Vegan in Rome: Dall’Albero

When planning our Italian adventure last summer, Dr HH and I agreed to skip Rome and Florence because they’re the kind of cities you can hop to quite easily for a weekend. Last weekend, it turned out, was the weekend for the hop to Rome.

Alas, Dr HH was struck down with the plague (aka a bad cold), so we didn’t attack the city with our usual vigour, and opted to stay in and cook in our airbnb most nights.  But there was one plan we just could not cancel.  Brace yourselves: we went to a vegan cheese lab! Yes, you read that correctly. No, it’s not just a cheese restaurant – if you go downstairs, you walk right by an actual lab with people wearing white coats and everything. I was very excited that Dr HH, a chemist by trade, got to witness some real, important science for once.

The menu is, unsurprisingly, all cheese.  They sell some hard and soft cheeses to take home, as well as a cheese plate, a variety of bruschette, some stuffed pizza breads, salads and some raw pumpkin spaghetti dishes. We decided to make this the main meal of the day, and got three different dishes to share.

This was the pizza ripiena from Trapani – stuffed pizza bread with black olives, Trapanese pesto (tomato and almond pesto from Sicily), and Anastracchino (the lab-made cream cheese). Let’s just go ahead and call it a pizza sandwich.  It was fantastic – the cheese was so creamy, the pesto tasted delicious, and the bread was incredible.  I’m no fan of sandwiches, but I would happily eat this every day.

We couldn’t resist the mac and cheese, or “casciu’ e pepe.” It was a cashew and black pepper sauce with shards of peppery hard cheese on top – we considered buying some of that cheese to bring home just to jazz up our homemade mac and cheese dishes!  It was so delicious, but it has to be said that it would be better with pasta, good and warm. Mac and cheese is such a comforting dish, I feel like making it raw is denying it some of its charm. I’d still recommend ordering this though. There are a few other raw spaghetti dishes on the menu, including with pesto, which I’m sure would be delicious.

And of course we got the cheese plate.  It came with small chunks of bread, along with carrot and fennel sticks. Personally, I felt the fennel was too strongly-flavoured to pair well with the cheese, and I’d have preferred crackers to any kind of vegetable. The bread was good though, and the cheese was excellent!

The dollop in the middle of the plate is the Sicilian almond ricotta, which was very nice but not the most exciting – that honour went to the three hard cheeses: cashew classic, cashew pepper and cashew spicy (left to right). The spicy one was, unsurprisingly, a bit too spicy for me, but the pepper was perfectly balanced.  The plain one was absolutely sublime, and the texture was the best of any vegan cheese I’ve had.

There were also five dollops of cashew cream cheese: chives, sun-dried tomato, basil, curry and classic (left to right).  The chive one reminded me of classic sour cream and chive dip, and was really good – I haven’t had anything like it since going vegan. The curry one was quite strange, but the basil and tomato ones were exceptional. I actually favoured the classic one though, because it really allowed the creaminess to shine through.  The texture was just amazing.

We were the only customers in by mid-afternoon, and one of the cheese scientists offered us the chance to be their guinea pigs by trying the camembert they’re working on. That is not the kind of offer I can turn down!  I’ve only had one vegan version, which was shop-bought and a good approximation of camembert.  But this was a whole different level. It was insanely good, with that melty ooze that you want.  If a fire had broken out, I might have saved the camembert before grabbing Dr HH.

After all this food we probably didn’t need dessert, but how often do you get to go to a cheese lab? That’s right, there were desserts too. We were hoping to try the cannoli filled with ricotta, but they were all out, so we got the daily cheesecake instead – strawberry and lemon. The base was good and nutty and the cake was soft, creamy and subtly flavoured. It was a top notch cheesecake.  This place also serves wine, if you want to be fancy with your cheese plate and wine – and who wouldn’t want that?

Honestly, it’s worth going to Rome just to go to this place. It’s only open 10am-4pm Monday to Friday, so plan your trip accordingly. I felt like it wasn’t too expensive for a cheese place either – the cheese plate was €9 per person (ours was a 1-person portion), and it was €6 for the sandwich and €4.50 for the mac and cheese.  It was our main meal of the day, and we left feeling well-fed.

Now I’m desperately hoping for more vegan cheese restaurants to open up – and for Dr HH to finally trade his chemistry lab in for a cheese lab!

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MiniMoFo: Donut Shop, Prague

February’s MiniMoFo theme is Food is Love, and as far as I’m concerned the only surefire way to prove you love someone is to bring them vegan donuts, preferably in bed. Last summer, Donut Shop opened up about five minutes down the road from me, and I was delighted to see that they had vegan options. They’re open most days from 8am until they sell out, which isn’t very helpful when Dr HH and I work pretty far away and too late to have a chance at picking any up.  So occasionally one of us will spring out of bed bright and early on a Saturday to provide a delicious donut breakfast in bed for the other. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is!

