Condesa, Covent Garden

A couple of weeks ago, I escaped the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden for a brief but deliciously enlightening adventure into Spanish and Mexican cuisine. Condesa is a little wine and tapas bar, tucked away amidst other more imposing pubs and chain restaurants in this ever-heaving district of London. Blink and you'd miss it, so make sure you keep your eyes wide open as you walk past, because it would be a sad thing if you did miss out on the delights Condesa has to offer (not least of which is Daniel, the rather charming owner).

Run by Daniel Caballero, originally from Mexico, Condesa is an example of what happens when someone with a deep and ingrained passion for food decides they want to share that passion with the people of London. Ingredients are sourced with the utmost care, great attention is paid to every detail on the plate, and the result is a riot of big, bold flavours, surprising tastes and textures, and a little bit of excitement in every dish. You can tell, after spending a few minutes in the place, just how much care goes into the entire enterprise.

I was expecting a large restaurant, so was surprised to find myself in a small and rustic-looking wine bar. You can perch at the bar on stools and read off the menu and wine list written on a large blackboard across the wall, or sit at small tables dotted along the side of the room. The place definitely has atmosphere for being so small; everyone around us seemed to be having a great time, and there's a really laid-back feel to everything. It's a proper Spanish tapas bar, not an English restaurant attempting to take some of those elements and enlarge and commercialise them. This is evident from the extensive list of wines written on the board, from Argentina, Chile, Spain, Mexico and France; it's obvious that the food and wine are of equal importance at Condesa.

It's a bit of a treat for wine lovers, particularly with Daniel's expert knowledge to recommend wines to match the food. We started with an Amontillado sherry, which with its sweet, honeyed tones was the prefect thing to whet the appetite before the food commenced. We also sampled a range of Mexican wines, which I found very intriguing, having never tasted wine from that part of the world before. A sweet but crisp and refreshing Chenin Blanc, Daniel explained, gains its sweetness from the salty sea breeze that perfumes the grapes, lending them a distinctly honeyed aftertaste.

Condesa offers big, bold, vibrant food, yet also food that demonstrates a huge amount of skill and care in the blending of flavours and textures. The specials board changes every two days, and ingredients are carefully sourced from Mexico, Spain and local suppliers, with emphasis on quality and authenticity. There's a separate lunch and dinner menu, the former featuring bocadillos (home-made sandwiches), with fillings such as pulled pork, chicken chipotle, jamon serrano with olive oil, and goat's cheese with cranberry sauce, all costing around £5-6. The latter showcases a range of Spanish and Mexican classics, such as charcuterie, ceviche, tostadas and quesadillas.

If you're looking for fancy, artistically-presented restaurant food, with foams and garnishes and the like, go somewhere else. This is the kind of food I really love to eat, the kind that makes me fail to see the point in Michelin-starred places: it's hearty, generous, but also perfectly balanced to deliver a really exciting taste experience. There's meat and cheese. Toasted bread. Olives. Chilli. Beautiful fresh fish and seafood. I really cannot think of what more a person could want.

My favourite dish was the pork pibil sliders, beautiful soft buns filled with slow-cooked pork shoulder that had been marinated in anatto seeds, orange, lime and grapefruit, lending the meat an incredibly rich, salty, tangy flavour. It was served with a tomatillo dip, which was an amazing blend of spicy and cooling at the same time - ice cold yet tingly on the tongue, the perfect zingy complement to the rich meat.

Another favourite, and one which I think epitomises the food at Condesa, is the charcuterie board. Daniel explained the provenance and production process of everything on the plate, which featured - among other delicacies - the famous Iberico ham, which was slightly sweet and salty and melt-in-the-mouth rich. My favourite, though, was the mojama - dried tuna, served drizzled with olive oil and almonds. This is like nothing I've ever tasted - it's basically tuna, cured in the same way you would meat. The result is an incredible concentration of its sea-sweet saltiness, perfectly offset by the grassy oil and the toasty almonds.

We also tried a delicious Manchego; Daniel explained that he had sampled a nine-month old cheese, but thought it would be too dry for local taste, so chose a six-month specimen instead. It was perfect, delivering that sweet grainy taste I love so much about manchego. You can't serve manchego without membrillo, quince paste, which was also excellent. We also had two different types of olives - manzanilla, and guirdillo, which were slightly spicy.

