Friday, June 30, 2006

Café with a view: Akropolis in Plaka, Athens

This must be one of the nicest places to kill a few hours during lunchtime in Athens. The café is called 'Akropolis' (surprise, surprise:), and it's in the old district of Plaka. I had been in that café on my first night in Athens with my friend Spyros for some questionable Greek beer (sorry!) and some mezedes ('varieties', including dolmades, tzatziki, fried calamari, meatballs, filo cheese triangles, saganaki, tomatoes, mini sausages, and limp fries).

On Monday, my first full day in Greece, I had couple of hours free time between checking out of my hotel and catching the train to Volos. And however much I would have wanted to go and visit Akropolis again (I had already been there in 2002 and 2003), the high temperature (ca 35C), intensely bright sun and heavy rucksack meant that I decided against it. Instead, I found my way back to the same café - you take the metro to Monastiraki, then walk for 5 minutes along streets packed with tiny shops towards Plaka - and enjoyed the view of Akropolis from the comfort of my table. The café was pretty much deserted at noon, as it was too late for breakfast, yet too early for lunch. I sat in the corner table, shaded by a palm tree, enjoying the mildly cooling breeze and simply read and solved sudokus for just over two hours. Bliss, and perfect way to gently get used to the heat!

The service was very friendly, promt and attentive, involving questions about my country of origin and purpose and length of the trip. When I told that I'm from Estonia, but live in Edinburgh, the proprietor, beamingly, told me he had heard good things about Tallinn, and that he had once spent a month in Glasgow. Another waiter then went on giving me an update about the Ukraine's performance at the World Cup, which left me somewhat puzzled:)

I also had my first Greek village salad - horiatiki - in this establishment. It was flavoursome and tasty, and truly the perfect & refreshing lunch in that heat. I enjoyed the ripe flavour of tomatoes, and soaked up every last drop of tangy olive oil on the plate with the bread that was provided as part of the cover. Note that the feta cheese is laid as a block on top of the salad, and not crumbled or cubed - this was the case with every Greek salad I had during my trip.

Cover € 1.00, Frappe €3.00, Ice tea € 3.00, 'varieties' € 15.00 for 2 persons, horiatiki € 6.00

Estiatorio 'Akropolis'
Plaka, Athens
Tel. 3215737

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Edinburgh International Book Festival for foodies

If anyone is - or is planning a trip to - Edinburgh in August, then there are couple of events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival that might be of interest. The festival takes place from 12-18 August @ Charlotte Square Gardens. In addition to talks by distinguished speakers like Francis Fukuyama, James Naughtie, Alexander McCall Smith, David Lodge, Melvyn Bragg, Steve Bell, Tony Benn, James Meek, Mark Haddon, Seamus Heaney, Loz Lochhead, Alexei Sayle and many many others, there are also events that should please a foodie:

Saturday 12 August 2006, 2 pm - Sue Lawrence
"A literally mouth-watering treat as award-winning food writer and master chef Sue Lawrence takes us on A Cook's Tour of Scotland - explaining and showing some of the regional specialities which define different corners of our nation."
£ 7.00 (conc. £ 5.00)

Sunday 13 August 2006, 2 pm - Joanna Blythman
"Are we in the grip of a growing food illiteracy? Britain seems obsessed by food - TV chefs, latest diets - yet we consume vast amounts of junk food and seem to neither know nor care about true quality. Award-winning journalist Joanna Blythman takes a witty tour through Bad Food Britain."
£ 7.00 (conc. £ 5.00)

Monday 21 August 2006, 7 pm - David Wishart
"Whisky, Scotland's water of life itself, is analysed, classified, explained and above all enjoyed by Dr David Wishart in a comprehensive survey of the complex glories of single malt. Why do whiskies taste so different? How to describe them? Where are the distilleries and why are they there? All this and more in a fascinating talk for novice and connoisseur alike."
£ 8.00 (conc. £ 6.00)

Monday 21 August 2006, 8 pm - Whisky tasting
"A tutored tasting with Highland Park taking you through the different characters of their fine whiskies from the Orkney Islands. In the world of single malts, there are few other brands so consistently lauded - a unique tasting experience."
Sponsored by Highland Park
£ 8.00 (conc. £ 6.00)

Tuesday 22 August 2006, 8 pm - Hugh Johnson
"World renowned wine expert Hugh Johnson comes to the festival, bringing all his vast knowledge of the unique pleasures of wine. Telling of his own lifelong passion, he educates and entertains with the culture, history, variety and sheer enjoyment of wine."
£ 8.00 (conc. £ 6.00)

