Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Recipe: Lentil Daal

August should not be wet and rainy. It should not involve 'localised flooding', broken umbrellas and soggy socks. I should not be thinking of using my hot water bottle in the office. This August has been rubbish, weather-wise. It's never Edinburgh's finest month, which is a real shame, as it's when the tourists flood to town to enjoy the city and it's atmosphere during the festival.

This is my fourth festival - my third as a local, and like every year I do feel like I should probably take a bit more in. Alas though, like every year, I can't quite bring myself to spend £14 on watching a comedian who may (or most likely may not) be funny. It was at my second festival - my first as a local - that I first 'discovered' lentil daal, whilst chomping down some Mosque Kitchen with a friend. I'm sure my parents will say that I grew up eating lentil daal, and they're probably right, but for some reason I don't think I ate it for the entire 3 years of my undergraduate degree and therefore the first time I actively ate it as an adult classes as the 'discovery' moment. It's not the classiest or most aesthetically pleasing of foods, but it is cheap, nutritious and highly comforting.

Lentil daal.
Serves 2 generously as a main, or 4-6 as part of a thali

200g yellow split peas
1 large onion, diced
2 tablespoons ghee
1 garlic clove, diced
500ml low salt stock (vegetable or chicken)
500ml hot water
teaspoon mustard seeds
teaspoon coriander seeds
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 medium hot red chilli, deseeded and diced
100g - or one bag - spinach, roughly shredded
100ml single cream (optional, but mighty tasty)

Rinse the lentils to remove any flour or grit. If possible, soak overnight, rinsing occasionally.
In a large heavy bottomed pan (one with a lid), melt 1 tbsp of the ghee and very gently fry the onion, chilli and garlic until soft.
Stir in the lentils and stock, and cover. Simmer slowly for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to stop the lentils sticking and burning. Continue until the liquid is absorbed. The lentils should begin to break down, becoming creamy and thick in consistency. If they still have a degree of hardness, continue to add water until they are cooked, and remove from the heat. They should remain a thick consistency - do not allow them to dry out or burn on the base, but be careful not to add so much water that they are soupy.
In a small frying pan, melt another tablespoon of ghee. Add the mustard and coriander seeds, and cook until they 'pop' - but be careful not to burn. Stir in the garam masala to toast slightly. Stir in the spices in to the daal, along with the spinach and cream - the spinach should wilt down and cook. Heat slightly - but do not boil - if necessary.
Ideal served with mini naan.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Review: The National Museum of Scotland Brasserie

I'm not a fan of generalising, but I've recently come to a slightly sad conclusion.
Most museum cafes are crap.
I've pondered the reasons for this on and off for a while, ever since I had some particularly bad experiences at the National Gallery of Scotland's cafe on three separate occasions. I know, more fool me for going back, but generally I believe in second chances.

There are a couple of reasons I've come up with, most involving franchising and tenders - areas I'll admit that I don't know a vast amount about. If the profits of the enterprise are not being put back in to funding the museum or gallery, but in to the pockets of the owners and shareholders then it is perhaps sad but not entirely surprising that cafes and restaurants are not often up to the standard of the museum itself. They're not so much income generators, but a service that museums provide because they are expected to. Of course, there are exceptions - hence my reluctance to generalise - but sadly in the big tourist spots of Edinburgh and London it increasingly seems to be the case.

The National Gallery of Scotland's cafe is, for example, run by the Contini family, who also own Centotre on George Street. Until recently, they also had Zanzero in Stockbridge, but perhaps tellingly that has vanished rather quietly and become something else instead. They've renamed their NGS venture "The Scottish Cafe and Restaurant" and have managed to fill the venue rather admirably with diners in the time they've owned it, but there have been problems - poor service, soup so salty it had to be returned, drinks orders that were taken but never delivered...

Anyway. I digress. I am not supposed to be reviewing The National Gallery's efforts, but those of the newly re-vamped National Museum of Scotland instead. I fear this has also fallen foul of the franchise.
Mr FS and I decided to take a wander up to the museum last Saturday to see what had been done since the revamp and, of course, decided to partake in a midafternoon snack. The cafe section is in an interesting spot - nicely nestled in the main hallway entrance of the old building, underneath archways and tucked away to the side behind glass panels. It's a nice spot for people watching, with comfy chairs and fairly well spaced tables (although I did notice that the slightly haphazard layout seemed to be causing space issues for a gentleman in a wheelchair). And - best of all - the food looks amazing. The museum has rather cannily placed the cafe at the bottom of a staircase, so as you walk down you are faced with a wall of enormous home made cakes and pastries.
Strong contender for the largest scone I've ever had. And yes, that is real clotted cream!
The entrance to the cafe is a little gap in the glass screens. When we arrived at about 3.30, we wandered over to find a crowd of people looking confused by the entrance - and were then told that we would have to wait 15 minutes until the lunch service was finished - even though the cafe was half empty and there were tables ready. We had a wander around the shop and went back when the crowd had vanished, whereby we were greeted by a girl in jeans and a cardigan who presented us with menus and pointed to a table. The waiting staff were also messily dressed - some in jeans, some in black trousers, some in white tshirts and some in smarter white shirts. Confusing. Nice blue butcher's apron's though. So, we sat down and began to inspect our menus - which were different. Mine had Cheese Scone's listed, Mr FS's didnt. Confusing. We told our waitress, who replied with a mumbled apology, and then put our menus back on to the pile with the rest anyway.
They don't even look the same!
After about 15 minutes, our order was taken - they'd run out of Cheese scones (unsurprising, considering we didn't know if they were being offered at all), so we went for two Fruits, a coffee and an Earl Grey. The tea was loose, served in an unbleached paper strainer - for once not too much tea for the pot, although slightly disappointing that I wasn't offered lemon. The scones themselves were fantastic - huge, quite dense and cinnamon-y, and served with liberal portions of jam and cream.When I asked for butter it was brought straight over in another generous portion, nicely served in little ceramic pots - no paper packets here! I'm sad to say, I couldn't finish mine. Always disappointing when that happens.
We then waited about 15 minutes to get someone's attention for the bill, and decided to leave a tip because we couldn't be bothered waiting for our change.

I don't really like being negative in a review. The cafe had only been open a few weeks, it's all quite new, the staff looked very young and inexperienced - but I have to say, the service was shockingly bad, especially considering it was rather pricey even for table service. It was disorganised, waits were lengthy, and the staff appeared seriously in need of some training in the basics. A real shame. I won't be rushing back to try their lunch menu.

Tea and scones for two (including small tip): £10.