Monday, 31 January 2011

Opera Tavern, WC2

Just down the road from the Royal Opera House and looking out at the back of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Opera Tavern opened last week on the site of a former 19th century pub.  New sister venue to Salt Yard and Dehesa in Goodge Street and Ganton Street respectively Opera Tavern also focuses on Spanish and Italian inspired tapas.  

(I must apologise in advance for the terrible pictures - and these really are the best of a bad bunch)

While we studied the double sided menu we ordered glasses of sherry as aperitifs - these were nicely chilled and served surprisingly large which seemed a fairly good omen straight off.

As this is essentially a tapas restaurant we decided to order in stages rather than have everything come at once and swamp us: particularly as there were so many things we wanted to try.

First off were the Padron Peppers at £4.25, the Italian Style Scotch Egg at £3.50 and a couple of the Mini Iberico Pork and Foie Gras Burgers (£5.50 each).  I also wanted to try the Crispy Iberico Pig Ears but as I was very much alone in that I'll have to leave them for another time.

The peppers are small green chillies from the Padron municipality of Spain: fried in olive oil until tender and slightly charred and tossed with sea salt.  These were very good, the only disappointment being that there wasn't a stray super hot one lurking in the portion!

The scotch eggs (sorry - really bad pic) were super tasty and perfectly cooked with a soft boiled egg nestling in a well seasoned veal casing all coated  in crisp breadcrumbs.  A little scattering of sea salt in which to lightly dip the egg was a nice, if obviously simple, touch.  The blob of mayonnaise on the side was superfluous in my opinion. Largely because the scotch egg was so tasty on it's own anyway.

So on to the mini pork & foie gras burgers which were quite simply the best that we had possibly ever eaten anywhere.  The burger patty itself was cooked medium rare and oh man was it ever succulent, juicy and full of flavour. Topped with tiny crisp onion rings which added a nice contrast and served with a mini side of pickled green chilis whose acidity and crunch were themselves a perfect foil to the rich (but in a perfect way) burger.

I could gladly have ordered more of these alone and probably would have if there weren't so many other things that sounded delicious that we wanted to try.

By now our sherries were well gone and so we ordered a bottle of the Honoro Vera organic Monastrell.  On one hand I picked it as it wasn't a grape with which I was familiar but also as it was organic - this was a ridiculously drinkable, extremely fruity red balanced with soft tannins that didn't bite back.

And so on to order more food: Gorgonzola and Date Croquettes (£4.50), Courgette Flowers Stuffed with Goat's Cheese and drizzled with Honey (£7.55), Salt Marsh Lamb Leg with Pumpkin Gnocchi, Salted Anchovies and Mint (£6.50) and Confit of Old Spot Pork Belly with Rosemary scented cannellini beans (£6.65).

I won't bother with a picture of the croquettes (as frankly it's completely rubbish) but they were nice enough.  Sweetly rich, the date being quite pronounced they didn't really rock my world like some of the other dishes did and to be honest it was probably the only plate where I felt that there was probably a bit too much of it.

The stuffed courgette flowers, while also having sweetness due to being drizzled with honey, also had the counterbalancing creamy sharpness of the goat's cheese and were very good.

Next up the lamb with gnocchi.  Again, excellent.  The lamb was served medium rare and beautifully tender with the odd little morsel of crunchy salty anchovy giving a great umami-rich contrast to the silky lamb.  The pumpkin gnocchi were like minature light fluffy pillows. To be honest I didn't notice any mint but I really didn't mind.

A lovely little square of perfectly cooked pig belly was next, nestled in a pool of rosemary scented beans.  The pork itself was flavourful, moist and tender with a nicely crisp crackling.  It was very good generally but the beans were perhaps just a tiny bit on the bland side.

At this point we decided that perhaps we hadn't really had enough of our 5 a day and so ordered the Salad of Pickled Salsify, Chestnuts and Roosevelt Potatoes with Winter Truffle Dressing (£5.50) and because we were intrigued the Grilled Iberico Presa with Capers, Shallots and Lemon (£8).


