mixture ooze out. However, after just a few seconds in the scalding depths of the pan, my brave tester pretzel rose defiantly back up to the surface. Score!

I was then faced with the challenging task of lifting the pretzel out of the pan and onto the baking tray. It was too large and floppy to pick up so I brought in reinforcements of a fish slice and a ladle (two implements not used to working simultaneously.) I was then able to use this unusual combination to pick the pretzel up and slop it onto the baking tray where it waited until I’d finished the other three. (I saved half the dough for the following day.)

Once the pretzels were laying pretty on the tray I sprinkled them with big chunks of rock salt, placed them in the oven and waited 20 minutes for the darlings to be done.

This was the result!

Attempts to show the creamy cheesy middle!

I don’t think I need to tell you that these went down an absolute treat. They were creamy and spicy at the same time with the occasional punch of salt from the rock salt on top. I really recommend getting the rock salt if you can, normal salt isn’t quite the same as you don’t get the texture and crunch. The only thing I would say is I needed to have made sure that the ‘seam’ of the dough wasn’t on the bottom – some of the mixture oozed out during cooking so despite my well oiled tray it stuck, making for a very difficult removal session involving a spatula and quite a lot of swearing. When I made the rest of the batch the next day I made sure to keep the seam on the top which resulted in an intact pretzel with a lovely crispy bottom. Perfect!

I scored some serious girlfriend points with these little babies and Ben was so enamoured with them that he ate all four for lunch! Good lad. When we made the remaining four I shook things up a little by adding sliced pepperoni to mine in place of the jalapenos, taking them to a whole new level of amazing.

Our cunning plan for them to be Monday’s work lunch was over-ambitious at best and we both ate one at breakneck speed moments after their removal from the oven, throat-scalding temperatures be damned.