Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Easy Vegan Food: Lentil, avocado and mint salad

When my daughter said she was going to be Vegan for the whole of January, I was a little shocked, but then thought it would be fun to try it out. After the meat excesses of Christmas, it'd do me and the Englishman good too to cut down on animal fats.

Trying to be healthy in January is a bit of a tradition in our household anyway - we cut down on alcohol and eat more greens etc. For a few years we even managed to be completely dry (alcohol-free) in January. But somehow that doesn't happen any more...

Anyway, I've flirted with vegetarianism for years, though only completely managing to eat a meat-free diet for about six weeks in year dot, when the Englishman was away at sea. He jokes that I am part-time vegetarian who enjoys the occasional rare (blue, actually) steak. True enough, that. might have noticed it's now March and I'm writing about easy Vegan recipes...the diet suited Daughter so much that she decide to remain animal-free for the foreseeable. But I would be lying if I didn't admit to sometimes tearing my hair out, trying to think of what food to make for all of us.

(By the way, before I get complaints from the other people in my household - I don't by any means carry the burden of providing the family with sustenance every day - we all enjoy cooking and take turns).

Luckily for me, my sister, The Great Cook, came to stay with us in January. Her daughter is also recently Vegan, so she had a great many recipes under her hat. But because my Big Sis has been working in the food trade for all her career, the recipes she cooked for us seemed terribly complicated.  When Big Sis left, I felt completely at loss on what to cook for Daughter and the Englishman. Because we are all so busy, I didn't want us to have our evening meals separately - the recipes needed to satisfy meat eaters as well as Vegan Daughter.

So I turned to vegetarian pasta dishes, but after a while this too became a little monotonous. Slowly, however, we've together as a family built up a repertoire of simple supper dishes which you can throw together when exhausted from work and the London commute, and I thought I'd share with you some of these easy Vegan dishes.

Lentil, Avocado and Mint Salad

I made this salad up last night out of ingredients that I found in the cupboard, and it tasted so good that I thought I'd share the recipe with you.

I love puy lentils, and they, like avocado, are a rich in numerous essential nutrients, such as fibre and protein. This recipe was just enough for three hungry people, and I served it with baked sweet potatoes.


150 g Puy lentils
2 ripe Avocados
1 red onion, cut in half and finely sliced
150 ml red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon - juice and rind
sprigs of fresh mint

To serve:

I head of little gem chopped
a handful of watercress
Salt and pepper to season


Wash the lentils and place in a saucepan. Cover with plenty of cold water and bring to boil. Cook on  allow heat for abut 40 minutes (or according to packet instructions).

While the lentils are cooking, place the slices of the onion in a bowl and pour over the red wine vinegar so that the slices are just covered. The onions are gently pickled in the vinegar while the lentils are cooking - they need at east half an hour. You'd be amazed how lovely and mild the red onion becomes in such a short time.

When the lentils are soft with still a little bite to them, drain them and place back in the saucepan (off the heat). Pour over the olive oil and squeeze over the juice of the lemon and grate some of the rind in too. Season with salt and pepper.

Because I was serving baked sweet potatoes with the salad, I had to wait for about ten minutes for them to cook, during which time the lentils cooled slightly.

Add the avocado flesh, cut out with a small spoon into roundish shapes, to the lentils (Though it doesn't really matter what shape you make them). Mix gently with the lentils and add the fresh mint, finely chopped. (If you can't wait for the lentils to cool, add the chopped mint last on top of the salad, otherwise it'll quickly wilt & turn dark mixed with the hot lentils).

Spread the chopped little gem lettuce onto a plate, and pile the lentils and avocado on top. Arrange the watercress around the lentil mixture, and finally drain the red onion slices and arrange around the dish.

And enjoy!

Monday, 23 March 2015

I'm going to be part of an Indie Author Fair!

Independent Bookshop Opens Doors to Independent Authors

Foyles on London’s Charing Cross Road, is playing host to The Indie Author Fair (IAF) on Friday 17th April 2015. Part of the London Book Fair Indie Author Fringe Festival, run by The Alliance of Independent Authors/Indie ReCon, the fair is organised by Triskele Books - and I'm going to be part of it! 

The Indie Author Fair will showcase the talent and enterprise of many ALLi members at Foyles, London’s largest indie bookstore, with the support of London Book Fair’s Book and Screen Week.

I will be there with copies of The Englishman and and Coffee and Vodka. Both books will be on sale at a special price of £5 (normal price £7.99)

The fair will take place from 16.00–19.30 and is free to the public with drinks reception, goodie bags and personalised signed copies of all the books (including mine, obviously), so please pop by and say hello!

Friday, 6 March 2015

Lunch in Paris and the frustrations of Eurostar delays

On our last day - a Sunday - in Paris this January, Big Sis and I decided to have a long leisurely lunch close to the hotel before our scheduled departure on Eurostar back to London later that same afternoon. The trains had been cancelled the day before due to a lorry fire in the freight tunnel, but all seemed to be in order when we sat down to enjoy our aperitif or a glass of champagne (we were in Paris after all).