I really enjoyed this but then I really like salsify anyway and, like jerusalem artichokes, I think it has a natural affinity with truffle.  This was a cold dish with pickled salsify ribbons, thin discs of potato, little morsels of what seemed like candied chestnut with specks of black truffle in the dressing.  I thought it came together very well and had a hint of refreshing sharpness.

Presa it turns out is a Spanish cut of pork, the muscle between the top of the shoulder and the beginning of the loin.  Once more this was served medium rare with a lovely shallot and caper sauce.  The shallots giving a mellow richness that was cut through with the acidity of the lemon and the sharpness of the capers.

Believe it or not we were still up for more and so ordered the Tuscan Truffle Pecorino (£6).

Served with a little bowl of very fragrant honey and what I think was sesame Pane Carasau (Sicilian crisp flatbread) this was delicious.  The firm but creamy ewe's milk cheese is injected with truffle paste resulting in a subtle truffle infusion.  The three elements together worked extremely well as can be seen by the "don't interrupt me!" concentration in eating it!

And so finally onto desserts - Homemade Biscotti and Bitter Chocolate and Hazelnut Truffles that came with a glass of vin santo (£8.85) and Bitter Chocolate Fondant with Salted Pistachio Caramel and Milk Ice Cream (£5.50) with a glass of Pedro Ximenez (£6.20).

To be honest by this time we were fit to burst and in a bit of a food gluttony haze. Both were very good - especially the salted pistachio caramel with the creamy yet fresh tasting ice cream.  I do remember that the PX was excellent - intense, dark and concentrated.

We ate a lot, drank a fair amount and the total bill came to a shade under £120.  A bonus then that there was 50% off food during the first week while they ironed out any creases (there weren't any - the food was generally spot on, some of it amazing and the service charming) but even without the 50% off I'll definite be back to sample those bits on the menu we couldn't quite stuff in this time.

Opera Tavern, 23 Catherine Street WC2B 5JS
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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Phở Gà

I'm a bit behind in posting at the moment - time has just got away from me recently so I'll have to put a few things up tomorrow.

I completely failed to cook anything Burns Night-esque on Tuesday night which is a bit of a shame.. it was partly as I had started a chicken stock the night before with plans of following Bobby Chinn's Phở Gà recipe (pronounced fuh gar) from his Vietnam Food cookbook and partly because I just completely forgot!

My intention had been to follow Bobby's recipe verbatim but I couldn't really be bothered to make stock then the soup base so did a sort of all in one, albeit with an overnight gap when I chilled the stock to make the skimming off of fat and impurities a bit easier.

Weirdly the beansprouts I had bought seemed to have been posessed by a decomposition spirit and within the space of 24 hours had turned to complete mush in the fridge - luckily I also had some alfalfa and sango radish shoots so used them instead.

Pho Gà
Serves 2

2 chicken legs with skin and bones
1 med banana shallot
thumb joint sized chunk of ginger
¼ tsp coriander seeds
½ stick cinnamon
1 star anise
1 clove
20ml fish sauce
1tsp palm sugar
garnish = 2 spring onions (green parts finely chopped and white parts finely sliced), beansprouts, coriander, birds eye chilli, ½ lime cut into 3 wdges, freshly ground white pepper

Bring a large pan of water to boil, while whacking the chicken bones with cleaver to break them up. When the water has boiled, add the bones plus the chicken leg meat (including the skin) to the water and let boil for 5 mins (this helps to remove impurities).

Chicken gore and broth ingredients
Meanwhile char the shallot and ginger under a naked flame - this takes about 10 minutes. Using a kitchen blowtorch would work quite well here but mine was out of gas: doing the naked gas flame can be a little disconcerting!

At the same time place the star anise, cloves, coriander seeds & cinnamon in a dry frying pan and dry roast over a flame until fragrant.

Remove the pan from the heat, drain and rinse the bones and chicken meat. Rinse and clean the pot then put the chicken bones and meat back in with 1 litre fresh water.

Clean the blackened skin of the shallots and ginger and add to the pan with the chicken along with the dry roasted spices.

