Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Vegan Odyssey Part 1: Berlin

My mum had a significant birthday recently, so I said I'd take her on holiday, just the two of us.

Anywhere, I said: you choose, I'll pay. (With hindsight, this is the kind of offer you only want to make to people you really trust; thankfully that's not an issue between us!) There's a lot of world to choose from, so she understandably took a while to make her mind up -- by the time we set out, it was a good sixteen months after her actual birthday.

In the end it was an article on Happy Cow that tipped the balance, highlighting the recent, rapid rise in the number of vegan restaurants opening up in Warsaw. I thought it might be more fun to travel overland rather than flying straight there, and I suggested breaking the journey with a couple of nights in Berlin, which also meant we could fit in a special birthday dinner at my all-time favourite vegan restaurant (see my notes from my first visit, here).

We met up at Euston station and started as we meant to go on with lunch at Vantra, a vegan buffet restaurant in central London. Honestly, we were a little disappointed with this one, everything looked great and really fresh, but the flavours were a bit bland -- which may have been because, we spotted on our way out, the menu includes no garlic or onions. Which are two of our favourite things.

Buffet lunch at Vantra

Still, it filled us up, and we'd wanted to be sure of a decent lunch because we were going to spend the evening on the ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. This is one of my favourite routes: the cabins are really comfy, and if you take the overnight sailing, you can sleep as you cross the Channel and wake up in the Netherlands ready to start your day.

I'm not such a fan of the food on the ferry, though, so we packed our own generous picnic for the evening, complete with a selection of tomatoes from my mum's garden, and a nice bottle of wine to wash it all down.

Picnic on the ferry

We hopped on the first train into Amsterdam in the morning, and we'd hoped to have time to get some brunch before our onward connection, but everything turned out to be just a little bit further apart than we'd hoped. Still, we got a bit of fresh air (slightly marjuana-scented, this being Amsterdam) and then it was time to head on to Germany.

Our first morning in Berlin we found our way to Geh Veg, a dinky vegan restaurant near our hotel, where I had a tempeh bagel and a cup of strong coffee, and we shared a popped quinoa flapjack-like cake just because.

Tempeh bagel

Our tour of the city started with a visit to Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was bombed in the war, and now stands as a reminder to all who pass its broken spire. We were generally trying to avoid the more depressing sights, since this was to be a happy holiday (and I've sobbed my heart out at the Berlin Wall before), but this was a fascinating spot that I didn't know about before we found it in the guidebook.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

We strolled through the city, took in the Brandenburg Gate, and narrowly avoided getting pickpocketed on Unter den Linden (the less said about that, the better). Around lunchtime, we came across Soy, a vegetarian Thai restaurant with a set menu that was incredible value for any city -- and certainly for somewhere as pricey as Berlin. It was also excellent. I'd go back there just for the frozen watermelon smoothie, but the whole plate was a mix of perfectly balanced flavours and textures.

Lunch at Soy

In the afternoon, we took a lengthy walk in and around the gardens at Schloss Charlottenburg. I could bore you with hundreds of photographs of flowers, but I'll settle for just one, since I'm trying to focus on the food here.


And then, in the evening, I'd booked us in for dinner at Lucky Leek. I figured the best thing to do was to have the tasting menu, with the accompanying wine flight, which gave us plenty of variety without having to make many decisions along the way.

We started with canapés: one bite of a quiche-type beetroot tart, and a tiny bruschetta with vegan chorizo. A bit experimental (and slate is always slightly too trendy for me), but the chorizo was surprisingly nice, and the bread was homemade.

Canapes at Lucky Leek

The proper starter was a sweet potato soup, served with a slice of baked apple, which was coated in caramelised nuts and smelled of childhood fairground memories. This was just lush. Warming and comforting and delicious all through.

Soup at Lucky Leek

I was actually a bit disappointed in the main course, I think they were trying too hard. Pea ravioli, and 'feta' rolls, and wilted greens, and sweet pepper sauce, and a fruit coulis, and decorative curls of what I think were purple carrot. Every element was yummy in its own right, but put together, it was just too much. The vegan feta-alike was amazing, though, really convincing with just the right amount of sharpness.

Main course at Lucky Leek

And then there was dessert, which is always immaculately presented. This included an elderflower ice cream, blackcurrant sorbet, a mini fruit salad, a chocolate layer cake, and even a slender macaron.

Dessert at Lucky Leek

The next day we had a relaxed morning wandering the streets of Berlin, and for lunch, we were surprisingly impressed with the range of veggie and vegan options at the Chinese buffet at Berlin's Ostbahnhof. And then it was time to catch our train onwards, to Warsaw.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Ginger & Orange Chocolate Cupcakes

Recently, one of my friends turned up with these vegan chocolate cupcakes to share. (Yes, I do have the best friends. I know.) They were really light and amazingly moist, and naturally I had to have the recipe. I could detect a hint of orange, but I was surprised to learn there was also ginger in there -- and we both agreed that more would be good.

Chocolate orange & ginger cupcakes

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago, and that seemed as good an excuse as any to do a bit of baking. I thought I'd have a go at making the same recipe, but try to make the ginger a bit more prominent by replacing the grated ginger with bigger candied ginger pieces.

A few other tweaks: I used fairy cake cases, which are a bit smaller than the cupcakes the original recipe envisions -- so my version makes more and they cook more quickly. I skipped the frosting, too, meaning that these little buns are only about 130 calories each. And I used a mixture of soft brown sugar and dark muscovado for a richer flavour.

