Thursday, 27 August 2015

Vegan Prague: Four vegan friendly restaurants in the Czech capital

The story of my time in the Czech capital of Prague is one of culinary ups and downs, surprises and hangry fury.

Our first night, strolling around the city, we came across Maitrea, a veggie restaurant in the centre of town. Despite semi-overhearing a conversation where two would-be diners were told to come back in an hour, we somehow managed to score a seat in the cosy, low-lit basement area and a very friendly server.

About half the menu is vegan or vegan-option, and there's local as well as international food to try. We kicked off with tofu tartare, a dish of minced tofu, mayonnaise, and dill I'd had in Croatia last time and really enjoyed. The Maitrea version was just as good - deeply dilly and soft, with some dark rye bread as a chewy counterpoint. Delicious.

I thought I'd try something from the Czech specials for a main, and despite the fact I'm pretty sure the Hungarians would claim it as their own, I went for goulash. I don't think I've ever had goulash before - I think I've been missing out. There were vegan meat pieces in a deep, dark, Marmitey, onion rich sauce. The meat was a bit on the sparse side, but the potato wedges that came on the side did a good job of conveying the sauce to my mouth.

Mr Flicking the Vs had a burrito that while, very tasty, wasn't a patch on my goulash. We were both pretty stuffed, so neither of the two raw desserts called our name, and we wandered out into the Prague night full and happy.

Our second meal in Prague had an equally fortuitous start - we were wandering around the Prague Castle gardens, and leaning over one of the walls, saw a sign poking out over the rooftops saying 'vegan restaurant'. It was calling our name!

We tracked the sign down to LoVeg, an all vegan restaurant. It's up three flights of stairs, so be prepared for a bit of a walk before you can enjoy your dinner. When you get to the top, there's a white wood room to greet you but the lack of music and handful of diners all keeping their voices down meant it lacked a bit of atmosphere.

Like Maitrea, there's both Czech and international food on the menu at LoVeg.

Here's the starter we shared, bruschetta with cashew cheese:

The cashew cheese on this was pretty much worth the price of the bruschetta alone, which is handy as the rest of it was fine but nothing spectacular.

What better to follow Italian starter than a Czech speciality? I ordered vegan version of svíčková, pieces of tempeh in a creamy root vegetable sauce toped with with cranberry jelly and served with dumplings.

It was cool to eat Czech dishes, but this one didn't hit the high notes for me. The tempeh was chewy and plan, the dumplings were like white bread slices, and the root veg sauce reminded me of soup, so the overall effect was like eating carrot and tempeh soup on a plate. The cranberry and root veg sauce combo was a bit of quiet revelation though, the sharpness of the cranberry cutting through the sweetness of the carrots and other veggies.

I'm glad I got to try some Czech food, but I'm not sure I'd be rushing to order this one again.

Mr FtVs was on more familiar ground with a nasi goreng, which was a bit on the bland side - a bit more chilli and spice wouldn't have gone amiss.

Our next meal in Prague was at a nearby Loving Hut, one of a handful of branches in the city. They all shut fairly early though, so if you fancy a Czech pitstop at the Master Ching Hai chain, I wouldn't leave it too late in the evening.

The one we went to is above a juice bar - an empty juice bar when we arrived - and was fairly quiet when we arrived, with just a few tables filled.

Like all the other Loving Huts, there's no alcohol on the premises - a bit of shame given the Czech Republic is the biggest per capita consumer of beer - but you can always quench your beer cravings with the alcohol-free Bernard. While the taste is surprising decent, the label is interesting. I feel like Bernard is looking into my mind...

So, starters. Mr FtVs was in the driving seat for ordering our shared appetiser and he decided on hummus. Not the most exciting thing you can order, you'd think, but how wrong can a restaurant go with hummus?

The answer is very. Very, very wrong.

This is the hummus that visited our table:

It was cold, like it had just come out of an aggressive fridge. The texture was thin and lumpy, like vomit. It went down like a bowl of cold sick, which was what it bore a resemblance to. It didn't have much taste either. Not a success, then.

Luckily, the main was a bit more promising - schnitzel in cream and mushroom sauce with potatoes and spinach.

Note to would-be diners: go hungry. The Loving Hut portions are not small. There were not one but two schnitzels, and a huge mound of potatoes for good measure. Despite not being small of appetite, I couldn't get through the whole lot.

If the garlic hadn't been quite undercooked and the dish was about half the size, it would have salved the memory of the hummus horror. It's the sort of thing you'd need to eat if you were planning on climbing a mountain tomorrow, or if you hadn't eaten for two days prior. Come with a belt with a few holes left.