Bring the water to the boil then turn the heat down to low. After 15-20 mins, remove the chicken and set aside. Carry on simmering the stock for another 1½ hours, skimming off thenscum every now and again.

Allow to cool, put chicken back in the pot and then refrigerate over night.

The next day, skim off the fat & any impurities. Reheat on the stove and when chicken warmed through, remove and shred. Set aside.

Simmer the broth for 10 minutes. Season with fish sauce & sugar to taste. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.

Blanch noodles so heated through and arrange in 2 bowls. Garnish with coriander, radish / alfalfa shoots and the shredded white spring onion. Top that with the shredded chicken and pour over the broth.

Serve with lime, chopped chilli, black pepper & extra coriander.

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Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Pork & Ya Cai Noodle Soup (ya cai rou si mian)

Usually this soup is made with zha cai - preserved sichuan mustard tuber. On this occasion I decided to use ya cai, which is also preserved mustard tuber but the upper stems rather than the lower enlarged bulbous part.

Ya cai is slightly more pungent than zha cai and comes in convenient sachets - the particular variety I used here also has shredded black fungus in it. As it is very salty, you probably should rinse it (and squeeze out the water before use) but I tend to use it as is.

Both are salty, spicy and crunchy and to me, utterly addictive. Once I open a packet it’s difficult to keep helping myself to it as I cook!

Shaoxing wine is a Chinese rice wine used for both cooking and drinking - it can be found in any Asian supermarket (as can ya cai and zha cai) or at a push you could use pale dry sherry.

Zha cai (top), ya cai (left), ya cai & black fungus (right)

Ya cai rou si mian
Serves 2

175g pork loin, cut into short, thin strips
2 tsp light soy sauce
½ tsp white pepper (freshly ground if you have peppercorns or ready ground is fine)
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp potato flour (or you can use cornflour/cornstarch)
1 tbsp groundnut or rapeseed oil
a thumb sized (top joint) chunk of ginger, cut into fine matchsticks or shredded
1 large (or 2 medium) cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
100g ya cai
750 ml stock - I used Marigold’s organic reduced salt vegetable bouillon
1-2 tsp of dark soy sauce
a large pinch of sugar
2 spring onions, chopped (including green parts)
½ red chilli, finely sliced
2 bundles of dried noodle sticks (about 170g)
Ya cai, Shaoxing wine, marinated pork strips
& noodles

Mix the pork strips with the light soy, white pepper, sesame oil and cornflour and leave to marinate for about 20 minutes.

If you wanted to rinse the preserved vegetable, do that now then drain and squeeze out excess water.

Heat a saucepan over a medium heat and add the oil. When it’s hot, add the garlic, stir for about 10-15 seconds so it’s sizzling and fragrant but not coloured. Add the pork & fry until it has lost its pinkness and the strands have separated.  

Add the preserved vegetable, ginger, a good splash of Shaoxing wine & the stock and let it simmer for about 10 minutes.

While simmering, cook the noodles as per packet instructions (I actually had to make this up as I went along as the packet I used had Chinese instructions - I think it was about 4-5 minutes).  When they are cooked divide between 2 bowls.

Add the dark soy & sugar to the pork & veg broth. Stir well then pour onto the noodles and sprinkle spring onion & chilli over. 

Wow, this was good! So good in fact, that I'm having it again tonight! Very simple, extremely tasty...

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Monday, 24 January 2011

Bulgogi Beef with Bean Sprouts & Chilli Chive Dressing

Sunday's dinner was adapted from Beyond Kimchee’s guest recipe on Rasa Malaysia’s blog.  Originally I was going to use a bulgogi marinade I picked up in Chinatown a week or so ago but on Friday my friend Linda & I checked out a new Turkish / Meditereanean supermarket on the edge of the North Circular & I managed to grab some Asian pears so decided to make the marinade from scratch after all.  

The other major changes were that I used mung bean sprouts rather than soya bean (which I’m not sure I’ve seen in supermarkets here), so the cooking time for them was reduced, and for convenience sake I used dashi instead of the anchovy & kelp stock.

