Monday, November 26, 2012

'Festive Vegetarian Classics' Cooking Workshop at The Coven

Many moons ago, my friend Jeni alerted me to a rather irresistable Living Social deal from The Coven - an award-winning Vegetarian, Vegan and Coeliac-friendly restaurant in Wigan. On offer was a cooking workshop with the restaurant's lovely owner Maria, and as I am not one to turn down an opportunity to spend the day finding out about different ways to cook delicious veggie food, two tickets for the workshop were promptly snapped up.

The time for us to attend the cookery workshop finally came the Sunday before last and Jeni and I were really excited, especially given the 'festive' theme and us getting totally into the Christmas spirit lately and all. We were surprisingly organised and were the first to arrive which gave us plenty of time to enjoy a cosy cuppa with owners Maria and Colin who told us loads about their lovely business, their love of raw food, their opinion on the latest Twilight film and the fact that they are basically by far the most popular restaurant in Wigan despite serving only veggie and vegan food.

Maria began the cooking course with a very interesting introduction that set us up for what we would be doing for the rest of the day. She explained that she rarely uses recipes and finds that you can make anything taste delicious as long as it's properly seasoned and your flavours are layered using sweetness, saltiness, acidity and some kind of spice or heat. She demonstrated this perfectly by giving us some plain tomato to nibble on, followed by another piece of the same tomato that had now been dressed with salt, honey, balsamic vinegar and black pepper. The difference was remarkable, and this is something I've really put quite a lot of thought into since, even when cooking the most basic of quick midweek meals.

Maria and Colin then explained that they would be taking us through some of The Coven's signature dishes but that these were all going to be given a festive makeover. I was quite intrigued to know how they would approach this, turns out the answer was that pretty much everything would contain a good sprinkling of mixed fruit, candied peel, nuts and dried cranberries. 

First up was a Festive Houmous, made by blending red onion, chickpeas, cranberries, mixed fruit, walnuts, sun dried tomatoes and dried sage leaves into a rough paste and seasoning with salt, pepper, honey and lemon juice and finished off with a sprinkle of cinnamon and served with slices of hot seeded toast.

I will readily admit I was dubious. Houmous with a load of fruit and candied peel in? This was too wacky. This was never going to work... was it?

OK, this was the best houmous I can ever remember eating in my entire life. It was amazing. It can only compare the sensation of eating it to being given a houmousy Christmas cuddle by Santa Claus. It managed to be  creamy, smooth, buttery and chunky all at once. It melted in the mouth and was more like a delicious pâté than a houmous and would definitely be an excellent alternative to meat at a Christmas dinner party. I didn't stop thinking about this houmous all day and have been thinking about it quite often ever since - I will definitely be making it for our Christmas party. I was so enthusiastically telling Bailey about it later that he asked if they had also put crack in it!

Next, Maria whipped up a Chestnut Pâté by frying onions with soy sauce and hot water before adding balsamic vinegar, chestnuts and dried cranberries, whizzed it up in her trusty food processor and hey presto, another delicious Christmas treat. Anyone coming to my Christmas party can also expect to see this bad boy on the nibbles table.

If you were dubious about festive fruity houmous then I imagine you will be just as dubious as Jeni and I were about Maria's next dish - Christmas Dinner Lasagna. 

This basically comprised a load of Christmas dinner veg including carrots, peas, potatoes parsnips and sprouts layered with lasagne sheets, sprinkled with the good old mixed fruit, chestnuts and cranberries concoction and topped with dollops of cranberry sauce, agave, honey and stilton. There was also a generous drizzle of Maria's lasagne sauce which she made by cooking onions with soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and soya milk. I was not only dubious about the flavours but that it would all cook - I am used to smothering my lasagnes with loads of sauce - but it was in fact well cooked through and actually really nice.

I have to admit this was a bit of a strange dish and did remind me of the sort of crazy meals my parents often come up with to use up their leftovers but I cannot deny that it tasted delicious.

Next was the Festive Burger which took The Coven's super popular Mushroom Burgers (usually made with breadcrumbs, onions, mushrooms, almonds, soy sauce, lemon juice and chilli) and Christmassed them up using walnuts, dried fruit and cinnamon. I am of the belief that a good veggie burger should have plenty of texture, taste mega healthy and be really crunchy so I was happy with these. Jeni on the other hand wasn't impressed with them and I can imagine they would have been too much for someone like Bailey too.

The last of the savoury dishes was Festive Fritters which were based on The Coven's usual recipe which Maria said she makes using rice and potato flour and whatever veg happens to be in season when she prepares the mix. 

