Osteria Waggon and Horses, Milton (almost Cambridge)

Osteria Waggon and Horses* is in Milton. As the city grows out to meet it, that’s almost, a bit, if you squint, close enough to say that Cambridge finally has somewhere worth going for Italian food.

Crikey, that’s been a long time coming.

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Inside, it’s bright and airy with a little lounge area, and just a few bits of pub poking through. Yes, it says, this is a restaurant, but by all means have a drink – it’s not fussy. That’s the mood. Osteria was friendly, sociable, and delicious.

The menu’s simple, a few things to each course, the way I like it, and front-loaded with a range of little aperitivi to share. You could easily linger over plenty of those and a bottle or two of crisp white on a nice summer evening, before moving on to some pasta. That’s more or less what we did.

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Kung pao chicken of the woods

This is about two things I’d not really tried before – a book and a fungus.

The fungus is chicken of the woods (or Laetiporus, or “sulphur shelf”). It’s a beautiful furled beast of a mushroom. It clings to the sides of trees, and delights a colleague of mine, Mark, who enjoys a spot of foraging. Very kindly, he brought me a stout lobe of the stuff, all earthy smell and vibrant colour. Thanks Mark!

“Butter, onion, garlic, white wine – don’t muck about!” he said. I never listen…

The book is Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice – one of the tour de force cookbooks of 2012. The kind that everyone buys, raves about, but then actually cooks stuff from. Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem was probably the biggest one of those for me, but for some reason I never got around to picking up Dunlop’s blockbuster. Since my partner moved in, I’ve been meaning to cook more stuff from his copy, so this seemed like a good time.

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In Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop gives two recipes for Gong Bao, the Chengdu precursor of that British takeout staple kung pao chicken. There’s a chicken and a mushroom version, and chickeny mushroom is what I had to hand. What follows is basically a simplified crash together of the two.

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Sticks n Sushi, Cambridge

Sushi elevates the useful cliché of little things counting for a lot to raison d’être. Perfect little touches are the whole deal. Sticks n Sushi served us pretty damn good sushi, but they delighted us up front with the best edamame beans I’ve eaten. Lightly seasoned, and grilled to bring out the savoury, these were just everything you want from a sushi appetizer, and they set the tone for a meal of quality produce with considered touches.

Table for 2 sushi platter - sticks n sushi

Sticks n Sushi has been open for a little over a month, but scheduling shenanigans mean I’ve only just managed to get there. While they’re new in Cambridge, they’ve been going for twenty-two years, have twelve branches in Copenhagen, and another four in London. The deal is a slight sushi modernization, yakitori on the side, without recourse to overbearing fusion.

It works.

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Aromatic parsnip rosti

Parsnips don’t exactly scream summer, but they do have a fun sweetness I thought would play nicely with curry leaf. And  I really fancied something with curry leaves. They’re great – bitter and fresh and so aromatic.

This is a simple thing I threw together for dinner. I’ve only cooked it once, so it comes as seen. But I think it pretty much works.

Parsnip curry leaf rosti

I’d have made up a coriander dressing, but as it was a bank holiday Sunday with credibly sunny weather it seemed like all the coriander in Cambridge was already in someone’s BBQ marinade. Sod it – I’ve been volunteering at the beer festival all week, I need the vegetables.

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Duck and plum baked pilaf

Recently, I moved in with my boyfriend, so he’s been making a lot more dinner requests lately. Now, it’s not all been pies, and the other day he suggested something with chicken and summer berries. The man has a sweet tooth.

I, however, do not. My brain just shut down at that one. Later, when I’d recovered, and pored over the resulting mental crash dump, I came out with this:

Duck and plum pilaf bake

It’s a simple one-pot bake that’s basically a lazily asianed-up pilaf.

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Chicken livers with pomegranate molasses (Sawda Djej)

Down a side street in Soho – and not far from my favourite comics shop – is a Lebanese place called Yalla Yalla. It’s tiny, street-food-inspired, and really rather good. Particularly excellent is the Sawda Djej – a little dish of chicken livers, fried with handfuls of garlic, and finished with sticky-sour pomegranate molasses.

Chicken livers with pomegranate molasses and pistachiosThat’s more or less the recipe right there, and it’s amazing. It’s like Ottolenghi devised something just for me.

I’ve tried to recreate it here, and I think I’ve got pretty close. The original doesn’t have the onions or pistachios, but those are doing two jobs: adding some extra sweetness and body, and making me feel a bit better about knocking off a restaurant dish.

It’s incredibly piquant and intense, and it’s also done in about twenty five minutes. Not bad.

You really should try it at Yalla Yalla, but it’s pretty simple if you want to have a go at home.

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Smoked tofu corn chowder

As a thickened fish stew, chowder is old as the hills. Practically every coastal community has at some point in its history thrown starch and vegetables at the simmering liquor of their fish of choice, adding a splash of dairy if there was a cow on hand. The word itself may track back to 16th century Cornwall, via much older French terms for stewpot. But it’s hard to be sure – chowder is one of those things that has just popped up all over the world, getting codified when we started writing recipes down more stringently.

Smoked Tofu Corn ChowderCullen Skink is a particular favourite, and you can see something like waterzooi in the history of what’s now pretty much the reference implementation: the New England clam chowder.

Personally, I like to make it with crab meat and sweetcorn, but I do love the smokiness you get in Cullen Skink. So for Veguary, I wondered if you could work up a milder but still silky-satisfying version using smoked tofu.

You basically can.

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Veguary, a retrospective

Veguary. 28 days (29 this year) sans creatureflesh. One truly cringe-inducing portmanteau.

Mushroom peposoWhy? Well, variety and a nagging ecological anxiety for starters. I waft at that in the first post I could find that mentions it, which amazed me by dating back to 2012.

It’s not particularly strict. I give myself some “don’t be a dickhead as a dinner guest” get-out clauses, and I’m certainly not trying anything as rigorous as “Veganuary”. The fun part is getting more innovative in the kitchen.

So this year I did it again. I’ve posted a couple of the recipes, and there are more to follow, but here’s a little overview of how it went.

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Devilled mushrooms

Basing a sauce on English mustard always makes me think of Stoppard’s Arcadia. Frankly, I’d recommend seeing it regardless of what you do or do not propose to do with the ground seeds of sinapis alba,  but in particular I remember Thomasina’s exhortation:

“When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again.”

Devilled mushroomsThis is an extraordinarily round-about way of saying that you can proper fuck up balance with mustard, and you won’t be able to stir it back out again. Too little and it’s mild heat and boredom. Too much, and it’s an acrid horrorshow, like a mouthful of hops and wasabi.

For all that, I love devilled kidneys. My dad used to make them as a breakfast treat, quick and dirty the way he picked up in the army. He’d thicken with breadcrumbs and dump in a bucket of ketchup. The sauce was pulpy and fiery, perfect for the savoury of the offal.

Veguary precludes that a bit, but here’s a fine brunch of spicy mushrooms.

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Cauliflower fritters with sage and parmesan

This was a quick Veguary lunch that got out of hand. The original idea was to start with a pakora recipe, and pack in the flavour of those big, heavy parmesan/anchovy/garlic meatballs from Kitchen Diaries. But the idea drifted a bit, and they came out lighter, more subtle. You get these wonderful little bursts of slightly astringent flavour where the cauliflower sears and the batter’s crispy, too.

Cauliflower parmesan frittersEven if they hadn’t shaken out gentle, I’ll wager it would have worked – gram flour is basically magic.

This is a bit of an off the cuff one, and you may want to experiment with it.

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