Gousto (Part Two)

Chipotle burger, with stewed onion, in a toasted brioche bun, served with oven-baked fries and a little gem lettuce side salad. Ok, not a mind-blowingly difficult dish to prepare – in fact we always make our own burgers and Marc is frequently lecturing me on how easy it is to make your own chips. But the chipotle mayo was a twist I would never have considered for our picky children and, what do you know? Barney asked for more!

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Gousto brags that its beef is 100 per cent British, but this isn’t actually difficult to achieve if you shop in a regular supermarket. It’s one of the few meats which is difficult to farm intensively and our farmers produce it rather well. What does make a difference to the quality of the mince is the fat content: Too much fat and you have a greasy mess; too little fat and there’s no taste to your dish. Interestingly, Gousto don’t reveal the fat content of their well-packaged beef, and anyway, we were one 300g pack short. (They’d already refunded the cost of the dish with an apology for not including it in the delivery.) We used our own 500g of supermarket mince instead.

Barney loved helping with this dish. There’s something satisfying about squeezing beef into patties with your (clean) hands. I’ve just got to un-do all the good work I did when they were toddlers, warning them how hot the hob is, because now they are scared senseless and wouldn’t stir the onions as they stewed!

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Although I had looked disparagingly at the ingredients before we started cooking, claiming that it was certainly not enough for all of us, I was wrong. Two burgers each and one brioche was plenty, and there was nothing left at the end (poor Pete the Dog skulked off to his bed).

The children wolfed it down, I left some and Marc didn’t complain, so everyone’s a winner! Next up, Tandoori fish – which could be a miserable fail according to the children…

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Gousto with Gusto

So, I fell for it. I subscribed to Gousto – you know, one of those middle class recipe and ingredient schemes. A rather lovely girl knocked on our door and before you know it, I was set up for four of my half-term meals.

The way this system works is thus: You pay for however many dinner times you want (we plumped for the “four for four” option – four portions of four meals) and Gousto sends you the unprepared ingredients and recipe cards. There’s lots to choose from: vegetarian, child-friendly, Chinese, curry… If you’re like me, and find yourself returning to the same old meals like Groundhog Day, then this is a winner from the start.

A few days after signing up (you have to give a minimum of three days’ notice) a rather smiley delivery chap from Yodel handed me a huge cardboard box, packed with all the raw materials needed for my four culinary challenges.

As I unpacked the goodies, two things happened: Firstly, I was struck by how much packaging there was. Rice was neatly weighed out in 75g plastic packets. Sauces came in lovely little plastic pots. Anything likely to leak was wrapped in plastic bags. Perfect amounts for two meals, so for a family of four, double the amounts of everything. Despite Gousto’s boast that 93 per cent is recyclable or biodegradable, surely it’s better not to produce it in the first place?

My second problem was that I was one ingredient short of a chipotle burger (or two). A man at the end of the phone explained he couldn’t send out the extra beef – which was integral to the meal – but he would refund the cost of the meal and add the credit to our next order. I suppose that will have to do, but not a good start to my first order!

Barney (the nine-year-old-boy) was eager to cook, and after a small tantrum about chipotle burgers, he decided to try out the Cowboy Bean Bowl and Crispy Tortillas. With my help, he chopped, grated, stirred, dissolved and strained the range of healthy ingredient. And as he sliced, he bravely nibbled a red pepper for the first time ever, and then we nearly ran out, because he loved them so much.

The recipe was easy to follow and reasonably quick, IMG_0954and I served the spicy beans with the included Greek yogurt, chopped spring onions, grated Cheddar and aforementioned tortillas.

Barney scoffed his bowlful like he’d just spent the afternoon herding cattle on the range. The girl (Grace, 11) moaned. We knew she was unlikely to like this meal, but give her her dues: She tried a spoonful and – after retching dramatically – it was decided that she would only eat the tortilla, cheese and spring onions, which was a first for her, so still a result.IMG_0951

All-in-all, a delicious meal. I’ll blog about the others when we’ve cooked them, but so far, so good on the food front. My only reservation is the packaging, and it’s a big enough problem to prevent me from ordering again, so the other meals need to be more than delightful…

Bellissimo Italia!

THEY’VE played around with the menu at Bella Italia since our last visit in the summer.

In have come a few new starters and desserts, plus – what they are most proud of – some additions to its fresh pasta menu.

As a family, we were invited to try the new dishes out. Well, family is what Italian food is all about, isn’t it? And our table resembled something out of a Mafia movie banquet scene when the delightful waiting staff brought out our plates of pasta.

The new ravioli dishes we tried – pollo robiola (£12.95) with sunflower shaped fresh pasta parcels filled with cheese and rocket, combined with roasted chicken in a rich red pepper sauce; and panzerotti funghi (£11.25) with half-moon shaped fresh pasta parcels filled with mushrooms and served in a mushroom and spinach sauce – were lovely, rich bowls of comfort food.

The fillings were full of flavour and the sauces packed a punch. Ideal food for a winter’s night.

The children demolished their creamy tagliatelle carbonara (£9.95), fighting with each other for the crispy rashers of pancetta on top.