But then I had the fateful text: "Your train has been cancelled".

What to do? I tried to telephone the number on the text, but was told the queue was 1/2 hour long. "There's also plenty you can do online," said the friendly Eurostar lady on the automated message, so I decided to enjoy our lunch and see what I could do on my laptop later.

I'm glad I did, because when a couple of hours later I telephoned again, it took over 4 hours to get through to change our booking (and no, you couldn't do it online). By that stage we'd rebooked our lovely room at the Crowne Plaza, and were resigned to another night in Paris. (What a hardship!)

But before we knew about the frustrations of Eurostar delays, we concentrated on (what we thought was going to be) our last lunch in Paris.

As soon as we'd stepped into the Astier we liked the look of the place. Traditionally French, the service was friendly and extremely courteous. There were delicious-looking meals being enjoyed all around us, and looking at the menu, we had great difficulty in deciding on what to have.

Eventually Big Sis chose the marinated herring to start, while I had the pumpkin soup, which was topped with cabbage and bacon bits. Both were  absolutely delicious, but better was to come.

We both had St Jacques Creme Laitue, or scallops in lettuce cream sauce, something we'd spied being enjoyed by a neighbouring table. The scallops were cooked to perfection, and the creme sauce was light and very, very tasty.

By pudding we had to say no to cheese, something which I'm now regretting back in London, where cheese is routinely chilled to a much too low a temperature, and hence often tasteless. (I know these are probably European rules, so differently applied in different countries.)

But when our friendly waiter showed us the pudding menu, and I spied the words "Baba au Rhum", I convinced Big Sis that we should share one. And my, was I glad we did. The dough in the baba was light and fluffy, the rum poured over it deliciously boozy, but still sweet enough, and the Chantilly cream as light as newly fallen snow.

We'd arrived quite late for our lunch (at two pm), and as we were finishing our Parisian feast, the tables around us were emptying. In spite of this, at no point were we made to feel that we were imposing on the staff, who by now must have been there beyond their working hours. When I asked what time they closed, the answer was a shrug "Whenever it suits you".

A Gallic shrug can sometimes be so comforting.

Restaurant Astier
44, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud
75011 Paris

Friday, 20 February 2015

Five Places to Eat and Drink in Tampere, Finland

I was born in Tampere, this former Finnish industrial town, but now we live in London, I don't often spend more than a couple of days here.

Last week, however, my father was rushed into hospital, and the Englishman and I flew into town, having cancelled our skiing holiday in Lapland. My dad is now better, thank goodness, but the week spent here has allowed us to sample some of the eateries in town. Here's five of them (in no particular order):

1. Scandic Tampere Station
The first night we were here was Valentines Day, and having not thought to book, we found it difficult to get a table anywhere. Even the restaurant in our hotel, the new Sokos Solo Torni, a towering construction by the railway station, could only accommodate us at ten pm. So we decided to grab a quick beer by the Scandic hotel opposite. It was a bitterly cold night (for us soft southerners at least), so we ended up eating there too. I had a perfectly reasonable reindeer steak and the Englishman and Big Sis a sirloin, washed down with a bottle of Malbec. If in a hurry before grabbing a train, you could do worse than eat here.

2. Stockmann's Fazer Cafe 
I'm really not able to visit Tampere without having lunch or coffee at the top floor cafe at Stockmann's. This place brings so many memories of my childhood and since, and although the food doesn't exactly stand out here, it doesn't disappoint either. We had a very enjoyable salad followed by coffee - which to be fair wasn't so brilliant - and an excellent cinnamon bun.

3. 4 Vuodenaikaa Restaurant at Kauppahalli
Kauppahalli, the covered market at Hämeenkatu, has several good cafés and lunch places, but the best in our opinion is the 4 Vuodenaikaa (4 Seasons). It's a French style restaurant with a short, daily changing menu of fish and meat dishes, nestled at one end of the market. It gets very busy, with seating on first-come-first served basis, so there's often a queue at the till. It's worth the wait, however. We had fried pike-perch with carrot risotto and spinach sauce, a dish which would have been a star turn in any Parisian bistro. 

The restaurant is also right next to the best fish mongers in town, the Ahlströms. If you are able to buy and cook your own food while in Tampere, you must get the fish from here. They do fresh, smoked and pre-prepared dishes, and their version of the traditional Savo rye pastry pie of sprats and bacon, Kalakukko, is slightly lighter and can be bought by the slice. Perfect for a light supper.