Mr FtVs had a stirfry. It was similarly huge and similarly pretty decent without being anything to write home about.

Like a lot of the Loving Huts I've been to: you're glad they exist when the place you really wanted to go to is shut. It's unspectacular but solid stuff.

For our last night in Prague, we thought we'd revisit Maitrea after a fashion - it has a sister restaurant called Lehká hlava (Clear Head). We turned up, there were no tables, and no hope of getting one any time soon. We tried to find a nearby Loving Hut, when we arrived it was closed. We tried to find another place we'd thought of, and couldn't for the life of us discover where it was hiding. It was late, we were hangry, and we ended up trekking back to the hotel, thinking we'd pick up some bits and pieces from the supermaket and have a picnic tea in our room.

On our way, we stumbled down Jindrisska, a street that's home to vegan restaurant Plevel. I'd checked out the menu online and hadn't been overly impressed, but by that point I was so hungry I could have chewed my own arm off so it seemed wise to call in, despite the fact it looked like it was the only place open in a shopping centere.

Once our starter arrived, I knew it had been a sweet idea to visit Plevel. Seriously, if you're in Prague, get your ass down here. Maybe we were feeling reckless after our Loving Hut experience, but we'd chosen hummus again.

It was as good and right as the Loving Hut hummus was wonky. There were raw crackers, sprouts, salad, and hummus that was softer and creamier than cloud. You could almost feel the health oozing out it. We happily cleaned our plates. (Note: the hunger made the pictures bad. No, I don't know how either, it just did.)

The menu was way more interesting than the one online - I would have been happy to eat each and every main dish on there. After much debating, Mr FtVs chose a burrito:

He's a big guy, and he couldn't finish it which he deeply regretted, given how delicious it was. There was a great big bouquet of lambs lettuce and radish, sitting on top of a bean and tofu scramble. For added bonus points, there's sour cream and avocado - everything you'd want from your burrito, right?

For me, a beet burger. It was equally huge, and a shade more delicious than the burrito. (Choosing between the two is a little bit like having to pick your favourite child, I guess. You feel bad even attempting to pick between them.)

So there was salad, crisp coleslaw, and spuds fried to perfection. Then there was the burger itself, roughly the size of beachball, only the tastiest, purplest beach ball you could imagine.

You can see the innards of the burger, but along with all the standard fixings, there was cheese, tempeh and a patty of quinoa and beetroot.

I'm not the biggest supporter of tempeh even on a good day, but the stuff in Plevel's burger instantly converted me. The tempeh to quinoa ratio seemed a bit askew - the patty was a bit gentle and chewy compared to the flavour-filled tempeh - but I couldn't fault the burger.

Also counting in Plevel's favour - it serves breakfast. And not only does it do all the healthy stuff you feel you should eat for your first meal of the day - buckwheat porridge, coconut yoghurt with chia - it also does a full English breakfast with tofu scramble, sausages, beans, mushrooms, and bread. I don' think I could love Plevel any more.

Týnská ulička 6/1064
Praha 1
(+420) 221 711 631

Loving Hut
Na Poříčí 25
Prague 1
+420 775 999 376

Jindřišská 5 - passage
Prague 1
+420 245 001 605

Monday, 24 August 2015

Tofurky arrives in the UK - a taste test and review

Moorgate during the day is a whirl of city workers, suit-clad people off to squeak more money out of the global capital markets. It's not a place I often end up, but work sends me in that direction, I make sure to stop by the Holland and Barrett that's behind the station. You never know what you might find.

In my last visit, for example, I saw Tofurky. If you're in the US, finding Tofurky on the shelves of your local health food store probably isn't very exciting, but here in the UK, it's kind of a new thing.
I don't think I've ever seen Tofurky over here, except at Christmas in a Whole Foods branch when I tried to buy a Tofurky roast, but subsequently had to carry it back to the freezer from whence it came, spluttering in parsimonious embarrassment at the £30-or-so price tag.

A few days later, I found an article on The Grocer that explains the sudden Tofurky surge: according to the publication, the deli slices and tempeh are being rolled out to Holland and Barrett branches across the country.

Having picked up some Tofurky turkey slices, a couple of days later I found the ham on sale in Whole Foods. (Has is always been there, or have I been walking around with Tofurky blinders on all my life?) On a crazed Tofurky binge, I took some ham home too. Hot tip: deli slices are 14p cheaper in Holland and Barrett.

Apparently, Tofurky was invented in 1995. For me, though, it might as well have been yesterday – 2015 was the year I had my first taste of Tofurky.

First, I tried the ham. It was…. what's the word I'm look for?..... nasty.