Back in the summer they had my all-time favourite variety: lavender.  The accompanying peanut butter one has remained on the menu throughout all the seasonal revamps, though to be honest I think it’s the least exciting flavour. Solid, dependable, but never first choice.  There’s usually some kind of fruit-filled offering – this one was raspberry and blueberry, and there was a festive apple and cranberry kind.

In the new year they’ve made their vegan flavours a bit more creative – we recently tried this chocolate ganache and pretzel donut for the first time, and it was a real winner (albeit insanely messy).

And there’s a lovely sticky chai one, which I’ve somehow never photographed on its own – it’s the right half in this picture.  It’s sweet, nutty and delicious!

And I live in eternal hope that this chocolate-filled one will someday make it back onto the menu!  Look at that ooze!

Yes, donuts are truly the way to my heart.  It’s just as well the vegan donut scene is thriving these days!

 

 

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Vegan in Prague: Forrest Bistro

When a new vegan bistro arises on the site of a former Loving Hut, it seems to be a great sign.  Forrest Bistro just popped up last year and has been a welcome addition to Prague’s already thriving vegan scene.  Although the entrance is below street level, as you can kind of tell from this picture, it’s a really bright place and quite a charming little bistro – I worried that it might just be a new name slapped on the Loving Hut, but it’s all new decor and style – and it has much better food!

Like most Czech places, alongside its regular menu it also has a couple of daily specials served from lunchtime until they run out.  We’ve been three times and ordered from the regular menu twice (dinner and breakfast) and from the specials menu once.

The menu contains about 5 dishes, including stuffed sweet potatoes, curry and a big ole burger! As you can see, the patty was huge, and topped with tempeh – I assume it was meant to be tempeh bacon, but it just seemed like regular tempeh (I love tempeh, so it’s not really a complaint, but there’s definitely room to improve it).  With all the accompaniments, it was too big a beast to tackle – you have to either scrape out some of the salad, or take a knife and fork to it.  It was a good burger, although lacking a nice crisp outer shell, but the sweet potato wedges were far too soft.

The breakfast menu is also quite tempting – there are about five items written up on the chalkboard, though when we went two of them weren’t available. Fortunately I already had my heart set on the pandan pancakes, which turned out to be one of the most visually appealing dishes I’ve ever been served!

The little green pancakes both looked and tasted fantastic! There were generous dollops of whipped cream and plenty of delicious soft fruits piled up on top.  This was a really exciting breakfast, and totally unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in Prague.

The hot drinks we got with our pancakes were a little disappointing though.  Dr HH was quite excited to get on the pumpkin spice bandwagon, but found the latte a bit too sweet. I was dazzled by the pictures of red velvet chocolate on their social media, and disappointed to see a regular hot chocolate instead – it was almost sickly sweet, which was a shame.  On the plus side, there’s a carafe of free tap water on every table. Quite the treat in Europe!

On our most recent visit, despite arriving in the evening we were able to get the daily specials before they sold out.  They were serving a Hungarian dish of sausage, a peppery sauce and a langos, basically a giant fried bread.  The sauce was a touch too sweet, but the sausage was great and, unsurprisingly, the langos was the star of the show.  Again, this is something I’ve never seen on another menu in Prague.

So, Forrest has a charming interior, friendly staff and a creative menu.  As if that weren’t enough, they also have a pretty decent cake counter too!  As well as some very attractive layer cakes, they offer smaller bites like this cinnamon roll.  Truthfully, I’m really glad that the Loving Hut here has been replaced by something more exciting and delicious – though last week we spotted a new Loving Hut branch opening up about five minutes away. There’s no escaping them!

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Cookbook of the Month: Vegan Richa’s Everyday Kitchen (Part One)

As soon as I flicked through Vegan Richa’s Everyday Kitchen on Christmas morning, I spotted lots of recipes I wanted to try. We celebrate two special occasions in January (Dr HH’s birthday and our anniversary), and I immediately identified the dishes I wanted to cook for our fancy meals. And then…January turned into a bit of a culinary failure.

For one thing, our oven broke halfway through the month, scuppering all my plans for birthday cake and pizza night. And for another, I just lost a bit of my enthusiasm for meal-planning and cooking. Work has been sapping my energy, and the last thing I want to do is spend my free time hurrying to the supermarket and slaving away in the kitchen.  So about two weeks into January, I gave up – we’ve been living off some quick and easy staples, but not experimenting with anything further from this book.