I served this with a little bit of kimchi on the side as suggested but also with stir-fried flowering chives (with some pancetta as I had half a packet in the fridge and the saltiness & rendered fat go well with the garlicky chives):

So, a bit of a mishmash then in terms of asian cooking but very tasty all the same - the chive dressing in particular is delicious and would be great as a condiment with all sorts of things.

Bulgogi Beef with bean sprouts and chive dressing
Serves 2
250g soy bean sprouts
5g sachet dashi seasoning
150g sushi rice  
150g beef mince
Chive dressing
3 tbsp chopped Chinese chives (you could use normal chives or spring onion - make sure you use the green parts if the latter)
4 tsp Korean chili powder or flakes
¼ green chili seeded and chopped
¼ red chili seeded and chopped
1 small clove of garlic, minced
3 tbsp soy sauce (light if possible)
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp roasted sesame seeds
pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Bulgogi marinade
4 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
¼ asian pear (or normal pear or apple if not available) pureed - I put the chopped up pear in my grinder and pureed it
1 tsp mirin (or rice wine)
1 small clove garlic, pureed with the pear
¼  tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp roasted sesame seeds

Soak the rice in the water for 30 minutes, drain & set aside.
While the rice is soaking, mix all the marinade together in a small bowl and then mix the mince. Set aside.
Mix all the dressing ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Meanwhile place bean sprouts in a pot with the dashi and 200ml of water. Cover with a lid and cook over a medium heat until it starts to steam.  Reduce the heat to low & continue to cook (still covered) for about 3 minutes.  Drain the bean sprouts and reserve the broth.

Add the reserved broth to the rice in a heavy bottom pan (I would normally use my rice cooker but was unsure what setting to use as I don’t normally soak rice), cover, bring to the boil then reduce heat to very low and cook for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the beef mixture in a pan until browned.

Place the cooked rice in a big individual bowl, top with the beef and then bean sprouts, and top with the chive dressing (about 1½ tbsp per person - or more to taste).  Mix everything up a la bibimbap!

Stirfried Chinese chives with pancetta
50g pancetta cubes
100g chinese chives cut into 5cm lengths
Schezuan pepper oil / groundnut oil

Cut the pancetta cubes into even smaller morsels & stirfry them in a drop or two of schezuan oil until the fat starts to render but they haven’t gone too crispy (less than a minute) .

Throw in the flowering chives and stirfry until tender: a few minutes.  You can check for seasoning but personally I don’t think it needs any.

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Dinner chez Alex & Charlie

On Saturday night I had dinner at my lovely friends Alex & Charlie's house.

As ever it was great to see them and to top it all off Charlie made an absolutely fabulous dinner - there's nothing better: good wine, delicious food and excellent company!

Lamb shanks baked in foil parcels, red cabbage and mash

Red cabbage braised with apple, bacon &
balsamic vinegar

Lovely winey, buttery, vegetabley juices 

Preparing berries for the Eton Mess

KitchenAid envy!

Scrummy Eton Mess

Great bottle!

Rex keeping a watchful eye on proceedings
It was all really very, very delicious.  The meringue in the Eton Mess was probably the best ever I've ever had... to the extent that my job of breaking it up into bits was ever so slightly hampered by "trying a bit" for every bit I crumbled... ;)

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Sunday, 23 January 2011

"Joojeh" kebab with rice & orzo pilaff

There’s a Persian restaurant near me called Deeyar which I’ve been to with friends a few times fairly recently - the Khoresht Ghormeh Sabzi (lamb stew with fenugreek sauce, red kidney beans & dried lime) is quite good, the Khoresht Geimeh Bademjun (lamb, aubergine, yellow split peas, tomato & dried lemon stew) is fab and the two aubergine starters (one with fried onions & dried yoghurt and the other grilled aubergines mixed with garlic, fried onion and tomatoes - kind of like a baba ganoush) are amazing. Particularly with the taftoon bread that they freshly bake in a clay oven at the front of the restaurant when you order.

On a recent visit, one wet and cold Saturday lunchtime, I opted for the Joojeh Kebab.  A skewer of chunks of chicken breast marinated in saffron, onion and lemon, it was succulent and beautifully fragranced.