It was so strongly flavoured it was like someone was punching me in the palette, over and over again. And not in a good way.

I tried it in sandwiches, adding a couple of strips to sauces or scrambles, anything I could think of. The acrid smoked taste penetrated everything like having a small bonfire in the back of your throat.

I approached the hickory Tofurky slices with trepidation. Could a company that would inflict the smoked ham style deli slices on the world come up with something genuinely tasty?

Yes, yes they could. A bite or two of a hickory deli slice convinced me of Tofurky's deserved position as patron saint of meat analogue slices. The hickory was everything the ham was not: comforting, mildly alkaline, and actually pleasant to eat.

So, one winner, one loser in my first Tofurky taste test. I liked the hickory enough to give more Tofurky products a go. Now, where's that Holland and Barrett again?

Thursday, 20 August 2015

More vegan hidden treasures in South London

After hanging out at LoveGift Vegan Cafe in Honor Oak Park recently and really enjoying the food, I thought I needed to get myself down to another vegan restaurant in a similar corner of South London that I haven't visited yet.

In the back of a shop in Sydenham called The Calabash of Culture, there's a small vegan cafe (small as in two tables!) that's open for lunch and, once a month, open for dinner too. It's called Honey Hive, oddly.*

The other day when I found myself in the vicinity, I thought I'd go get some takeaway. There are a selection of hot dishes, grains, and salads, and you can choose between three sizes of meal, depending on your appetite, made up with various bits of what you fancy.

The hot food options included gumbo, sweet potato bake, chickpeas and callaloo, and curry, and grains covered cous cous, brown rice, and quinoa. There were all sorts of sides too - like my favourite, plantain. Oh plantain, I could write sonnets in your name.

There was a lot that sounded good, so I asked for a box made up of whatever they recommended. I got some gumbo, brown rice, lentils, plantain, and three different salads - beetroot and salad, some greens, and cauliflower rice.

Everything was fresh and wholesome - I love it when I can enjoy a great, big tasty meal and still think it's still a healthy treat. Well-cooked plantains and brown rice are always winning for me, and when they keep company with perky salad and flavoursome hot food, I'm a happy bunny.

After all that good food, I thought I needed to amp up the less healthy side.

Honey Hive has a lot of cake too - there was a whole Victoria sponge, carrot cake, and red velvet cake for sale by the slice, and a few cupcakes as well. I helped myself to this beauty:

I should add the cake got kind of bashed up when I was carrying it home, so it looked much better than that before I got my hands on it. I finished it off with a big cup of tea and was stuffed and happy. I'm thinking the cake-wares are from Ms Cupcake, so I now can save myself a trip to Brixton when I need to fuel up on sugary joy.

*Everything is vegan, with the exception of one smoothie which contains honey. No, I don't think honey's vegan either. Apparently, it's a hangover from when it was just veggie, not vegan. Still, why keep it on? For an otherwise vegan place, it wouldn't be a huge stretch to get the honey off the menu.

Honey Hive
21 Sydenham Road at The Calabash of Culture
London SE26 5EX
0208 778 6326

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Apricot sorbet - was it meant to be that easy?

Apricot season has sadly been and gone round our way, but I had a quiet hit with some of those rosy-cheeked fruit and was so chuffed, I felt I had to share it with you good folk.

When I was doing some Googling about how to make apricot sorbet, I found all sorts of recipes with different ratios of sugar, water and fruit. I also found out about the baume scale - a way of finding out how much sugar is in your sorbet. Too much and there's no hope of freezing it, too little and your sorbet's going to be a bit grim. You can buy a gadget to find out, say the kitchen chemists, or see it's at the right place on the baume scale by seeing if an egg will float in it (no. Just no).

That all sounded like too much work (and egg) for this vegan, so I roasted a punnet of apricots (about 400g worth), blended them with 50g of sugar, 50ml of water and 25ml of brandy until smooth. After a spell in the ice cream maker and a stretch in the freezer, I can surprisingly smooth and scoopable sorbet. Take that baume scale! I guess the fruit were ripe enough that I hit on the right level of sugar and water through sheer luck.

I can cook the same recipe in exactly the same way on two different ways, and one can turn out great and the other be an insult to the tastebuds. I think all recipes should have luck as an ingredient. I guess it's hard to pick up in your local supermarket, but I'm sure some days there's some floating around the kitchen and others it's impossible to find.

For other sweet treats, I've been investigating the work of Nakd. They're one of those safe harbours for vegans in most supermarkets and newsagents - you see Nakd, and you're guaranteed something tasty and not bad for you.

I'm a sucker for a new vegan product so when I saw these, despite the fact I loathe raisins, I felt duty bound to give them a go.

