On the pulse, part four: pasta e fagioli vs winter blues

16 Jan

Soup, pasta or stew? Irrelevant: it's delicious.


So today is allegedly the most depressing day of the year aka Blue Monday. Indeed, one BBC Scotland piece seemed to suggest that the combo of season and current financial uncertainty had created a candidate for the most miserable day ever.

I’m not sure I buy into any of this babble – I find much of the first six weeks or so of the year can be equally numbing. But with post-Christmas gloom and belt tightening on many people’s minds, genuine austerity cooking in Greece making international news and this blog recently looking at UK food poverty, it seemed appropriate to feature a dish that’ll give the winter blues a robust poke in the eye – owing both to the minimal impact it’ll make on your scrawny January wallet, and the fact that it’s healthy, tastes shit-hot and warms you up.

Culled and lightly adapted from Nadine Abensur’s ever-useful Crank’s Bible, this pasta e fagioli recipe packs in all the best aspects of a pasta dish (obviously), a soup and a stew.

There are many other variations to be found adding bacon, spinach or using different kinds of beans or pasta; strictly speaking you should be using dried beans, as this Telegraph recipe does, but for speed I’ve used tinned ones here. Either way, there are few more comforting meals to turn to during the darkest time of the year.

You will need:

  • 2 cans borlotti beans
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 leek, sliced
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
  • A few fresh basil or sage leaves
  • 600ml vegetable or chicken stock
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 medium potato, chopped
  • 1 stick celery, chopped
  • 200g pasta – small soup pasta are best but any short pasta will do
  • 2 tomatoes, cut in six pieces
  • Salt and pepper

To prepare:

  • Fry leek and onion gently until softened before adding all other vegetables. Continue cooking for another few minutes.
  • Add the borlotti beans, dried herbs and stock – you may want to include some of the can liquid from the beans for a thicker result.
  • Simmer for at least 15 minutes; meanwhile cook the pasta until al dente and add along with the chopped tomatoes and fresh herbs.
  • Give it another five minutes, check the seasoning and serve in bowls topped with grated Parmesan and the leaves from your celery, if there are any. Become a few degrees warmer and happier.

[Serves four]

A food poverty trap?

19 Dec


Interesting Guardian article by Zoe Williams this week, framing the links between poverty, bad eating and poor health as a consequence of economics, not just education.

It riffs on a lighthearted piece at the Student Beans website about cooking a cheap and cheerful/nasty Christmas dinner out of processed food, making the point that if a site was discussing hard-up people other than studes (“the acceptable face of poverty”) doing the same, the tone would be pretty different.

I wrote a list two weeks ago about some of the independent retailers I’ve found to buy good food for relatively little cash since moving to Bristol. Having the choice to shop at these places is down to a couple of factors:

  • Living in the inner city, close to the intersections of many different areas. On one side is a main road packed with independent supermarkets catering to local BME communities; on the other a neighbourhood heavily populated by relatively affluent hippies and their brethren in which local food shops are a given.
  • Being young and mobile enough to get to these different places by bike and therefore shop cheaply – or do the same at a big supermarket – meaning the lack of a car isn’t an issue.

In north Sheffield, where I worked for five years, many outlying areas where money is tightest and car ownership lowest have fewest amenities – so least choice – within easy walking distance. This pattern is typical of many parts of the UK, especially in today’s chilly financial climate.

Education about eating well is clearly important – it’s grim as hell meeting kids barely able to identify a vegetable or a piece of meat. But if keeping your family fed is manageable from your local cut-price freezer centre, and a struggle from the expensive supermarket franchise next door, then putting that theory into practice isn’t necessarily straightforward.

Real Italian Pizza Company, Bath

6 Dec

Four seasons in one minute (almost)


Being a man with a ridiculously high metabolism who needs serious carb fuel roughly every two to three hours, pizza has long been a diet staple of mine. Sometimes there’s no substitute for food that can just be picked up and shoved straight into the face like a furnace being stoked.

But it’s still got to taste good; few things in my life bring on an over-dramatic tantrum faster than the Weak Pizza. So when an email from one of my colleagues pings into my inbox suggesting an after work trip to Bath’s Real Italian Pizza Co – and is followed up by some downright greedy responses from others on the list – I’m drooling hard.

It being the week before payday, no-one is feeling particularly flush – but no matter, the RIPC also generously has an ongoing policy of matching any current offer from the big chains such as Pizza Express or Zizzi. In other words, rock up carrying a voucher from a competitor restaurant, and it’ll be honoured.