The Mexican dishes on the menu were probably the most exciting. A ceviche of tuna, with lime, olive oil and agave, had an incredible soft, melting texture, but still retained that subtle flavour of the sea, lifted by the zing of the citrus, perfectly 'cooked' cubes of delicate tuna keeping their shape and flavour. Served on top of a crisp tostada, which balanced out the sharp citrus with a deep, buttery toastiness, it was utterly gorgeous - the kind of fresh-tasting food I could eat all day.

In the same vein and equally wonderful were the prawn tostadas. On top of corn tostadas (baked not fried), sat a fabulous medley of prawns fried with onions, leeks, red cabbage. The prawns were beautifully fresh and sweet, almost buttery in flavour, with a lip-tingling hint of spice. What really made the dish was the habañero mayonnaise, which lent a delicious creamy texture and spice to the whole thing. What I especially loved, though, was that the sweet prawns weren't overpowered by this assertive layering of flavours.

In a similar category to the pork sliders - that of sheer, unadulterated, carnivorous joy - are the braised pigs' cheeks. It's no secret that I love pigs' cheeks, economical morsels of meat that braise down into succulent melting goodness. These were cooked in a mixture of PX sherry, bay leaf, leek, onion, carrot, and served on roast potatoes. I have to say that after the other vibrant, zingy flavours we'd eaten, I found these a little bit on the bland side, but I think that may have been simply because everything else was just so zingy, spicy and delicious. A plate of these on their own would, I'm sure, satisfy any ardent meat cravings. The cheeks were deliciously tender and the sauce rich, thick and meaty.

The ultimate in crowd-pleasing dishes, though, is the corn truffle quesadilla. Both this and the pigs' cheeks were originally on the specials menu, Daniel told us, but they proved so popular that he's decided to put them permanently on the menu. You can't really go wrong with crisp, toasted tortillas sandwiched around melting cheese and earthy, salty, rich corn truffle (a fungus which grows naturally on ears of corn and has a similar deep flavour to Italian truffles). The combination of textures is so satisfying, as is the gooey richness of the melting cheese and deeply savoury truffle within. This is proper comfort food, at a different end of the scale to the vibrant ceviche and tostadas - I would recommend having all of them, to experience the delightful differences in flavour and texture.

To finish, we devoured a plate of exceptional cheeses: Manchego, Valdeon (a Spanish blue cheese from Leon), and Murcia al vino (a goat's milk cheese, the rind of which is washed with red wine during maturation). The Murcia was soft and creamy with that unmistakeable goat milk tang; the Valdeon also deliciously creamy with an assertive blue cheese sharpness. These came with membrillo and fig jam, the latter absolutely wonderful with the Valdeon. To wash all this down, a glass of Crema sherry, which is aged for longer than the other sherries on the menu and as a result is darker and sweeter; it's a great match for the tangy cheese.

The eating experience at Condesa is just as a tapas bar should be - portions are small enough to order a few and make for satisfying sharing, but large enough that you don't feel cheated and have to order out of your price range in order to fill up. The prices are reasonable, too - charcuterie plates range from £5-11, meat dishes around £5-6, fish dishes between £8-11, while salads are around £4-6.

Condesa was genuinely one of the best restaurant experiences I've had in a while. I loved the informality of the place, the friendliness of the staff, the buzzing atmosphere, the delicious wines. Most of all, of course, I loved the vibrant food, which I found truly exciting, a really refreshing change from the standard things you find in restaurants all the time now. I would urge anyone feeling slightly jaded by the generic restaurant scene to go along and let Daniel surprise them with his fabulous and expertly-judged food and wine; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

(Also, apologies for the slightly dodgy photos - my camera is useless in dim lighting so I had to use my iPhone, which isn't much better...)

Nutmegs, seven dined as a guest of Condesa. Many thanks to Lucy for arranging the evening and to Daniel and his staff for being such excellent hosts.