I was totally surprised - they were amazing, even to a confirmed raisin hater. I was particularly taken by the cola raisins - like those jelly cola bottles you had when you were little, only without as much sugar or indeed any ground up animal hooves.

Of course, I need to balance my healthy sweet treats with something less virtuous - my very thoughtful other half brought me a great big strawberry cupcake from Vegan Cross. It's nice to see a more restrained hand with the icing - I like a cupcake that doesn't give me a massive sugar high afterwards!

At home, there's also been things in muffin cases this week. I'm gradually coming around to using more vegetables in my baking (thanks to all those clever vegan bloggers out there for showing me the light).

This week, I got to make lunch for my folks, and one that could travel well in a car for a couple of hours - no small challenge. I made some potato salad, carrot top dip with quinoa chips, smoked tofu in a sauce of sundried tomatoes, capers, and basil, and some cornmeal muffins with sweetcorn and courgette.

There was one whole courgette in there and one shucked cob of corn (I still find the verb 'to shuck' amusing. Don't judge me), and for extra corniness, there was a mix of cornmeal and self-raising flour.

I couldn't taste the courgette in there, but I guess they're not normally known for their exceptionally strong flavour. Or was the corn just too powerful? Questions, questions. Where's my kitchen Miss Marple when I need her?

I used this recipe as a basis, with a bit of tinkering and was pleasantly surprised. Even the parental units approved and one even asked for the recipe.

Any more baking recipes with vegetables in? Send em this way. I'm on a roll. Or at least on a muffin.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Broad beans and peas everywhere: A quick recipe to use them up

Over the last few weeks, nature has been sending out great big signals about the arrival of summer, using the medium of broad beans and peas.

Recently, huge handfuls of both have been arriving in my veg box and I've been spending lots of time shelling them - winkling them out of their soft pods, shucking out the green spheres into a pot. There's something kind of meditative in the activity - with some good music on and my hands busy, my mind is at rest.

What to with those little signifiers of summer? My first thought was a salad of some kind, in keeping with the good weather we've been having of ate. I thought a mezze type platter would be in order.

I love foules mesdames, though normally out of a tin than homemade, I'll be honest. I also am mad keen on baba ganoush - that's always made my me though!

There's also some padron peppers in there, which I love more than is strictly necessary. There's something all sorts of fun about peppers that have a roulette element - you know about one in every five or six will be really hot, and the rest pack no heat whatsoever. Nestled among all the other elements is a salad of peas, beans, spring onion, yellow courgette and mint. If there's something else that says summer louder than that, I need to know about it.

I've also been using broad beans and peas to make the greenest meal ever. Check it out:

That's mighty green, huh?! It's a sauce of avocado and basil blended up, with beans and peas mixed in, and walnuts on top. It's given extra green-ness by spinach gnocchi.

I love gnocchi more than life itself, but finding vegan gnocchi is surprisingly hard for something that's meant to be pretty much all just potato and flour. Luckily, I discovered this brand that has its veganity proudly marked on its front and which contains no gluten to boot - handy for coeliacs in need of pillowy pasta.

But, like most things, broad beans and peas make excellent soup fodder, and thanks to their quick cooking times, can go from chopping board to soup bowl in not very much time at all.

Here's what I've been doing with them:

Quick and easy broad bean and pea soup

One white onion, diced
Three cloves garlic, chopped
Half a litre vegetable stock
1 can flageolet beans
1 small courgette, diced
75g peas
75g broad beans
1 medium avocado, chopped
Handful of basil
Handful of mint
Handful of parsley
One spring onion, sliced finely

How you do it
Sweat the onion off in some oil until softened, around 10 minutes or so.
Add in the garlic, sweat for another minute.
Add in the stock, courgette, beans, and peas. Bring to a simmer, and let cook for another five minutes, or until veggies are cooked.
Turn the heat off, add the avocado and herbs, and blend til smooth.
Top with sliced spring onion.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

LoveGift and CookDaily: Two excellent new vegan places in London

Given that the Vegan Society was founded in England, I'm always surprised there are aren't more vegan restaurants.

After some old favourites closed - Saf, I still miss you - recently, I'm happy to report that there a couple of very good newbies have sprung up.

In the north London corner, it's CookDaily. a relatively new addition to the Boxpark mall in Shoreditch.

It's a fast food type place on the upper floor of Boxpark which does a selection of vegan bowls for £8, or for £10 they'll throw in a drink as well.

There's about eight different choice and I'd have been happy shoving any of them down my neck. I spent more time than a grown woman really should debating between the Full English bowl - scrambled tofu, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes and brown sauce served over rice - and the Hard Bowl - veggies, dumplings, plantain, yam and ackee, also served over rice.