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We had started with the new chicken wings Italiano (£6.45), in a tangy balsamic barbecue glaze, served with a cooling garlic and lemon mayonnaise, which proved so popular that the children nearly came to blows when arguing who got the last one. Arancini funghi (£6.25) were also a tasty hit – deep-fried balls of mushroom risotto with a lovely tomato dip. Both were great “messy food”, which was a great excuse to use our fingers!

As for desserts, tops for me was the new orange cheesecake (part of the shot glass desserts – three for £5.25 or five for £7.95), a sweet, creamy, citrussy treat. The morello cioccolato (£5.75), a hot chocolate cake with rich cherry sauce, was also delicious, if a bit cloying.

It was all washed down with some great alcohol-free mocktails, and we left feeling as stuffed as the ravioli.

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What would we do if Italians didn’t make such yummy food? I have absolutely no idea where we would take children for a fail-safe meal during a day out! It’s true that most ristoranti d’Italia offer a good choice in pizza, pasta and antipasti, but if you want a really great selection of freshly-made dishes, in my opinion, you can’t beat Bella Italia.

Bella Italia,14-16 George Street, Oxford 01865 791032 bellaitalia.co.uk

Thaikhun

WE’VE all heard the old joke: “Waiter, waiter, there’s a bug in my food.”

“Please keep it down sir, otherwise all the diners will want one.”

Well, the people at Thaikhun – the ultra-funky Oxford Thai street food restaurant – seem to have taken this message to heart when they unveiled their new children’s menu.

As an eye-catching gimmick, all kids’ meals come with tubs of crispy creepy crawlies. It certainly caused a stir with our four young diners, aged between eight and 12.

We were invited to the George Street venue to give our verdict on the new menu for youngsters, heralded as “unique and refreshing in its approach the ‘mix and match’ concept”.

Children get a pot of crunchy vegetables to start and an ice lolly to finish, and can then custom-build their main course.

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They get to choose noodles or Jasmine rice, then grilled chicken, pork or mixed vegetables, plus a sauce – nut-free chicken satay, slightly spicy green curry or sweet BBQ. There’s also phad thai or breaded chicken and rice with a sweet chilli sauce. They all come with juice, water or milk and cost £5.95.

The restaurant was bustling when we arrived, and were ushered to a table where one set of seats was built out of an old boat – a big hit with the children, but not so good for the aching backs of the ageing parents.

It has to be said, the children’s meals didn’t go down particularly well. The first mistake was the plates they were served on – reminiscent of American-style school trays, with compartments for each item. It accentuated the difference between the adult and children’s food, and looked a bit canteen-ish.

The grilled chicken was a bit dry, the sauces were reasonable, but it was all a bit underwhelming on the culinary front.

My friends’ 12-year-old Niamh said: “What I really liked about Thaikhun was the ambiance – it was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the lay out of the whole restaurant, from the working traffic lights to the idea of turning a boat and a bathtub into seats.

“The decorations and the music too really gave of the feel of a street in Bangkok. The service at Thaikhun was also very good; the staff were all very smiley and friendly.

“One of my few criticisms would be the children’s menu. I was disappointed with the lack variety and the presentation of the food on it, particularly the dessert. After seeing the variety on the adults’ menu I was expecting a little more than just a mini milk ice lolly.”

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However, as if to prove that siblings hardly ever agree, her 10-year-old brother Johnny said: “The kid’s menu at Thaikhun was lovely although I wasn’t so pleased with the dessert. I’d expected more then a mini milk although this might be based on younger children.

“The creepy crawlies though were a clever and delectable addition to the meal.”

Yes, the bugs were a hit with three-quarters of the youngsters around the table, and even the adults were forced to give them a try.

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Not that the grown-ups had any need to resort to eating insects. Our food was sensational, beautifully presented, and really delicious.

I couldn’t find fault with my barbecued pork on rice (£11), with unctuous pieces of belly pork and a sticky, lip-smacking sauce. My wife’s spicy seafood noodles (£11.50) were equally eye-catching, full of huge mussels, prawns and squid. One of these meals – I’m not sure which, but I polished it off anyway, just in case it was mine – came with a superb, clear savoury broth that proved a perfect palate cleanser.

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Our friends went for the curries – well, when in Thailand… – and made short work of their aromatic chicken massaman (£11.50), with chunks of potato, cashew nuts, and a hunt of cinnamon, and the almost obligatory prawn Thai green curry (£13.50). It was the sort of meal where everyone is eyeing up each others’ food to see who made the best choice – and no-one could decide.

I’ve never been to Thailand, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but I have eaten poor Thai food and this was most definitely not poor. Very, very, good, fresh-tasting and consistent quality.

Desserts were almost as good. I devoured the banana fritters with vanilla ice cream (£5.50) and a lovely, sticky syrup – or at least I would have done if my children hadn’t kept stealing spoonfuls of it from me. And the Thai waffles with green tea ice ice cream (£5.50) also disappeared in an instant.

So, much like Brexit, the generations were divided. But hopefully we can come together if they decide they can manage another taste of Thailand in the future. I’ll let them choose though – I promise not to bug them.

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Despite its faults, Thaikhun scores 8/10

For more info, go to thaikhun.co.uk