Playing at Masterchef: the Mexican challenge with Discovery and Benito's Hat

(...or, "how I won this apple green beauty")

I know nothing about Mexican food. My experiences of said cuisine have been largely limited to homemade attempts at fajitas (read: cook chicken. Cook peppers. Roll in tortilla wrap. Add sour cream and salsa from a jar), and a trip to Wahaca in Covent Garden (delicious - must go again sometime). It is, perhaps, the cuisine I am least familiar with and cook least often. For no particular reason, I suppose - mainly lack of knowledge and experience. I used to enjoy burritos from The Mission in Oxford when I was there as a least, I enjoyed the first few mouthfuls, after which I would start to feel mildly sick, but obliged to continue until the bitter end as said meaty wrap had cost me over a fiver.

So when I was invited to take 'the Mexican challenge', in association with Discovery (whose brand name is synonymous with make-your-own fajita kits) and Benito's Hat (Mexican restaurant with three branches in London), I was more than a little apprehensive. I had visions of said challenge perhaps involving an all-you-can-eat-tacos contest, a guacamole mud fight, or some kind of re-enactment of an Aztec sacrifice. Fortunately, it involved none of the above (although all of the above could certainly have happened on the actual night I'm sure, had enough margaritas been involved).

The Mexican challenge took place at Waitrose Cookery School in Finchley Road. I was completely charmed upon entering this place; it reminded me a little of Masterchef, with its individual fully-equipped cooking stations and its walls decorated with gorgeous kitchen ingredients and paraphernalia. I was even more charmed when I promptly received an enormous margarita to sip as I mingled with my fellow food bloggers. A complete cookery school situated directly above a huge Waitrose supermarket from which one could pillage ingredients - basically my idea of heaven. When we were given our own Waitrose aprons, I started to plot how best to smuggle mine out under my jumper (I never managed to achieve this - don't worry, Waitrose, your aprons are safe).

Before I start, I'd like to apologise for the quality of the photos on this post - I totally forgot to take my camera, and ended up having to use my iPhone. I emphatically wish I'd remembered, but oh well. Bear with me - you can still get the gist!

Felipe making prawn tacos
First, after a brief introduction from Ben (founder of Benito's Hat and maker of excellent margaritas), we watched Felipe, chef at Benito's Hat, prepare two Mexican-style dishes. The first I found really interesting - he sliced 'jicama', an ingredient I'd never heard of or seen before, into fat strips. This vegetable looks a bit like a turnip, but has the texture of a water chestnut and is usually eaten raw. He also sliced some cucumber, then tossed it all in a dressing made from lemon juice, lime juice, paprika, coriander, and parmesan cheese. A sprinkling of peanuts finished the dish. I have to admit, I was highly sceptical, with no idea how said mixture would taste - lemon, lime, and parmesan? Upon trying it, however, I was pleasantly surprised - the freshness of the citrus lent a lovely tang to the crunchy vegetables, with the parmesan and peanuts providing a deliciously moreish, savoury note.

Next, Felipe made shrimp tacos - buttery, garlicky fried prawns coupled with paprika and a garlic and chipotle mayonnaise, served in a tortilla with iceberg lettuce, lemon juice, and a salsa of tomatoes, onion, coriander and salt. These really were scrumptious - I love the soft, doughy bite of a tortilla wrap against the snap of a crunchy lettuce leaf, finally yielding to the juicy bite of a seared prawn. Even better when everything is flavoured with the gorgeous smokiness of chipotle chillies.

Speaking of chipotle chillies, I've discovered a few fabulous ingredient. I'd never tried them before, but one sniff of a jar of chipotle paste and I was blown away. They have an incredibly smoky, almost fruity flavour, quite unlike the abrasive heat of a regular supermarket chilli. I'm a complete sucker for anything smoked - smoked garlic, smoked fish, smoked meat...I once bought a jar of smoked roasted peppers from a stall at the Real Food Festival, which was incredible. I can't wait to get myself a jar of chipotle paste and use it in sauces and stews; its flavour is unlike anything I've tried before. I kept coming back for second helpings of Felipe's shrimp tacos, savouring the marriage of creamy mayonnaise and fiery, chipotle-enriched salsa.

And then it was our turn to cook.