I went for the Hard Bowl and a banana chocolate smoothie, and this is what they look like:

It was unfeasibly good. The veggies and rice were perfectly good, the tomato and thyme sauce was beautiful, and I got to try ackee for the first time. I can't believe I've gone all these years and not tried ackee - it's so soft and silky, almost custard like, and a fabulous complement to the chewy, wholemeal boiled dumplings.

Here's a close up:

The portion was also on the generous size, which I'm not complaining about. I could have eaten the whole thing again, and probably would have done were it not for the fact some terrible City Boys sat down next to me and started shouting about prostitutes, so I made my excuses and left.

Luckily for south London, there's a new (well, new to me at least) vegan place on the right side of the river too.

When we stepped into LoveGift Vegan Cafe one Sunday for a late lunch, there was a small hot buffet of vegan dishes and a friendly just-help-yourself-to-whatever-you-like attitude.

It was less like a restaurant, more like having dinner in your mate's front room, and said mate is an excellent cook.

I grabbed some salad and rice, a seaweed fritter, cheesy bake, chickpea curry, and seitan. That seitan was stupendous - perfectly crisp, perfectly chewy five-spice wheat meat. The same excellent hand with spice had worked its magic on the chick pea curry. And that same smooth creaminess that was in the curry was in the cheesy bake. When I finished, I kind of wished I'd helped myself to a bit more of everything.

As much vegan food as you can eat for £7? You can't say fairer that that. Nice one, South London.

2-10 Bethnal Green Road
London E1 6GY

LoveGift Vegan Cafe
108 Brockley Rise
London SE23 1NH
07958 308397

Friday, 31 July 2015

Back from holiday - and boy, it's chard

As you've spotted from the last few posts, I've been in Zagreb, Vienna and Prague. More posts from the road coming up soon, but I'm well and truly and back to London.

Coming back from holiday is hard. You've just spent all that time doing exactly what you like, enjoying new places, eating, drinking and sightseeing, and then suddenly you have to go back to work, chores and all the rest of the waxy build up that is life. 

So, to keep the holiday feeling going as long as possible, I've been trying to treat London like a holiday. You know, not just going from home to work and back again once a day. 

Here's the first thing that I've been appreciating: Kew Gardens

I've been to Kew more times than I'd like to think about, but it never feels old. It's so huge, it doesn't matter how many times you go, there's always a new corner that's waiting for you to explore it. And, thanks to that hugeness, it doesn't matter how many tourists or locals pile in, there's still always empty benches and quiet alleys for you alone. 

At the moment, there's an exhibition about spices, as demonstrated by these giant inflatables. They have little zips you can undo and have a sniff - this one stank of garlic!

The only downside of sorts is that there isn't much in the way of vegan food at Kew, but with all that grass just begging to be laid down on, it's prime picnic territory. Take a few sarnies, a bit of cake, and settle down to enjoy the view, and you've got all the entertainment you need right there.

My top tip: banana bread and a bench next to Queen Charlotte's Cottage.

For more holiday vibe continuing, I thought I should detour from my normal route home from work and stop by a cafe that was rumoured to have vegan cake.

The cafe, Montage in Forest Hill, doubles as an art gallery and antique shop - you like anything on the walls, you can probably buy it and take it home with you. It's kid friendly, there's dark, moody corners if you need to get work done, and even a little outdoors bit if you're in need of sun.

And yes, they do do vegan cake. Along with three or four non-vegan varieties, there was a promising looking vegan pumpkin loaf. I did the decent thing and ordered a slice. (Side note: they will try to give you a small chunk of cake with your hot drink which may or not be vegan. Stick to the clearly marked vegan cake and you're fine.)

The pumpkin loaf was really light and warmly-spiced - think ginger cake and you're halfway there. Non-vegan cake accompaniment aside, the coffee was pretty was good too!

When I was a kid, during school holidays, me and the family used to go to pick your own places - those farms where you can go and grab a basket and pick your own berries, covertly shovelling every third one into your face and the other two into your punnet.

I got to do the same with Mr Flicking the Vs' family at the weekend. Pick your own places have changed since I was a kid! When I was wee, you could pick strawberries, and maybe raspberries if you were lucky. Now they've got all sorts of fancy shizzle. The one we went to had not only strawberries and raspberries, but beans, peas, rhubarb and even sunflowers.

I couldn't resist grabbing handfuls and handfuls of bright lights chard - not only is it the prettiest vegetable out there, it's so tasty and incredibly good for you. I can't help but think it would also make a great bouquet for a vegan wedding!