This is absolutely no reflection on the book, which I’ve loved so far. I will definitely be returning to it for Part Two of this review, once we’ve got a functioning oven and a bit more enthusiasm again!

In the meantime, here’s what we’ve tried so far.

The book contains recipes for a number of aptly-titled awesome sauces, which can be used in several different dishes.  I love this approach! I used the tikka masala sauce to make the tikka masala chickpeas, which were very easy to throw together (or so Dr HH tells me – I can’t claim credit for this one!).  It was a really creamy dish, with a nice bite to the chickpeas. There were lots of delicious spices, but on the heat front it was quite mild – exactly as I like it! I’d happily have this again!

I used some tinga sauce to make the tinga black bean soup, using kidney instead of black beans.  Dr HH found it a bit too sweet, while I thought the spiciness was positively fiery!  Still, we agreed it was filling and tasty – there was plenty of sweetcorn, peppers and beans, making it good and substantial too.

The winter mushroom soup with spinach and chickpeas was a flavour explosion!  There was quite the range of textures and flavours, as it was kind of spicy and kind of sweet. It had a really good kick to it, and was perfect for wintry packed lunches.  It’s a shame there aren’t more soups in the book, because these were were really impressive.

Dr HH made the baked vegetable pakoras, and found them lacking in seasoning. He increased the seasoning once the first batch were out of the oven, and that was an improvement. The texture was lovely – I wasn’t sure how well they would work baked rather than fried, but they were delicious.  He served them up with tart and sticky tamarind chutney.

I laboured over the berbere tofu bowl with couscous for packed lunches. Every stage of the recipe was easy, but there were various elements and numerous pots created.  I made the berbere paste, which worked really well, but was pretty potent – and that was after I’d halved the chilli powder/cayenne measurements!  The marinated tofu was crispy and delicious, and the couscous was a simple, light accompaniment.  I also added the recommended tahini garlic sauce, which was so delicious I was tempted to just drink it all up!

I whipped up a double batch of flavoursome samosa potatoes and used them in two different recipes.

I made these samosa sliders (served with tamarind chutney again).  As you can see, I used red quinoa,so they perhaps don’t look as attractive as the ones in the book.  The quinoa gave them a nice texture, and the burgers were delicious thanks to the potatoes.  The tamarind chutney was a great partner.  We were a little worried about what to serve alongside them – is it acceptable to serve potato wedges alongside potato burgers?  We threw caution to the wind and did it anyway!

I also used the potatoes to make the samosa-stuffed French toast, which proved quite challenging.  When I hollowed out the end pieces of the loaf and stuffed the potatoes in as you see here, it was quite delicious.  When I tried to stuff the potatoes into thick slices from the middle of the loaf, it was a no-go. With the leftovers, Dr HH thickened up the batter and made pancakes which we topped with the remaining potato – much more successful!

I also made the mint-cilantro herb sauce to serve with the French toast, and it was a nice refreshing accompaniment.

I’m a huge fan of mac and cheese, so I indulged in the smoky mac bake.  The smoky cheese sauce was incredible, but I think the paprika I used was a touch too spicy (Dr HH approved though).  The bake was really nice, but it would be easy enough to make this as regular, non-baked mac and cheese too in a hurry.

I also tried the vegetable lasagna, using the red pizza sauce and white garlic sauce, both of which were really easy to whip up.  I find making lasagna a bit stressful as there are always so many elements to work on (and, again, so much washing up generated), so I always expect a lot from the end result.  I found Richa’s assembly method a little crazy (all the mushrooms in one layer?!  So many layers of pasta?), so if I made it again I’d freestyle that.  No complaints about the flavour, though!  I crumbled in some smoked tempeh, because I do that to every lasagna I make.

The almond butter snickerdoodles didn’t taste particularly almond buttery, but they were fantastic snickerdoodles.  The texture was perfect, they smacked of cinnamon, and they were easy to make.

My nut butter blondies turned out a little browner than they should have, because I used brown sugar.  It was my first time making blondies, and I’m really glad I gave them a go.  You could definitely taste the nut butter. I took a slice to work for my lunchtime dessert and spent the whole morning looking at my watch wishing it was time to eat already just so I could sink my teeth in.

I actually made the gluten-free chocolate chip cookies with gluten in – half chickpea flour, half plain flour – and, as you may have spotted, some marshmallows for added fun!  The texture was perfect, but I had to add a lot of flour after the chilling stage to get it to resemble a cookie dough.  These cookies reminded me of Ms Cupcake’s recipe, and there is no higher praise from me on the cookie front.