Left: Waitrose Cookery School. Right: my workbench and choice of ingredients.
The idea was simple: we'd have a selection of ingredients to choose from, half an hour to prepare a dish, then the results would be judged by the Benito's Hat team. If it sounds a little like the famous Masterchef 'invention test', it was. Especially because the prize was, to me, almost as covetable as the Masterchef title: a KitchenAid blender. Who wouldn't want one of these gorgeous creations adorning their kitchen worktop? Who isn't a fan of the iconic KitchenAid design? It was certainly a prize worth cooking up a storm for.

I was like a child in a sweet shop after we were allowed to go and pick our ingredients. (There clearly weren't many health and safety guidelines for this evening - who thought it would be a good idea to let a load of margarita-influenced food bloggers loose on Waitrose's pristine knives, pots and pans?!) There were two huge worktops covered in all sorts of edible wonders; the first packed with Discovery products, the second with fresh vegetables and a fridge. There were courgettes, peppers, oranges, lemons, limes, herbs, spices...and a huge bowl of perfectly ripe avocadoes.

A perfectly ripe avocado is a very, very rare thing. They're pretty much impossible to locate in supermarkets, which charge extortionate prices for something mendaciously termed "perfectly ripe" that in fact has the same texture as a raw potato. I spent a few moments lovingly cradling one of these jade specimens in my palm, before hoarding three and moving to my cooking station, relishing their rampant ripeness. I also went a bit crazy for the huge platter of raw prawns and the perfectly filleted sea bass, ingredients I could never normally afford but were here for the taking. I may have selected a few extra prawns for 'testing'.

Our lovely larder
I could tell you that I had some great strategy, that I'd spend the week preparing Mexican dishes in anticipation, that I'd been honing my fajita-rolling skills days in advance, but that would be a lie. Quite literally, I saw the ingredients available, and a couple of ideas popped into my head. I'm genuinely a bit proud of this fact - one of the things I always tell people who say I should go on Masterchef (apart from "er, are you mad? I'm not a huge fan of televised ritual humiliation") is that I'd fail at the first hurdle - the invention test. I generally don't think of myself as very good at seeing a load of ingredients and coming up with a tasty idea, which is odd, considering that's usually how my lunch comes about (honestly, a grated carrot, orange, spinach and sardine salad is actually quite nice). So to come up with two fairly plausible recipes made me quite self-satisfied.

Unable to decide which would be more blender-worthy, I made them both. One was vaguely Mexican, the other not really Mexican at all, but a mish mash of some of my favourite things on a plate.

My first recipe was inspired by Felipe's prawn tacos. I made something vaguely approaching guacamole, spread it onto crunchy lettuce leaves, then topped it with garlicky buttered prawns. The idea was a prawn taco with none of the carbohydrate, something easily nibbled as a sort of canape, but packed with flavour. I also thought it would be easy to present in an attractive way, Masterchef-style. I have to say, this dish really was delicious. I mashed the avocadoes with lots of lime juice, chopped coriander, chopped tomato, and a little sour cream and chipotle paste to add a gorgeous smoky tang (I basically just went a bit wild with the Discovery ingredients, chucking them in with abandon and tasting occasionally to check I hadn't ruined everything with a smidge too much sour cream). The result went incredibly well with the rich, juicy prawns, the crunch of the lettuce leaf providing a delicious texture.

Although the food tasted good, the incident where I tried to open the foil lid of the sour cream sauce with my teeth and it splattered all over my face and apron was not particularly dignified. Thank the lord for those Waitrose aprons, or my nice new top might have been ruined forever.

My second recipe was pan-fried sea bass, with a crust of spices (cinnamon, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper), served on a salad of baby spinach, avocado, raisin, orange, pumpkin seed, coriander and lime juice. Perhaps it sounds a bit odd, but I think it worked - the meaty fish with its flavoursome crust stood up to the fresh, citrussy flavours of the salad, but there was a lovely crunch from the pumpkin seeds to contrast with it all.

I honestly found the experience quite stressful. My hands were actually shaking a little as I deposited my ingredients on my workbench and tried to think about where to start making my two dishes. I can only assume that such trembling was down to my extreme desire for the KitchenAid blender. If I was that nervous cooking for the Benito's Hat team to win a blender, I really can't imagine how the Masterchef contestants feel in front of Gregg and John (or Monica and Michel Roux, in the case of the Professionals series). I always ridiculed them a little for letting nerves get in the way of the prize, but now I completely empathise. No more will I chuckle as a chef accidentally slices off a finger under the searing gaze of Monica Galetti, or drops his dish on the floor under the stern eye of John Torode.