It seemed an easy enough dish to recreate at home so having some chicken thigh fillets still in the fridge post-Nepalese curry I whipped up a marinade, with the addition of yoghurt to further tenderise the meat and then grilled the kebab for lunch yesterday.

I just wish I had a clay oven to make some taftoon bread!

Chicken Kebab marinated in saffron, lemon & yoghurt
Serves 1

NOTE: This needs to be started the day ahead of when you want to eat it as the marinating takes 24 hours

Small pinch of saffron threads (about 5 threads)
2 Tbsp warm water
Banana shallot (or small onion), minced (I put the onion into my grinder and made a paste)
Juice of ½ lemon

75-100g natural yoghurt (you need enough to cover the chicken pieces) 
Freshly ground black pepper
Two skinless chicken thigh fillets, cut into chunks
Tomato & large mild green chilli, for grilling
Lemon wedges
Za’atar / sumac

Place the saffron in a small bowl and crush to a powder (as much as possible).  Stir in the warn water and let steep for 5 minutes or so.

In a medium bowl stir the saffron water into the yogurt, onion, lemon juice, and pepper.  You can add some salt if you wish but I choose not to as salt can draw out juices from the chicken while it is cooking and can make it a bit tough and dry.

Mix in the chicken pieces, stirring to ensure coated thoroughly, then cover and place in the fridge for 24hours.

When you are ready to cook, preheat the grill and while it is doing so thread the chicken pieces onto a skewer.

Grill for 5 minutes initially then turn them and add tomato halves and a long mild green chilli to the grill.  

Grill for 5-10 minutes more.  Ensure juices in chicken run clear (insert a sharp knife into a fat piece) then serve with the orzo rice pilaff (see below), the tomato and chilli, lemon wedges and a healthy sprinkling of za’atar.

Orzo & rice pilaff

50g long grain white rice
2 tbsp orzo
olive oil
knob of butter
125ml vegetable stock
small bunch parsley, chopped

Heat a dash of olive oil in a pan, add the orzo & rice and stirfry for a few minutes.

Pour in the stock, add the butter and turn heat down as low as it will go and clamp a lid on.

Simmer gently for 5 minutes then remove from heat, take off lid, put a clean dry teatowel across the pan and replace lid (I do this to clamp the lid on even tighter as at this point you are steaming the rice and don’t want the steam to escape).

Leave for 10-15 minutes.  When you remove the lid, the rice should be cooked, slightly moist and fluffy.  If not cooked enough or too wet, put lid back on and put on a low heat source for 5 more minutes.  When cooked, fluff with a fork and stir in the parsley.  Serve with the kebabs and vegetables.

I should point out that although tasty enough, I was a little disappointed in the kebab.  It just didn’t have the lovely succulence of that in Deeyar.  I wonder if it was because I used thigh instead of breast.  I think a bit of experimentation may be required with this one.  The pilaff on the other hand, especially with the charred chilli and tomatoes, far exceeded my expectations and was utterly scrumptious.

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Saturday, 22 January 2011

Isolabella, WC1

I've not actually cooked much at all in the last couple of days...

Drinks & dinner out the last two nights (and I failed to remember to take any photos!) and on Wednesday having had a massive lunch at Italian restaurant Isolabella on Red Lion St, WC1 I just didn't (most unlike me) feel hungry again for the rest of the day.

It wasn't a bad lunch really: a very retro starter of  prawns in marie rose sauce with avocado.  The prawns were nice and juicy and the avocado was just on the right side of ripe but there's not a great deal more to say about it - it was what it was.

For my main, I went for the day's special: Scaloppine alla Valdostana with sauté potatoes & spinach. First impressions of the veal was that it was tender and very tasty. After a few mouthfuls though it did become clear that it was just a bit too salty. I can only imagine that they overseasoned the tomato sauce, forgetting that the parma ham itself would probably be salty enough. The spinach on the other hand could have done with more a touch more seasoning and definitely more garlic. Bit of a shame really as it had the makings of a very nice dish.

So all in all it was just OK, not quite there for me but it has just reopened (the previous incarnation being "Lingotto" and strangely before Lingotto it was actually also called Isolobella so not sure what the story is there) so it may be interesting to check it out again in a month or so.