As a general fritter recipe I think this worked really well as they were beautifully light and crispy but I wasn't a huge fan of the ginger beer, red onion, mixed fruit, cranberry, walnut and chestnut version Maria whipped up on this occasion. It was a bit too sweet and not as enchanting as the previous dishes in which the sweetness was balanced with some lovely savoury Christmas veg. I think these particular fritters would have worked better as a dessert with some kind of syrup to moisten them up.

It was now actually time to move on to desserts and Maria had three offerings for us - Festive gluten-free Muffins, a Cranberry Crumble and a Gluten-Free Chocolate Cake.

The Festive Muffins were really nice, super easy to make in Maria's food processor and I was surprised at how muffiny they were despite being gluten-free. I will definitely be passing the recipe on to my Coeliac friends.

The crumble I wasn't so impressed with as it was quite sloppy and topped with a variety of breakfast cereals which didn't have the same sticky gooey crunchiness of a traditional crumble, although I did like the idea of layering the fruit with Alpro Soya Custard - rather than having to serve separately! Although both Colin and Maria spoke of how unnecessary it was to make your own crumble topping and lactose-free custard when such good ready made versions are so readily available, I'd have been more interested to see Maria whipping up her own as the appeal of the day so far had been to see how she substituted ingredients.

Finally, the cake was a lovely end to a great day and once again we were really impressed with how chocolatey and moist a Gluten and lactose-free cake could really look and taste! I will definitely be getting my hands on some of the Christmas-tastic multicoloured edible glitter Maria used on top of the cake for my own Christmas celebrations!

Both Jeni and I really did enjoy our Cooking Workshop at The Coven and left feeling full of lovely food and Christmas spirit. We felt like we had learned a lot about not only preparing vegetarian food but also about seasoning and flavour combinations - very useful indeed. The Coven was a great little restaurant and I can see why their hearty, no-fuss food is so popular. The whole place is like a cosy little veggie haven and I really enjoyed walking through their little herb garden to go to the loo at the back! What with Wigan being quite far away I don't think we would have made the trip before but now having seen how tasty, well-made and honest the food is there, I would take some of my veggie or Coeliac friends there for a relaxed meal some time. I am so grateful to The Coven for introducing me to the wonders of festive houmous, I hope that I can make mine as addictive as theirs. Thanks to Colin and Maria for a great afternoon!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Butternut Squash and Goat's Cheese Tart

A couple of Sundays ago I was really pleased with a tart I cobbled together for Bailey using a butternut squash and some leftover shortcrust pastry that both needed eating, the veggies we had in the fridge and some gorgeous goat's cheese my mum had brought us from Spain.

Deciding what to eat on Sundays can be tricky in our house. We are sometimes at odds with one another as I am usually wracked with guilt after yet another Saturday of not sticking to Slimming World, while Bailey tends to fancy something encased in pastry. Fortunately this meal was a dead easy compromise as using the same fillings I made myself a stuffed half of butternut squash which was also very lovely. Perfect!

Since moving house I haven't found our tart dish anywhere so I'm pretty sure we don't have it anymore. This meant I had to make a sort of rustic tart where the pastry was basically folded over on itself. Bailey was quite dubious about this but actually it worked really well - I think I'll definitely be making a lot more tarts like this and might not even bother replacing the missing dish.

Bailey was really impressed with his Butternut Squash and Goat's Cheese Tart, he said he thinks we should even make it again for when guests come over. It's also pretty healthy as it contains 5 types of veggies. Perhaps a festive version of this involving Stilton and walnuts could be something really tasty to make in the next few weeks.

Half a butternut squash
1 courgette
1 red pepper
2 cloves garlic
Dried red chilli flakes to taste
1 tsp thyme
2 red onions
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp Truvia
250g shortcrust pastry
7 cherry tomatoes
90g French goat's cheese
Salt and Pepper

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees C. Peel and chop the butternut squash into chunks. Chop the garlic finely. Deseed and slice the red pepper and slic the courgette. Add the veg to an oven dish and sprinkle with the chilli flakes, thyme and plenty of salt and black pepper. Roast the veggies in the oven until soft.

Meanwhile, peel and slice the red onions and add to a pan with the balsamic vinegar and Truvia. Cook gently over a low heat until the onions are soft and sweet. 

Line an oven dish with greaseproof baking paper. Roll out the pastry into a large, thin circle like a pizza base and place on top of the greaseproof paper.