Friday 25 August 2006, 3 pm - Claudia Roden
"Stories, memories and whole societies unfold as the incomparable Claudia Roden reveals culinary traditions. The renowned food writer does far more than introduce us to new and exotic dishes. Arabesque provides potent insight into the cuisine but also the history and daily lives of Turkey, Morocco and the Lebanon."
£ 7.00 (conc. £ 5.00)

Saturday 26 August 2006, 2.30 pm - Kathryn Hughes
"Mrs Beeton bestrode an age. The Book of Household Management defined manners, cleanliness and cooking in the Victorian era - yet she herself was not the matron of legend and died aged only 28 (possibly due to bad hygiene). Kathryn Hughes has written a masterly account of her fascinating life and times. "
£ 7.00 (conc. £ 5.00)

Saturday 26 August 2006, 5.00 pm - Shirley Spear
The Three Chimneys on the island of Skye is one of the world's finest restaurants, serving stunning food in a spectacularly beautiful location. Shirley Spear and her husband created it all with their own hard work, ambition and vision. Come and hear her stories."
£ 7.00 (conc. £ 5.00)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Blog birthday party in London

I am back from my trip to Greece, where I had wonderful time with my friends, met some lovely new people, ate delicious food and perfected my tan. Once I sort out my pictures, I'll tell you where do you can enjoy a frappe with the best view, how does the real Santorini fava compare with my version, how does Santorini salad differ from the ubiquous Greek salad, what is tsipouro, what is the most popular fast food in Volos, and so on.

But first things first - before I flew to Greece, I attended Johanna's and Jeanne's blog birthday party chez Johanna in London. It was a great party - the weather was warm and sunny, there were lots of lovely people (some I knew - Johanna, Jeanne, Andrew and Christina, some I met for the first time - Xochitl, Amy, Anna, Shana, June). And of course, there was great finger food, loads of pink cava (Codorníu Pinot Noir rosé cava) and lots of fun with the chocolate fountain:

If you want to read more about the party, then here are links to:

Johanna's post about the party, including the list (and recipes!) of all the fab nibbles on offer. Everything was mouthwaterlingly delicious, with salmon & cream cheese roly-polies, mini-potatoes with wasabi crème fraîche and caviar and croustades with creamed mushrooms and crispy pancetta being my favourites. Oh, and chives. Khmm.

Jeanne's post and recipe for her great - if macho - boerewors, peppadew & haloumi skewers

Andrew's (SpittoonExtra) reflections on the party, post at Slashfood and photos at Flickr of various dishes.

Shana's (Owlfish) post about the party

Xochitl's (Xochitl Cooks) post and a close-up of the chocolate fountain

Thanks for a great party, Johanna & Jeanne!
P xxx

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Vacation alert 2006:1 - Greece

There are still of lots of food-related Paris memories to share, recipes to try and dishes to report about. But not now. I've been rather busy at work the last few weeks, and tomorrow morning I'll go on a well-deserved short break. My Edinburgh friends Annemieke & Georgios have decided to tie their knot on Santorini and I've been invited. On Sunday morning I'll fly to Greece and will be enjoying the scorching sun & blue sea & burning sand for a week. I'll start in Athens, then visit my dear friend Anna and her family in Volos for a few days, then attend the wedding in Santorini before returning to Athens. I've been both to Athens and Santorini before, whereas Volos will be on my itinerary for the first time. Suffice to say that I'm very much looking forward to the trip!

But first stop - London. Johanna and Jeanne - both of whom I had a pleasure of meeting in London back in March - are celebrating their foodblogs' second birthdays - both of them*. There is going to be foodblog birthday party. Johanna has promised 'a merry get-together with crates of pink bubbly, baskets of strawberries dunked in white chocolate and platters of divine finger food'. How can a girl resist such an invitation!!!

So I'll be out of town - and not blogging - for a few days. While I'm gone, may I suggest you go and visit two Athens-based foodblogs. Stevi, who lived in Edinburgh for a few years, blogs over at Bread & Butter - she has written about some very tempting Greek vegetarian dishes that I've been planning to try for a while. Tülin, though originally from Ankara, also lives in Athens, and has a great blog covering a variety of Greek and Turkish dishes, called Domestic Cat. I will be meeting up with both of them while in Greece!

* My little foodblog is having a small anniversary, too. It has just turned one - I began blogging in June 2005 :-) Thank you all for being (t)here - it's been one great and fulfilling year.