After a speedy thirty minutes of cooking time had passed, we waited as our dishes were tasted and judged. After each had been tasted, it was brought to us to try ourselves. I ate a lot of excellent food that night from my fellow bloggers; highlights included Mexican roasted sweetcorn from Jackie and a delicious green dip for tortilla chips from Colin, the ingredients of which I've shamefully forgotten. Katie, who was cooking on the bench opposite me and therefore bore witness to my mania and sour cream disaster, came up with what she termed a "student meal" but which was very tasty: quesadillas with melted cheese, salsa, and sour cream. We sat around and stuffed ourselves with various tortilla dishes, prawns, chicken, sour cream, guacamole, and other Mexican delights, until finally the judges announced the runner-up and winner. Colin was duly rewarded for his green salsa with a free meal at Benito's Hat, as was the lovely Rosana.

As you will know from the picture at the head of this post, I won the blender. I was absolutely thrilled, especially given the superb standard of the other dishes, many of which were - I'm sure - far more Mexican than my attempts. Although Ben, upon second glance, revealed that he hadn't noticed the orange segments in my sea bass salad. I hope he doesn't have a phobia of oranges and is, to this day, regretting handing me that cumbersome KitchenAid box.

Carrying said blender home on the tube and then train all the way to Cambridge was interesting, to say the least - particularly trying to negotiate the automatic ticket barriers when I had no hands spare to extract my ticket from my bag. However, the blender is now installed in my kitchen where it has provided me with glorious smoothies every morning.

I had a fantastic time at the Mexican Challenge. Not only did I get given a goodie bag packed with Discovery ingredients and a KitchenAid blender, but I also got a bit of insight into the cooking at Benito's Hat, where the emphasis is all about fresh, local ingredients and helping Mexican food shed its greasy, Tex-Mex image. I almost wish I'd won the runner-up prize so I could go and eat there, though I think I'll be paying a visit anyway sometime soon.

I'm also feeling rather inspired to broaden my Mexican cooking horizons - any suggestions as to what one can make with a KitchenAid blender and some Discovery salsa?!

Me with my two culinary creations. Check out the apron!
Thanks to Wild Card PR for inviting me to the event, and to Benito's Hat and Waitrose Cookery School. (And also, of course, to KitchenAid!)  Should you fancy trying Felipe's tempting recipes, here they are:

Benito's Hat Jicama Salad (serves 4):

1 whole peeled Jicama (350-400g)
1 whole peeled cucumber (250-300g)
1 whole lime (1/8 cup squeezed juice)
2 whole lemons (1/4 cup squeezed juice)
Dry roasted peanuts (50g)
Fresh chopped coriander (20g)
Parmesan cheese (30g)
Paprika one pinch
Discovery Salsa

In a big bowl place all the ingredients and mix very well. Serve in a small bowl - garnish with more parmesan cheese and coriander. For extra flavour, serve with Discovery Salsa – a perfect dip to accompany the salad.

Benito's Hat Prawn Tacos (serves 4):
20 prawns
50 grams of butter
2 cloves of chopped garlic
Pinch of paprika
100 grams of finely chopped iceberg lettuce
Pico de Gallo (recipe: 1 chopped fresh tomato, 20g onions, 20g chopped coriander and salt to taste)
Chipotle garlic mayonnaise dressing (see below)
1 lemon cut in wedges
Discovery Plain Flour Tortillas
For the dressing: in a blender jar put 1 tbsp of Discovery Chipotle paste, 1 garlic clove and 1 cup of mayonnaise. Blend it for about 2 minutes until it becomes creamy or runny.

Place a frying pan on a low heat. Add the butter, garlic, prawns and paprika and cook for 4 minutes stirring occasionally until the prawns are cooked thoroughly

Heat the Discovery Plain Flour Tortillas in another pan and then place on a serving dish. On each tortilla place the lettuce and add Pico de Gallo. Put the prawns on top and cover with the Discovery chipotle and garlic mayonnaise. Place a lemon segment on the side of each plate.