Lettuce be happy: post-degree salads & alfresco dining

If there’s one thing I’ll learn from completing my undergraduate degree, it’s to not stock up on so many grains when your landlady’s contract only lasts for 11 months. It’s also to not get cosy in a beautiful kitchen that’s only on loan to you – (we lucked out, and got the most gorgeous house for the Exetah’ student going rate). I’ll never own a kitchen this nice again. Especially with an English literature BA. And now I’m lumped with shit loads of pearl barely, couscous, polenta, and debt.

There’s something really ominous about finishing your degree. The majority of us are currently in limbo until our graduation ceremony: too qualified to work in Tesco’s and too inexperienced to work for Penguin publishing house. It seems that reading all that Barthes and Foucault amounted to nothing. Temporarily. Thankfully, I’m motivated by learning and the thrill of it, and not by money – so I’m due to move to Glasgow this September to study an MLitt (Scottish alternative to MA) in English literature: Modernities. I’m so bloody excited. But I still need to get rid of all these grains.

I can’t come to terms with the fact that I’ll be leaving behind some of the greatest friends I’ve made at university. Consequently, I’ve been inviting friends round for dinner frequently and we’ve been enjoying the meals in the garden. These two salad dishes are sociable, economical and they make your heart happy. Both vegan and served at whatever temperature you fancy. Here’s to good health and to promising futures.

Jaunty post-degree pearl barley salad (serves 4; vegan) (my favourite)

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Thanks Maddy, for use of your Polaroid

Ingredients:

  • 1 ripe aubergine, cut into 1.5cm thick disks
  • 1 sweet potato, cut into 1cm cubes
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp chilli flakes
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 2 tbsp tahini
  • 200g pearl barley
  • 2 tbsp good olive oil
  • Half a bag of lettuce of your choice
  • 100g drained olives
  • Generous handful of dates, pitted and roughly chopped
  • Generous handful of dried apricots, roughly chopped
  • 1 pomegranate
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Work lunches 

Method:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 170°c. Coat the aubergine disks and sweet potato cubes in olive oil, salt, garlic and all the spices. On baking parchment, spread the veg out and cook in the oven for 30 minutes.
  2. While the veg is gently roasting, wash the pearl barley in cold water. Cook on a medium heat on the hob with 200ml water. Once the water is boiled, simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. Zest the lemon and combine with the tahini, 1 tbsp olive oil and lemon juice. Prepare the olives and dried fruits by roughly chopping.
  4. Leave the aubergine and sweet potato to cool, and drain the pearl barely if needed. Combine all prepared ingredients together. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and layer onto a tray of lettuce and sprinkle on the pomegranate seeds to finish.

Lentil tabbouleh (serves 4; vegan) (great with pimms)

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What I like about this one is that it requires minimal cooking and so is great to prepare in advance to a BBQ, or just for packed lunches. Is it socially acceptable to bring pimms to work too? Please ignore the Tesco delivery boxes I used for my haphazard student BBQ. I do think they look quite edgy though.

Ingredients:

  • 2 sweet potatoes, diced into 1.5cm cubes
  • 1 tin of pre-cooked green lentils, drained
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 2 ripe tomatoes
  • 2 big bunches of coriander and mint, chopped
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

Method:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 170ºC. Parboil the sweet potato cubes, drain and coat in all the spices. Sprinkle on the garlic, season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and bake in the oven for 25 minutes.
  2. While this is in the oven, prepare dice the red onion and tomato. In a large bowl, combine the rest of the fresh ingredients and add the sweet potato once cooked!

 

Circa 1924 – a dining experience

Exeter is fortunate to be home to Circa 1924, a rare and eloquent gem of a restaurant, hidden amongst the myriad of chains burgeoning in the city centre. I was aware of its presence, near the entrance to Northenhay gardens, because it had taken over the sister chain to Harry’s restaurant approximately a year and a half ago. That it is a relatively new and entirely unique establishment the menu is surprisingly robust, and the restaurant incredibly distinct. Behind it’s creative initiative is an approximate date – in the midst of the roaring 20s.

Upon entering my host took the liberty to reserve me a table at the downstairs speakeasy, where pinstriped mixologists in braces delivered flavour combinations so good they should never have survived the prohibition. I learnt that the 1920s thrived as the golden age of cocktails to disguise the poorer quality spirits available, sparking experimentation in alcoholic concoctions. And Circa 1924 house cocktails are certainly experimental. Take the ‘Rum & Raisin Flip’, consisting of pecan and raisin infused Doorlys 5 year old rum, with date nectar, egg and cream. Or the ‘Dill & Fennel martini’, accentuating my favourite herbs in a gin based beverage. I started on the ‘Licorice Espresso martini’ for a pick-me-up before the meal for optimum concentration as hopeful food critic.

There’s a theatre to Circa 1924. The cheerful waiters served flawlessly and attentively whilst dancing around the room. Meals came out served immediately, without a second wasted  – no odd dishes sitting on the side in the kitchen. I watched astounded as a waiter poured my date’s Brixham crab bisque starter from a height into a bowl near her lap – without a single drop of it out of place.

When attending restaurant reviews my philosophy is to try the best thing that menu has to offer. Sometimes that means I have to bend my vegetarianism. Once I was told by my server that Circa 1924’s policy is to only sustainably farm fish within a <50km radius from the restaurant building, I felt a little more morally reassured about the plethora of seafood and fish I was about to consume. The clues in the title – ‘Brixham crab bisque’ gives you an indication of just how fresh that starter will be. Each evening there is an availability of 3 fish (on this particular evening lemon sole, mackerel and whitebait) which is hand selected by the restaurant’s own fish monger from fish markets across Devon, ready to be grilled for a succulent main.

 

I started off with the ‘crispy softshell crab’ which was a whole crab cooked in a very delicate batter, garnished with a fiery chilli and spring onion salad, drizzled with a dark aromatic sweet chilli sauce and wasabi. The crab was so tender and soft, and perfectly matched with an inventive twist of the Japanese style salad.

For main, I just had to have moules marinière as the mussels were farmed from the river Exe. The white wine sauce with parsley, lashings of double cream and caramelised onion. Testament to how exquisite it tasted, my date, who is terrified by the texture of mussels, kept helping herself to more.

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My instinct was to go for the white chocolate panna cotta for dessert, but then my date was adamant to have that – so I opted for the dark chocolate truffle torte, served with raspberry sorbet and coulis. Potentially this was the richest chocolate dessert I have ever tasted, so it is not for the faint hearted, but this was beautifully offset by the crisp raspberry sorbet. The petite panna cotta would have been a little too sweet for me if not accompanied by the thick, tart gooseberry coulis and biscuit crumble. The panna cotta was definitely the best option to end the evening meal on a delicate and light note.

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Having dinner at a restaurant that boasts such a decadent menu – complete with oysters and rare-breed steaks aged for a minimum of 28 days – seems a faraway and abstract concept for students such as myself. However, Circa 1924 also offers ways to experience such luxuries without the expensive price tag. On Tuesdays, it’s free corkage. On “hump day” Wednesday, steaks and cocktail infusions are 2 for 1. And from Tuesday to Saturday, you can have an express 2 course lunch for only £10.95. Please take full advantage of this offers, as I can vouch that it is the best dining experience I’ve had whilst living in Exeter.

Click here to see the full menu, and restaurant details