In the event, just making it over to the restaurant proves a struggle. Bath Christmas market is newly under way, meaning the route is littered with food scents fine enough to drag even the most determined pizza seeker off course. At length though, we’re there and in business.

In keeping with the simple eats being discussed, there’s actually not much need to dwell on the meal itself. The inside of the Pizza Co is clean and functional, and cold Peronis (three varieties are available) arrive quickly. Crucially, though, the pizza bases are thin but not over-crunchy, the sauce is sufficiently jam-like and garlicky, the anchovies and olives are moist and tangy, and the pepperoni is pungent and thickly sliced.

It’s not quite Gone In 60 Seconds, but not far away. The bill comes to around £9 per head. There’s no good reason not to go there, really.

The Real Italian Pizza Company is at 17 York Street, Bath BA1 1NG

Bristol independents: the no-Tesco challenge

29 Nov

Stokes Croft Tesco has been back in the news in the last week, owing to a petition calling for an inquiry into police handling of disturbances around the shop when it opened in April. This prompted me to get round to writing this post, which I’d been intending to do for ages.


I followed the No Tesco saga in the national news prior to moving to Bristol. I agree with protestors that Express-style supermarket franchises tend to be cash-vampires of the worst kind, flogging price-inflated branded goods and fruit/veg in individual eco-hating “plastic prisons” (© Tom James).

And yes, 40 outlets in one city smacks of a greedy monopoly. It’s encouraging that passing by the shop gives the impression residents are indeed voting with their wallets: it always looks pretty empty.

From the tone of some of the rhetoric at the time, though, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Stokes Croft is hiving with independent food marts, waiting to be cut down in their prime by the unwelcome agent of capitalism.

Not so (at least not at the moment*) – a quick walk from town to the junction of Ashley Road reveals plenty for those seeking pubs, cafes and massage parlours, and a few small outlets selling some groceries, but nowhere to buy a weekly shop.

Viable alternatives

After taking a flat in St Pauls – a stone’s throw from Stokes Croft – I wondered where, if you were working longish hours, on a moderate budget (£35 per week for two people in my case), and without a car, you could shop while avoiding a journey by bus or bike to a larger store such as the Tesco at Eastville.

Anti-supermarket diatribes frequently duck the issue of whether most people have the time or money to make using the alternatives viable (to be fair, the No Tesco blog did conduct a price comparison, but this only listed a few basics).

But after a couple of months here, I reckon all the shops on the list below are well worthy of support – if you’re reading this then I’d be interested to hear other recommendations, especially if you live elsewhere in the city.

I may be stating the bleeding obvious to longer-term residents of Bristol, but a visit to most of them is possible in a similar time – and at an equivalent cost – as a trip to a large supermarket.

  • Gardners Patch, 159 Gloucester Road: Ace greengrocers stocking well-priced, mostly UK produce including harder-to-find ingredients such as artichokes and pak choi.
  • Bristanbul, 137 Gloucester Road: Turkish bakery and patisserie selling gigantic flatbreads that you can live off for days – at 79p a pop.
  • The Breadstore, 45 Gloucester Road: Delicious English loaves at little more than supermarket prices.
  • Licata & Son, 36 Picton Street: When I saw this Italian deli and importers, I said something sneery about it looking like a nice place to shop if you’re minted. Then I went inside and realised you could get most of your canned and dry goods – plus cheese and cured meats – at megastore-comparable prices.
  • Grosvenor Supermarket, 102-104 Grosvenor Road: My local convenience store, stocking a decent range of fresh and store-cupboard food. Worth a visit just for the range of hot pepper sauces.
  • Malik’s, 24 Stapleton Road: A strong range of exotic (and not so exotic) veg, fresh herbs, pulses and spices. Open late and friendly staff – and thanks to their second business selling beauty products, you can now browse their products online.

*This situation could well be set to change in the near future, if the planned Stokes Croft People’s Supermarket manages to get off the ground. I’m aiming to be writing more on this some time soon.

Grosvenor Supermarket stocks a dangerously wide range of hot sauce

Day of the Dead at 40 Alfred Place

2 Nov

You need feeding, you've got no colour in your cheeks...


I’ve always been drawn to the Mexican Day of the Dead, both as a positive celebration of loved ones who’ve died, and because of the fantastically ornate, skull-based imagery associated with the festival: so much better-looking than Halloween.