Fresh from the oven, the cake tops were slightly hard, but kept overnight in a cake tin they softened up, getting squidgy and sticky and just better all round, so I highly recommend making these a day in advance.

Chocolate Orange & Ginger Cupcakes
Makes 36

150g candied ginger
500g plain flour
250g soft brown sugar
150g dark muscovado sugar
80g unsweetened cocoa powder
2tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp salt
400ml cold coffee
240ml sunflower oil
2tsp pure vanilla extract
2tsp orange extract
4tbsp cider vinegar
  1. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F) and set out 36 paper cases in a bun tray.
  2. Cut the candied ginger into small pieces, about ½cm cubed.
  3. Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
  4. Fold in the coffee, oil, vanilla, and orange extracts.
  5. Stir in the vinegar. The batter will get lighter in colour as the vinegar reacts, and you may see bubbles -- this is nothing to worry about and the colour will soon settle down.
  6. Divide the cake mix into the paper cases. Take care not to fill each case above 2/3rds full, to give the batter space to rise.
  7. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean.
  8. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes in the trays before removing to a wire cooling rack.

Chocolate orange & ginger cupcakes

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Visiting a Pumpkin Seed Oil Mill

View from the train, as we travelled through the mountains.

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to have a work meeting in the pretty Austrian town of Graz. I've only been to Austria to ski, previously, so seeing the mountains lush and green instead of covered in snow was a bit of a revelation.

I also had no idea that pumpkin oil was such a big thing in this region. Like, really big. A meal would not be complete without a fresh salad incorporating a pumpkin oil dressing.

Other things I did not know: pumpkin oil is dark green when you see it in a bowl, but looks red when you pour it in front of the sun. It's also delicious.

Our hosts arranged for us to have a tour of a local pumpkin oil mill, where the oil is pressed and sold. This is a family business going back several generations, and although the machinery has been updated a couple of times, it's still a very interactive process with several steps done by hand. I thought you might enjoy a bit of a virtual tour from the resulting photos.

Although it's no longer used, some of the original old machinery is kept in the museum part of the mill.

Sacks of pumpkin seeds waiting to be processed. Apparently, one litre of pumpkin oil requires about 30 pumpkins, or 2.5kg of seeds [source]

Pumpkin seeds are boiled up with water to break down the husks.

Boiling mash is decanted into a vat, ready to be transferred to the press.

The main pumpkin oil press has two symmetrical halves, each of which contains a series of metal plates to crush the oil from the pumpkin seeds.

The back of the oil press, where the oil drains into a barrel ready to be bottled.

Pressed disks of discarded pumpkin husks, after the oil has been extracted.

Tools coated in striking green pumpkin oil.

The run-off channels.

The end product in action: a typical Styrian salad tossed with pumpkin oil.

If you love to peek behind the scenes as much as I do, you might enjoy these other factory tours:

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Mexican Quinoa Stuffed Peppers

It's January. For most of us, that means we've spent the last month overindulging and we're now considering how to get back to a sustainable healthy diet.

The lovely folks at Merchant Gourmet are thinking along similar lines, and have teamed up with wellbeing chef Sophie Michell to create some healthy recipes featuring grains and pulses. They're hoping to inspire the nation to join in and get inventive, and I was more than happy to take up the challenge.

In my case, December involved several nights out with great friends and free-flowing cocktails, as well as a house well stocked with chocolate and mince pies and Christmas puddings. It was excellent, I'm not complaining. But I'm more than ready to fill my plate with salads and vegetables, now.

If you're in a similar place, this recipe might help you stick to your resolutions!

I buy Merchant Gourmet stuff already pretty regularly, especially speciality ingredients like chestnuts and giant couscous, so I was happy to try out their range of ready-to-eat pulses for this recipe. I used a packet of red & white quinoa as the base for a yummy, Mexican-inspired pepper stuffing. With sweetcorn and tomatoes and red onion, and flavoured with lime and coriander and jalapeños, this whole dish is colourful and healthy and utterly moreish.

This recipe is vegan if you skip the cheese, or if you use a vegan cheese substitute. I made some with and some without cheese, and the difference is pretty subtle -- the cheese melts into the rest of the filling and changes the texture slightly, but both versions are really nice. A meal of two peppers comes out at about 360 calories, or around 300 without the cheese.

For more healthy inspiration you might like to follow @merchantgourmet on Twitter or Instagram.

I'm also linking up with Cooking With Herbs hosted by Karen at Lavender and Lovage, where the the theme for January is herbs and citrus fruit, so I think this coriander and lime combination fits perfectly.

Mexican Quinoa Stuffed Peppers
Serves 3

6 bell peppers
1-2tsp olive oil
1 small red onion
160g (5oz) cherry tomatoes
160g (5oz) sweetcorn
250g cooked quinoa (1 packet)
2tbsp fresh coriander
1tbsp diced jalapeños
Juice of 1 lime
50g grated cheese (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Wash the peppers, cut the tops off with a sharp knife, and scoop out the seeds.
  3. Rub the outside of the peppers with olive oil, and arrange on a baking tray.
  4. Finely dice the red onion, and quarter the cherry tomatoes.
  5. Mix the onion, tomatoes, sweetcorn, quinoa, coriander, lime juice, jalapeños, and cheese (if using) in a large bowl.
  6. Fill the peppers with quinoa mixture and replace the pepper tops.
  7. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the pepper skins are starting to blacken. Serve while hot.

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