Wait until the veg are roasted before beginning to assemble your tart. Spread the pastry evenly with the onions.

Top with the roast veg, ensuring a nice even spread of the different types of veg.

Chop the cherry tomatoes in half and arrange them, seeds down, on top of the veg on the tart wherever there are little gaps. Pull the edges of the pastry into the middle of the veg to make a rustic tart shape. Tuck it in neatly and press it together to ensure it doesn't all fall apart in the oven!

Place in the oven for around 10 minutes or until the pastry is just starting to brown. Then take the tart out of the oven, slice the goat's cheese into thin disks and arrange on top of the tart.

Once the goat's cheese is browned on top and the tart is cooked through, take it out of the oven and serve with your favourite potatoes for a veg-packed delicious meal.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Cheshire Wine School Saturday Wine School

A couple of months ago Jules and I were having a good chat over a pint and a pie with a chap who has roughly a thousand times more knowledge about beer and wine than I ever will.  In a moment of constructive criticism he pointed out that although we regularly write about the sensation of shoving various solids in to our gaping cake holes it isn't very often that we mention the liquids that join them and I'm not talking about gravy.  When we dine out we are creatures of habit when it comes to the drinks we choose to accompany our meals, Jules will often go for a gin or rum based cocktail (we do indeed enjoy rum) while I will normally try and get my hands on a beer I've never heard of.  The real rare sight is to see us ordering wine!

I've had my ups and downs with wine, I've drank amazing tasting wine in dodgy back street restaurants when it's been plonked on the table in front of me but I've also had to endure terrid containers of acidic dish water that have been placed in my hand at posh eateries.  There never seemed to be any logic to it, that's the scary thing.  The price has been no guarantee of good wine in my experience, add to this my own lack of experience and the paranoid perception that either a waiter will either be no help whatsoever or look down his wine expert nose at me and it all just seemed too risky.  To put it simply I was stuck in an uneducated, wineophobic rut going nowhere.  Funnily enough I'd already decided to do something about it when we received an invite to a blogger's event run by Jake at The Cheshire Wine School inviting us to his very first Saturday Wine School event.

Now this was Jake's first event and he readily admitted that we were in essence guinea pigs for him to test out his experience on so everything contained in this blog post is probably subject to change.  I should also mention for the sake of transparency that we were Jake's guests and so didn't pay for the session but we do hereby promise not to tell any 'porky pies'.  The event was being held at Gaucho which is a restaurant on our list of places we need to go despite the fact it isn't the most vegetarian friendly place in the world.

Unfortunately we arrived late which meant we (including Roy and Aida, Jules' mum and dad) had to quickly scoot through the grand dining hall of the restaurant to a cosy back room where Jake and the other guests were waiting for us.  There was a warm welcome and then we were on to our first activity that didn't actually involve any wine.  A variety of glasses were on the table, some were filled with items such as basil leaves which were simply to get the nose going while others were filled with mystery liquids.  These mystery liquids formed the basis of a quick quiz which involved everybody forming pairs and giving them a good sniff before guessing what the flavours were.  We didn't win.  We weren't even close, there were some good noses around that table that's for sure.

The main crux of the Saturday Wine School is, unsurprisingly, learning about wine.  The topics covered include (but are not limited to) how wine is made, how to 'taste' wine, some basic food & wine matching and the banishing of some common wine myths.  As and when appropriate Jake produced a bottle of wine and tasting commenced which reinforced the topics just discussed.  I have to say that the wine flows quite freely, there is no shortage of opportunity to taste the great wines that are offered here and you aren't pressured to take a sip of wine then place the glass on the table patiently waiting for a lesson to be completed before going back for another tipple.  The atmosphere is very relaxed and you will find yourself drifting between the wines in front of you as Jake continues his captivating bursts of information challenging yourself to confirm to your mouth what your ears are hearing.  I think the success of events such as this are entirely reliant on the delivery of the information, it could easily be very dry and boring but I'm happy to say that Jake is an experienced and knowledgeable wine buff who delivers his material in a friendly, relaxed, conversationalist manner.  You never felt like you were being taught but you did feel like you were learning, an achievement in itself.

So the quizzes continued and the wine flowed and then suddenly it was lunchtime.  It is a little vague on The Cheshire Wine School website as to what you are going to receive for lunch, it simply states a 'light Argentine lunch'.  I think they may be doing themselves a dis service with that description.  For starters we received a plate of 'pan de queso', if you've never had these South American treats you haven't lived, I'm serious YOU HAVEN'T LIVED!