4. Pikkubistro Kattila 
On Tuesday night we stumbled across this little new restaurant on Alexis Kiven katu, (just off the main street, Hämeenkatu which runs through Tampere centre) and were very pleasantly surprised about the quality of the food and the friendliness of the staff. We were not going to have a big meal, but as we sat down and saw the menu, we couldn't resist the starters. This was the right choice, as the Englishman's cold-smoked pike perch was absolutely delicious, as was my main of slow cooked beef. The Englishman had Moroccan lamb, which he reported was excellent. After such good two dishes, we couldn't resist pudding either. I had chocolate mousse to die for, and the Englishman had sea buckthorn pastry with vanilla yoghurt mousse. Kattila has a different menu every night of the week, and we'll definitely sample their cooking again.

5. Kaffila 
This small, cozy coffee place serves most delicious coffees, teas, cakes and pastries. This time of year in mid-February, they had the traditional cream buns, Laskiaspulla, eaten in Finland for Shrove Tuesday. We've had quite a few of these light, cardamom scented buns during the week, but Kaffila served by far the best ones. They also had Oatly oat milk for my no-milk latte, and the Englishman reported that his Americano was perfect too, so we were both happy.

Lastly I must mention Pispalan Pulteri. Not one of the five because I wasn't so very impressed by it, but if you wish to visit an authentic Tampere institution, make your way Pispala. This is an old worker's quarter which has since become the most desirable area to live in, mainly due its old charm provided by wooden houses, built higgledy piggledy during the first part of the 20th century, on a hillside overlooking one of the large lakes surrounding the city, Näsijärvi. Pispalan Pulteri is an old bar/pub which various Tampere artists have frequented over the years, and if I'd asked for coffee and vodka, I'm sure I would have been served it without an eye brow being raised. Instead we had two beers, but the Englishman refused point blank to eat there after a visit to the gents. Say no more.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Paris in January (post number two)

My sister and I had such trepidations about going to Paris right after the terrible terrorist attacks, that when we got there we realised we'd made no plans whatsoever of what to do or see. This is not exactly unusual for us, though. We've long since realised that our annual holiday is really just a massive, intense, catch-up. In truth, we could be anywhere, and still have a good time.

So, on the first full day in Paris, after a leisurely breakfast, we looked at the map and saw that from the hotel, we could easily walk up to the major shopping area, Boulevard Haussmann. Once en route, we decided that instead of walking straight up Boulevard Saint-Martin, we'd weave our way along smaller streets, and ended up for (very) late lunch in a small cafe in one of the beautiful covered walkways, Passage Verdeau. We had an excellent fish pie, laden with garlic and parsley, which we washed down with a pichet of lovely Chablis. As we enjoyed our modest but delicious lunch, we discussed how in Paris almost wherever you go, the food and drink is good, even excellent. (Big Sis is in the food trade). Unlike, sadly, in London, where as a tourist you must find it terribly difficult to know which places serve good food and which places just look like they should. There seems to be a pride in France, and especially in Paris, about the quality of the food and drink they serve; something we still do not wholly possess in the UK (or Finland for that matter).

I think Big Sis likes Paris... 

The night before was a case in point. Deciding to stay close to the hotel, we'd started the evening in a cafe in Le Marais called Cafe Charlot, where we ordered Spanish sardines to go with our glass of champagne. We were in Paris after all...our excuse numero un.

Sardines in a tin...but they were delicious.
After our aperitif we walked along the street and ended up in a famed couscous place called Chez Omar, where we had the most fantastic and quite reasonable meal of chargrilled kidneys and roasted chicken with the fluffiest couscous I've ever tasted. It all came with a vegetable broth and an excellent fiery chilli paste, plus a friendly owner who spoke to people at every table, making sure his customers were happy. (On Saturday night there was a queue outside - it seemed we'd been lucky to get in on Thursday without having to wait).

Chez Omar is definitely a place I will want to revisit.
But back to Friday, our first full day in Paris. After our lunch we felt strengthened enough to do some more shopping. But, my goodness, we hadn't realised that it was 'a second mark-down day' and it seemed as if the whole of the population of Paris had descended on Galeries Lafayette...the discounts were amazing, as mentioned in my previous post below, but after an hour or so browsing, both Big Sis and I had had enough of the aggressive, pushing (mostly) female bargain hunters and escaped to the third floor champagne bar for a refreshing glass of bubbly. (I know, this is a recurring theme).

That evening, we were so exhausted from our shopping that what was meant to be a pre-dinner snack of cheese and wine, preceded by champagne (I know, I know), turned into a supper. I'm a little ashamed to admit that we spent Friday night talking and laughing in our room, wearing our pyjamas and eventually falling asleep after watching 'Last Tango in Halifax' (they had BBC One in the hotel). As I said, it doesn't really matter where we are, as long as we can have a good natter....

Our supper in the room.
Cafe Charlot38 Rue de Bretagne75003 Paris

Chez Omar
7 rue Bretagne75003 Paris
Galeries Lafayette
40 Bld Haussmann
75446 Paris