Terrible photo I'm afraid, but I only had my Blackberry with me:

Isolabella, 45-46 Red Lion Street, London WC1R 4PF
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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Cheese on toast

Jack the black cat has been a bit poorly recently with a nasty virus (it could be argued he’s a bit poorly all the time as he has a heart condition, poor love) so after work yesterday I had to take him to the vet for a check up.

My plan for the evening's meal had been a beef and bean sprout concoction but as it turned out when we got home I just felt too tired and weary for cooking much of anything so cheese on toast it was.

I’m not really the type to just slice some cheese and grill it on toast, so while toasting the bread I grated some sharp cheddar together with some hot & spicy cheddar (one of those funny little waxed ball cheeses left over from Christmas) then mixed in some chopped ham, worcester sauce and a dash of milk ... I spread the toast with a little Mrs Balls Chutney, lobbed the cheese mixture on top then whacked it under a hot grill.  A little too close as it happens as some cheese got stuck to the grill element (the charred bit did turn out to be particularly yummy)!

Very nice it was too, with some home made pickled green chillies and red cabbage.

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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Nepalese Chicken, Caulifower & Pea Curry

It’s a funny thing, cauliflower.  Or at least my relationship with it is.  I think it can only be about a year ago that my lifelong hatred and loathing of it started to subside... and I remember what did it: tiny florets of cauliflower tossed in spices & dry roasted to resemble some sort of super healthy,  super tasty bar snack.  
Now, at least once every couple of weeks I get a craving for this most versatile of brassicas.

So last night I remembered I had half a cauliflower left over from cooking Madhur Jaffreys’ Cauliflower with Fennel & Mustard Seeds last week. I’d just bought some chicken thighs and for some reason fancied a curry a bit more 'off the beaten track'.  Eventually after a fairly short online trawl I came across various Nepalese recipes by Tulsi Regmi and the following is ultimately inspired by a few I read:

Nepalese Chicken Curry with Cauliflower & Peas
Serves 3-4

2½  tablespoons groundnut or rapeseed oil
½ tsp fenugreek seeds
½  cinnamon stick
2 cloves
3 cardamom pods (lightly bruised)
1 bay leaf
1 medium onion, chopped
2  tsp fresh ginger (finely chopped)
3 garlic cloves (finely chopped)
1 fresh red chilli (finely chopped)
½ tsp chilli powder
½  teaspoon turmeric
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1½   tsp ground cumin
1½  tsp ground coriander
150g chicken thighs (cut into chunks)
½  cauliflower, broken up into florets (not too small though as you don’t want it to overcook)
1 large tomato, chopped
120ml chicken stock
120 ml yoghurt (optional)
½  teaspoon salt
75g frozen peas
½  teaspoon garam masala
1½ tablespoons fresh coriander (chopped)

Heat the oil in a large pan over a moderate heat. Add the fenugreek seeds and when they start to sputter, drop in the cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamom and bay leaves. Stir for 1 minute or so til fragrant.
Add the onions to pan and sauté for ten minutes (turn down heat if necessary) until they start to turn light brown at the edges. 
Add garlic, chopped chili & ginger and fry for a couple of minutes more.
Add the rest of the spices (bar the garam masala& fresh coriander) & stir for one minute.
Add the chicken pieces, stir around to coat with spices & seal on all sides & cook for a few minutes.  
Add cauliflower and stir around on a lowish heat for a couple more minutes.
Add the tomatoes, stock, yoghurt (if using) & salt.  Turn the heat down to low and cook gently for 15 or so minutes but make sure cauliflower isn’t getting overcooked!
Add the peas & garam marsala & cook for 5 minutes or until peas are tender.
Serve with rice (I’ve a bit of a thing for brown rice at the moment), or a flat bread (eg. chapati) with the fresh coriander sprinkled over.
Although it doesn’t seem like a lot of chicken, this is very filling and easily serves 3, if not 4, particularly if you has it with a side dish such as a dhal as well.

The cats were feeling extremely lazy again as you can see...

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