When we went to Colombia the temptation was to buy a portion every hundred yards as they are readily available, the temptation now is to go to Gaucho at every opportunity to indulge in these sweet and savoury cheese delights.  Meat eaters received a fantastic steak sandwich accompanied by fries, simple but a perfect partner to the Malbec red wine which was our favourite of the day, we even procured a bottle to take home with us to save for Christmas.  Vegetarians were catered for with a stilton risotto which I am reliably informed was delicious.

In the afternoon the already laid back atmosphere was a little bit more laid back as everybody now knew each other and had been tasting wine for some time now.  This didn't detract from the experience at all, it was a great atmosphere and there was simply a lot more interaction with the attendees while Jake's content was mostly based around answering the questions that cropped up which he dealt with admirably.

This Argentinian Malbec was our favourite of the day 
It's quite a simple summary that we come to now.  The food was good, the wine was lovely and the experience was brilliant.  Obviously we didn't pay to attend but at the price of £52 we thought it was good value, even just looking at the wine and food that is included its a fair price but that isn't taking in to account the added value of Jake's presence.  Either way we were so impressed that we will be making every effort to get to the new courses Jake has planned especially the event focused on food and wine pairing, something we are really interested in.

We weren't the only ones who had a top time, Roy and Aida said they loved it, I can't imagine many people exist who wouldn't go along and enjoy themselves.  The strength of the event really is that the information is well pitched to appeal to beginners while avoiding patronising those people who already have a little bit of wine knowledge.  Add to that a top class delivery and I think we have a winning formula here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Liquorists Rum Trail

I like rum and rum likes me.  It's as simple as that.  For the last decade there have been no other contenders for my favourite booze.  I will happily imbibe good beers, ales, ciders and every now and then a quality bourbon but rum is where it is at for me.  Wherever I go it is my drink of choice unless the only rum on offer is Bacardi and then I'd rather have a half of liquid nitrogen.  I also like rum in all of its various forms (golden, dark, spiced) or delivery methods (cocktails, with a mixer or neat).  I think you get the picture, me encanta el ron!

Now you know all about my continuous desire to drink rum you will be non too suprised that I, along with Jules and our two other rum loving companions Craig and Francesca, decided to attend The Liquorists Rum Trail.  The concept is simple and hard to argue with.  You meet a man who knows about rum in a bar, he tells you about rum, you drink some rum, you drink a rum cocktail, you have a bite to eat and then you repeat at a bar just round the corner.  Are you still with me?

We arrived at the meeting point Bar Hula around 2 minutes late thinking that this would make us fashionable, instead we just awkwardly busted in on Barry (our genial rum guide) as he was about 2 minutes in to his introduction speech for the night.  He then had to repeat the first 2 minutes of his introduction speech just for us.  Before we start with the liquor lets talk about Barry.  As far as rum guides go I don't think it gets much better than Barry, he really did manage the impossible act of giving rum novices the basics while really flexing that liquorist brain of his answering some pretty tough rum based information requests.  He couldn't have been more friendly, enthusiastic or knowledgeable and it's safe to say we could have been served lukewarm pints of Fosters accompanied by rancid pork pies in the worst pubs of Slough and we still would have had an alright night out.

Drink one was Plantation Rum by Bibendum Spirits, a real nice sweet rum to get things going. It went down easy, far too easy.  The daiquiri that followed was also not a challenge to consume.  There was a quick plate of cinnamon pineapple slices passed round which was a really nice accompaniment to the sweetness of the rum.  Hula Bar it self is also a really good bar, having been a few times previously the drinks are always good even if the wait times at the bar aren't (not the bartenders fault!  It's just always rammed).

Drink two was a demerara based Eldorado Rum that had been waiting around for 12 years before we got to it.  I don't think I'm overstating the importance of this drink when I say it was an absolute revelation.  I had never tasted a demerara rum before and when I did taste it I didn't want to stop tasting it.  It is quite hard to explain the very different flavour it had (especially as I come to write this 3 months later) but I would say that if you are a fan of bourbons (my other vice) then give this a go and I don't think you will be disappointed by its sweet warmth.  Once the Swizzle cocktail which followed was swigged a pact was made that we would source a bottle of Eldorado for our New Years Eve celebrations.  Oh the bar was Keko Moku, another good bar that is far too popular, a drunk obnoxious woman stood on Jules' foot then we left.