PS I just realised that Vacation alert 2006:1 is probably slightly wrong. I've already been to Paris and Amsterdam this year, so it is really 2006:3. Oh well. I wish I had decided to start numbering my vacation alerts earlier:-)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Pleased to meet you, Quinoa: quinoa and mango puddings

During the last couple of months I've been coming across various bloggers singing praises to quinoa [keen-wa], the ancient grain* from the Andes mountains of South America. Quinoa was part of the holy nutrious trinity (the other two being corn and potatoes) of the Inca civilisation, and it has recently caught the attention of health-concious foodies. It is gluten-free and has a very high protein content. More importantly, the protein in quinoa has an amino-acid profile fitting the high 'ideal protein' standards set by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN, as well as other stuff that's good for us.

Couple of months ago I finally picked up a packet of organic quinoa from my local health food store, and last weekend I finally got around to cooking with it! My first quinoa recipe is from Ilva of the delightful Lucullian Delights. And - considering that I really enjoyed the slightly nutty taste and mild texture of quinoa (as did my three guinea pigs) - this is just the first appearance of my new friend, Quinoa, in my kitchen and on this blog.

Quinoa & mango creams
Source: Ilva of Lucullian Delights (slightly adapted, as I couldn't find lemon balm)
Serves 4-6

1 ripe and sweet mango (I used one of those super-fragrant Pakistani mangoes that have arrived in the shops in Scotland)
100 ml pre-cooked quinoa
300 ml water
3 Tbsp honey
6 Tbsp Maizena cornflour/cornstarch
a generous squeeze of lemon juice

If you need to cook the quinoa, then take 1 part quinoa seeds and 2 parts of cold water. Rinse quinoa thoroughly, and put into a saucepan with water. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes or so.
For the cream, pureé the mango flesh, then mix with water and honey and cooked quinoa in a saucepan. Bring slowly to the boil.
Mix cornflour with some cold water until you've got a runny paste, then stir this into the mango and quinoa mixture. Bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes, until the cream thickens.
Season with lemon juice and pour into 4-6 dessert glasses. Cool before serving.

Thank you again, Ilva!

* Quinoa is actually not a grain, but a pseudocereal, yet in culinary terms you can treat it like any other grain.

Other wonderful dishes inspired by Ilva:
New potatoes and smoked bacon with fresh bay leaves (May 2006)
Spicy cauliflower with tomatoes (November 2005)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

My Paris: Mariage Frères

Tea anyone? At Mariage Frères this simple question can cause a minor panic attack. In this famous chic, yet relaxed, Paris teahouse on rue du Bourg-Tibourg, founded back in 1854, the tea menu contains over 500 high quality teas. Unless you know what you want, you should ask for the special booklet that explains all the different teas to you (available both in English and French) - but going through the booklet would probably take ages. Much better option is to rely on the recommendations of kind fellow foodbloggers. Before going to Paris, I had read several foodblogs for good insider tips, and these surely became handy in moments like this. I went for Thé à L'Opéra - vanilla green tea with sweet spices and red fruits - endorsed by Michèle of Oswego Tea. I definitely discovered that, as far as teas go, Michèle is a trustworthy source :-) It was a delicate, fragrant and very pleasing choice.

I also shared a cake with my date K. - a lively green dome-shaped 'Mont Fuji' cake. Green matcha tea crust on top of cream and chocolate ganache and with some sour cherries in a dark chocolate case, decorated with candied chestnuts. Very rich and oh-so-tasty.

Mariage Frères @ Le Marais
30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, Paris 4e
Telephone : +33(0)1 42 72 28 11

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

I'm embracing Scottish beef: mince and tatties

Salty (sponsored by the Scottish Executive) and Pille (the writer of this blog) in front of the Scottish Parliament in June 2006.

I've been singing praises to the Scottish beef before, and am doing it again to mark the Edinburgh Cow Parade, a charity & public arts event that runs until July 23rd. Writing about Scottish beef is also timely, considering that the first ever Scotch beef ambassador was announced a fortnight ago by Scotland's 'food minister' Ross Finnie MSP. The honour goes to Cees Helder of the Rotterdam-based 3-Michelin-starred Parkheuvel restraurant.

The upmarket supermarket Waitrose has just opened its first two stores in Scotland earlier this month, and I picked up some rather nice-looking beef mince when I was checking out the store. Although the recipe itself is humble, the mince is of the highest quality, made of 'richly flavoured, succulent & tender beef, produced from cattle bred from registered pedigree Aberdeen Angus bulls'. Hence totally blog-worthy :-)

Mince and Tatties
(Mince & tatties ehk hakkliharoog šoti moodi)
Slightly adapted from Scots cooking by Sue Lawrence
Serves 4

a knob of butter
500 grams best quality beef steak mince
1 medium-sized red onion, finely chopped
1 green/fresh garlic clove, finely chopped
1 tsp Marmite*
freshly ground black pepper
3-4 Tbsp boiling water
a splash of Worcestershire sauce

Heat the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the mince and pan-fry over a high heat for about 5 minutes until browned evenly.
Add the onion and garlic, stir in the Marmite and season with salt and pepper. Add the boiling water, stir well. Cover the saucepan with a lid and simmer over a medium heat for about 20 minutes.
Before serving, add a splash of Worcestershire sauce and season with salt and pepper again, if required.
Serve piping hot with boiled new potatoes (I used Jersey Royals again) and green peas.