At least the first couple of weeks of January were full of delicious, flavoursome dishes!  I already feel quite confident recommending this book, but I should have an even heartier endorsement next month when I’ve (hopefully) got my culinary groove back!

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Vegan in Birmingham: Not Dogs

Hot dogs are getting fancier and fancier these days.  From carrots instead of sausages (a bafflingly unnecessary substitution), to extravagant toppings, hot dogs have come a long way since I was a nipper and we used sausages from a can.  I was intrigued enough by the hot dog craze to try out Not Dogs, a fancy hot dog place in Birmingham – and I was won over!

Not Dogs is located in the Bullring, Birmingham’s famous, gigantic shopping centre.  We only got lost once trying to find it, which was quite the achievement.  It’s a meat-free establishment, as the name suggests, with vegan options available for all but one of the hot dogs (the chilli dog, which is what Dr HH got – I guess it’s made with non-vegan mince? It was extremely mild chilli anyway, according to Dr HH, so we’re in no way missing out).

That leaves six veganisable dogs, plus a couple of burgers and some ‘not pots’ – essentially a pot of the topping (chilli, tikka masala, hoisin duck), minus the sausage and bread (aka the best part).  I didn’t want anything with mustard and I worried the tikka masala would be too sloppy, so I went for the ‘what the duck dog’, with a side of waffle fries.  The topping was excellent – Dr HH said it was comfortably better than his.  It had shredded duck, lashings of hoisin sauce, spring onion and cucumber, and crumbled bits of rice cracker which gave it a great bit of crunch. I loved it!  It was a really filling meal too.  I’d expected that all the effort would go into the topping and the sausage would be a thin little vegan frankfurter, but it was actually a good hearty sausage!

Because Not Dogs seemed like a pretty slick fast food operation in a prime location, I assumed it was some big company, but the walls tell the story of its origins as a food truck run by two women (each now with a hot dog named after them on the menu).  A women-owned meat-free company definitely sounds like one worth supporting!

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New Products

I spend all year watching the UK vegan scene with great interest: seeing the new accidentally-vegan products identified, watching with glee as supermarkets increase their vegan lines, and looking out for new small companies specialising in vegan cheeses and chocolates.  And finally, when I’m home for Christmas, I try to get my hands on as many as these things as possible! Here are some of the things I tried out this time – not necessarily new to the market, but new to me.

1. Macsween Vegetarian Haggis

I’ve been dreaming of a return visit to Edinburgh and eyeing up menus there, some of which include vegan haggis, unsurprisingly. When I saw this haggis in Unicorn in Manchester, I had to buy it. I wasn’t really sure what to do with it, so I mashed it up into a baked potato, and it was delicious!

 

2. Sacla Char-Grilled Aubergine Pesto

A non-vegan friend was raving about this in the summer, so I was delighted to see it pop up on an accidentally-vegan list.  The aubergine flavour was delightful, and it really livened up a bowl of pasta.  If only it were available in Prague.

 

3. Quinoa Puffs

If you’ve ever found yourself missing Wotsits, you need to get yourself a bag of these.  I’m a huge fan of this range of crisps, and I’m happy to see them branching out into different textures. These were jalapeno and cheddar flavour, and tasted delicious.  We saw these in Ms Cupcake in London and thought they must be a rare vegan find – then we spotted them in my local Tesco! Everyone can enjoy them!

 

4. Tyne Chease Creamed Cheases

For the second year in a row, the Tyne Chease selection box of ten mini-cheases was sold out long before Christmas. My mum ordered me these creamed cheeses instead.  The chilli flakes one was seriously spicy – I only managed a few crackers spread with this!  The smoked one was my favourite, it was just so delicious. The garlic one was equally tasty, and, in a desperate bid to use it up before flying back to Prague, I used it as the white sauce in a lasagna – highly recommended!

 

5.Nutcrafter Creamery – The Ancient

I also spotted a Nutcrafter Creamery cheese in Unicorn and had to have it – I fell in love with their cheeses last Christmas.  This was quite a soft cheese, but still for slicing rather than spreading.  The outer coating was especially flavoursome.  These cheeses cost a  pretty penny (this was about £8), but they are really worth it for an annual treat.  Although I do wish I indulged in fancy cheese suppers all year round.

 

6. M&S Gold Creme Brulee Liqueur

And what fancy evening would be complete without an extravagant tipple?  This is the M&S drink that vegans went crazy about in 2016.  2017 was all about their vegan-labelled chocolate and coconut Baileys-esque booze.  Unfortunately, the vegans of Manchester had swooped all the bottles up long before I got there, so I was “stuck” with this one.  There’s a lot to be said for a bottle with a warning on the back to upend before serving, so as to distribute the glitter better. Yes, it was a glittery, golden, caramelly, sweet drink.  I have a sweet tooth so I enjoyed it, but a little went a long way!