So when I hear about a Mexican Cantina night in honour of Dia de los Muertos at permanent pop-up joint 40 Alfred Place, located up in Kingsdown’s Dickensian splendour, I’m on it faster than a slamming coffin lid.

Smile, the tequila is free.


At £19.50 for three courses it’s a more expensive affair than most of what gets featured on this blog – but doesn’t come up short in the value for money stakes.

Free shots of gold tequila are followed by a two-part starter: plump, spicy fried chicken wings that pose a serious grease-threat to skull makeup, and a simple platter of nachos with cheese, salsa and exceptional guacamole, served tapas-style from little enamel dishes. A bottle of decent Spanish red costs £12.50.

Showing off over the starters.


It might be argued that the main course of chilli pursues a slightly unimaginative tack, but the rich, seemingly chipotle-packed dish of slow-cooked, chunky beef bears little resemblance to yer standard con carne.

Puds of vanilla ice-cream with chilli-chocolate sauce, fried bananas in tequila (a combo that bizarrely, but deliciously, winds up tasting like rhubarb) and more complementary tequila ensure there are a couple of happily bloated corpses rolling out the door.

Props to hosts Polly and Kate and their chefs for the night – this is straightforward food, but done with unarguable flair. Keep an eye on Twitter for what’s up next.

Why fried bananas in tequila should taste of rhubarb is anyone's guess...

Siam Angel, Bristol

19 Oct

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A newly-opened, budget Thai-English hybrid cafe, Siam Angel was an obvious choice as a first proper Briz review on this blog.

Tucked away behind the library on St Georges Rd, the vibe initially leans toward the greasy spoon end of the scale. Classically Brit plates of (nice-looking) poached eggs on sliced white toast are brought outdoors to punters squeezing the dregs out of the autumn sunshine, next to homemade signs making sure you know that the same pleasure can be yours for £1.50.

Inside is all clean, functional and comfy coffee shop styles – apart from the short, straight to the point Thai menu on the wall offering staple soups, starters, curries, noodles and Pad Thai: at £2.99 for small plates and £2 more for all-in mains.

Time being short, it’s a bowl of tom yum soup each, an order of prawn and chicken toast to share, and a pot of jasmine tea to drink.

The toast, topped with black and white sesame seeds, is pretty as well as crunchy and tasty. Its lifespan is measured in seconds.

The soup packs decent-tasting, non-rubbery chicken pieces as well as sliced mushrooms. It is sweet, fresh and zinging, its lemongrass and galangal balanced with a forehead-warming dose of birds-eye chillies, apparently missing when Bristol Bites came calling recently.

The bill for two comes to just £10.30. If you go there in the evening you can bring your own booze. The two blokes running the place are chatty and amiable. In short, a no-brainer.

Style over substance: Bristol’s best restaurants?

10 Oct

As a relative newcomer to Bristol, and a massive food-lover just about finding my feet financially, I was pleased to find a Google alert titled Top 10 restaurants in Bristol pinging into my inbox a few days ago.

I didn’t expect revelations from the Bristol Evening Post piece. However, soon after noticing that the article was actually subtitled ‘Top 10 places to dine in style’ I realised I was going to get very little in the way of enlightenment.

Pointing out at that some of a city’s restaurants occupy amazing buildings is a good idea, but what purpose does it serve if discussion of the actual food served goes no further than “has won numerous awards” or “offers a seafood menu”?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been lured into eating somewhere because of its location, interior or menu – only to be hugely disappointed by what arrives on my plate.

I love interesting architecture and good design, but somewhere selling food should stand or fall on that basis – everything else is secondary.

The place I’ve eaten more than anywhere else in my adult life is Zeugma in Sheffield. The key visual treat of a trip to this nondescript shopfront is watching a middle-aged bloke turning skewers with an expression of Zen-like calm on his face (seemingly weathered by a working life lived within centimetres of a glowing charcoal grill).

All filler, all killer: Sheffield's Zeugma consistently delivers the goods (photo courtesy of Nigel Barker).


All this is neither here nor there because the food has been consistently excellent since Zeugma opened over five years ago – so much so that the owners had to fit out a second branch a few metres down the road because the original was too busy.

Anyway, I digress – if anyone would like to offer suggestions as to where the best actual food in Bristol can be found, comment below, drop me an email or tweet at me. Might even give me some other things to rant about, down the line.