* Marmite, for those of you who don't know, is a nutritious yeast extract, and a very good source of B vitamins. You can read all about the history and benefits of Marmite here. Adding it to the mince above adds a lovely savoury touch. The Brits usually spread it thinly onto their toast.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

A pre-Ceilidh Summer Pudding: meringue nests with cream and berries

A very good Norwegian friend of mine was in Edinburgh couple of weeks ago. Svein and I had both stayed in the same halls of residences back in 1998-1999, when we were still studying for our MSc's. He was in town with his brother and two friends for a day, and we had agreed to go for a ceilidh - a kind of Scottish dancing that you can read more about here (and for the sceptics out there - it is actually much more fun that it maybe sounds!). In any case, I had invited all 14 Ceilidh-goers for a quick meal at my place before the dance - Ceilidh being a fairly energetic dance, you do need some calories under your belt! On the other hand, it has to be something reasonably light, so you'd be able to dance at all - alias something high-carb. I served two huge potfuls of pasta - pasta alla vodka and pasta with blue cheese and mushrooms, plus a green salad.

For the pudding, I made something light and easy, which I knew would be well received at this time of the year:

Meringue nests with cream and berries
(Imelihtsad beseekorvikesed marjadega)

I had already prepared these for the Cambridge buffet a fortnight earlier. Back in Cambridge I had roasted some English rhubarb in the oven with a sprinkling of demerara sugar and a pinch cinnamon until soft, mashed the cooled rhubarb with a fork and mixed it with whipped cream and some yogurt for sharpness. This time, it was simply a choice of berries and whipped cream.

I had reckoned one pudding per person is enough, but have now realised - twice! - that I need to be much more generous after all. Also - these would ideally be served at a garden party, so you wouldn't have to worry about the meringue crumbs on your carpet:)

meringue nests (you can obviously make your own, but if you want to skip that bit, then in the UK, I like M&S ones, as they are nicely crisp on the outside and deliciously chewy inside. Walkers, another widely available brand, makes crisp'n'dry ones)
whipping or double cream
some sugar
roasted rhubarb/berries
finely shredded fresh mint leaves for decoration

Lay meringue nests on the serving trays. Whip the cream until soft peaks form, season with sugar to taste. Spoon the cream on the nests and decorate with berries.
Or mush roasted rhubarb with a fork, mix with the cream and some yogurt and spoon this roasted rhubarb fool on the meringue nests, decorating with some mint or even basil sugar.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Me and my muffin

I do love my muffins. I've been seriously addicted to juicy blueberry ones, needing at least one a day. I've recently discovered the joy of frosted dark chocolate & cherry muffins, and will bake another batch of tongue-tickling chocolate & chilly muffins and eye-pleasing cocoa & raspberry muffins when I get hold of some chilli chocolate and fresh raspberries, respectively. I have a very sweet tooth, and a lovely muffin just makes that afternoon cuppa so much more perfect.

But I also like savoury muffins. They are easy to make, are ideal for take-along-to-the-office lunch or a picnic in the park. These particular muffins, I keep telling to myself, are verging on the healthy side. While they aren't fat-free, they use sour cream instead of more common melted butter or oil. As the sour cream I use has about 10 per cent fat, the muffins are lighter in calories (but not compromising the taste). I've used feta & sun-dried tomatoes here, but you can certainly use chopped olives, roasted red peppers, blue cheese or goat's cheese instead. As for the herbs - anything goes, so just use whatever you fancy.

Savoury muffins with feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes

200 g sour cream or crème fraîche (low-fat is fine)
3 eggs
1 Tbsp baking powder
5oo ml plain flour
a pinch of salt
100 grams feta cheese
a very generous handful of chopped sundried tomatoes
a handful of chopped fresh parsley

Mix sour cream and eggs, then gently fold in the flour, baking powder and salt. Add crumbled cheese and tomatoes and parsley. Mix just enough to bring the ingredients together (lumpy is fine).
Divide the mixture between prepared muffin cases and bake in a preheated 200˚C oven for about 15 minutes.

Yields 12 chunky muffins. These are best on the day you made them, though perfectly delicious on the following day as well.