Drink three, finally a rum which I had drank and enjoyed previously, Matusalem Rum all the way from the Dominican Republic.  Great flavour, very smooth and probably a really good rum to sip if you've never drunk spirits straight before.  On the night though this great rum sort of paled in comparison to the other offerings.  The rum here though was not added to a variety of exotic elements to create an opulent cocktail, instead it was paired with a locally produced pale ale.  I think some people were a little disappointed by this but this is normally how I would drink rum at home anyway and it was really refreshing, a good choice to put in the middle of the trail I reckon. The venue for this refreshment was The Odd Bar which I've never really spent much time in but it was pretty good and we got a decent reserved space so we managed to have a relaxing sit down for a minute or two before being whisked on to the next location.

Drink four, we were still feeling surprisingly chipper at this point, and we were off to Tusk.  A new addition to the Northern Quarter and a worthy one I would say, will definitely be going back.  This drink was the scary one for me, as a rum drinker I'd tended to stay away from the over proofed rums and Wray & Nephews was the most notorious of all those danger liquids.  In my head I had assumed that drinking it straight would both knock you on your arse in the gutter and that the only terms to describe the taste would be along the lines of 'corrosive' or 'battery acid' or 'weapons grade'.  I was wrong on both counts.  It did not significantly increase my inebriation level and flavour wise, although it did have a mighty kick, was an intense treat delivering all of the flavour and punch of a margarita in an intense blast.  I don't think I could sip it all night but if delivered at the right time would definitely give any drab night out a boost.  The cocktail which followed was also brilliant, a twist on a margarita featuring the heavy duty Wray & Nephews which didn't dissapoint but did temper the rum a little.

Drink five, we were on the home straight now and we arrived at fancy new bar/deli thing The Blue Pig.  We loved this place from the off, the atmosphere, the food and the decor were all right up our street.  It was added to 'the list' immediately so that we could return at a later date.  The rum on offer here was Brugal rum, a Caribbean effort which I'd not tasted or seen before.  Much like the Matusalem this was a great rum which was smooth and easy to drink but not as 'radical' as the others on offer, it did lend itself to a great cocktail though.

Drink six, for this drink we were whisked in to taxis and driven out of the city centre.  With thoughts that this had been an elaborate ruse to get us back to a dark secluded location to harvest our (recently pickled) organs we were happy when we arrived at The Liquorists HQ, a converted industrial unit on the outskirts of the city.  That doesn't really make it sound as good as it was, it felt like the most well stocked aircraft hangar on the face of the planet, the bar was a treasure trove of glistening fancy pants booze bottles of a hundred exotic varieties.

The best part of this was the additional boozeologists who were present were more than happy to share exciting information about the Willy Wonka esque selection of spirits on display.  The final rum we tasted was Pussers Navy Rum.  Again the phrase 'navy rum' has always been an alarm bell for me indicating cheap strong brain cell killing fluids.  It was a beast of a rum that flayed the inside of your mouth but at this point in the evening that was exactly what was required.  The Painkiller cocktail that followed was simple but turned the Pussers on its head flavour wise delivering quite a mellow taste.

Throughout the night there had been nibbles here and there but at the last stop we were presented with a Thai curry.  The Liquourists are obviously alcohol genii (I looked that spelling up) but they also know about food because this was one of the best thai curries I have ever had and the perfect partner to the Pussers rum.  Also good to have a bit of stodge so you can pull yourself together before tottering off in to the dark streets of Manchester.

This really was one of my favourite experiences since starting to write this blog two years ago.  Was it perfect?  Nope, some of the bars couldn't quite accomodate our group, the food was a little inconsistent and sometimes it was impossible to hear Barry's rum education over the noise of the bars.  Did those niggles matter?  Nope, honestly it didn't put a scratch on the absolutely brilliant night we had.  All of the rums and cocktails were brilliant and more than that I think there was a lot of thought that had gone in to the selections we received, they really covered all the bases.

Value wise I don't think it can be beaten, the mid week price is simply unbelievable for the raw materials that make up the night out.  I don't think I could recommend this event to anybody more and it doesn't matter who you are, like I said its pitched both for beginners and seasoned rum drinkers.  I made the decision that although I am not tequila's biggest fan I would go on the Liquorists Tequila Trail because I trust that they will convert me and wipe away any of my previous poor experiences with the lower quality end of that paticular fire water.  The Liquorists have a catchy slogan and that is "NO HANGOVER GUARANTEED" its difficult for me to endorse this guarantee as I did wake up with a bit of a hangover the next day but this might have been the one or two additional drinks that followed the trail.  One thing I can guarantee though is "YOU WILL HAVE A GREAT TIME".


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