Tell me, what new prodcuts have you found or been on the lookout for? And was the chocolate coconut drink as good as I’d heard?

 

 

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Vegan in Manchester: The Allotment (Christmas Edition)

There are few things I love more than a good slap-up meal, and that’s exactly what I got at The Allotment over Christmas!  I first visited last January (more here), since when they have won Best Vegetarian Offering and Chef of the Year for Matthew Nutter at the Manchester Food and Drink Awards.  And after my second visit I can reaffirm that the accolades are truly deserved, as we were once again given a top notch dining experience, from atmosphere and service to the masterpieces on the plates.

They were offering a seven course Christmas menu for £40 per person, or a ten course extravaganza for £55.  Mama HH very generously treated us to the latter, and we will be eternally grateful because it was just amazing.  I will say right away that the lighting is not conducive to great photography, so apologies for the gloomy pictures – but at least they’ll give you some idea of the treats we devoured.

The amuse bouche was described to us as golden beetroot with pickled beetroot: a delicate, deep-fried slice with a soft puree.  This tasted like pickled onion Monster Munch, which is to say that it was delicious.

The soup of the day was mushroom and celeriac with caper aioli. I was a little worried about this as I hate the taste of celeriac, but it was pleasantly balanced by the earthy mushrooms and the insanely flavoursome, savoury aioli.

The smoked root starter promised baked celeriac (not again!), smoked onion, pickled cabbage and merlot vinegar. It was a tasty little pate, served with gram flour bread which was almost scone-like.  The smokiness  of this pate was wonderful, and this was a real highlight of the meal.

Ah, the cauliflower course!  Why don’t more restaurants offer this? The sesame-fried cauliflower was incredible – really crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and the sesame seeds in the batter were a wonderful touch.  It was served with pistachio and lemongrass custard, pickled chilli candy beetroot, and a kale crisp, which I guess is the big twisty thing?  Everything tasted so good.

Next up was this rosemary and buckwheat scone with roasted garlic and butterbean cream and fig jam. Truthfully, I thought there was too much jam on this and I couldn’t even taste the garlic, which is a shame as that cream sounds amazing.  It was still lovely, but tipping the scales more towards the garlic would change everything for me!

I was already pretty full by the time we got to the main course! (Let the record show that Dr HH was not.)  There was confit aubergine, which was incredibly soft, and a delicious gravy.  There was also some mash, cavolo nero, and oyster mushrooms.  Dr HH declared this his favourite course, and I agree that it was delicious – but for me, the best was yet to come!

Pre-dessert is such a great idea, and this one was wonderful: raspberry sorbet on top of chopped caramelised hazelnuts. The sorbet was really refreshing, and the hazelnuts almost elevated it to actual dessert standard!

But here is the dessert itself.  Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that this was my favourite course. There was an orange sorbet that wasn’t bitter at all (it can be a fine line with orange, in my experience).  There were two little cylinders of chocolate truffle, and I’m going to say something unexpected here: one would have been enough for me. On top of all that was some honeycomb and a little nougatty cube.  This dessert was very rich and decadent, and I loved the festive chocolate orange flavour.  Sublime!

And here’s the cheeseboard, which we were really looking forward to.  We got a little pot of apple chutney, a stack of crackers (which was replenished as needed), and two cheeses:  one of them turmeric, the other coconut.  I thought the coconut one was delicious, though Dr HH favoured turmeric.  They were really similar textures, which was a little disappointing – I’ve seen the excellent variety they produce on Instagram, and I was hoping we’d get a couple of really different things.

The tenth course was a peppermint espresso martini, but I don’t drink coffee and Dr HH doesn’t drink booze, so we skipped that in favour of good old tea and coffee instead – the chai blend was very good indeed, but I was too full to manage the whole pot, which was a shame.  I will register my disappointment that I wasn’t offered a dessert wine instead – that was included with the cheeseboard on the seven course menu, but not the ten course, which didn’t make too much sense to me.  This is only the smallest of grievances though, and I certainly didn’t need any more food or drink as I journeyed home clutching my belly.

So there you have it – what a magnificent feast!  I know it’s hard to justify spending this much money on a meal, but if you have the resources to treat yourself once a year (or more often, of course), you have to go to The Allotment. And although I’ve learned that ten courses are too many for me, I regret absolutely nothing about this meal!

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