Thursday, 17 July 2014

Too darn hot

We're enjoying one of those very British heatwaves that make Australians and Texans giggle and pat us on the head. But it's hot for here, OK? Too hot to do much cooking - which is unfortunate, because I have also had a lot of cherries to preserve - and definitely too hot to spend much time indoors sorting out blog photos and writing thoughtful prose.
 So grab yourself a cooling drink (these creamsicle margaritas are a good choice) and come and lie on the lawn with Urchin and me. And if you haven't tried kim chi on your hot dog instead of sauerkraut, you are definitely missing something good. Tangy, spicy, cooling - just what a grilled sausage inna bun needs.

Sunday, 13 July 2014


It does occasionally feel like I am the last food blogger in Britain not to have a book deal. I am OK with that: I don't think I bring anything new to the table with the recipes I write. But I am very interested to see what other bloggers are bringing out, and was absolutely delighted to attend the book launch for Mimi Aye's first book, Noodle!. It was a fun party - the wine flowed, the snacks were noodly, the publisher was really late and arrived soaked to the skin. I got to put faces to twitter handles, catch up with a few people I hadn't seen in a while and gossip in more than 140 character bursts.

Mimi had a pile of books for sale, so I bought one and took it over to her for signing. It took a remarkably long time and I assumed she was checking facebook to see how to spell my name, BUT NO, she was drawing me this adorable little picture of Urchin eating noodles.

The following day I sat with said cat, a cup of coffee and some book marks, and had a flick through the book:
Sticky page tabs are the best things in the world
Having identified one or two dishes I liked the look of, I had to narrow it down a bit. Quite a few of the recipes call for speciality ingredients; those were going to have to wait until I went into Chinatown. Fortunately the thing I wanted most to eat was doable.
Mimi's Bún chả - the photography in the book is lovely
Bún chả was one of the dishes she'd served in little teaser-size portions at the launch, and the combination of pork, noodles, pickles and firey sauce is absolutely perfect. I was pretty impressed to discover that Ocado stock daikon, so there were no barriers to making this dish. Other than, of course, the fact that I totally forgot to get fresh herbs. I decided to persevere, using frozen chopped herbs, which gave some of the flavour, if not the spirit of Vietnamese cooking.
My Bún chả
It was seriously good. The pickles are sweet, crunchy, gently pungent, and addictive. I ate... quite a lot of them before the meal. The pork mixture is very wet, and I couldn't really see how it would hold together, but after resting the excess liquid gets absorbed. The patties end up with a deep flavour even if, like mine, they were just cooked in a frying pan and don't have nifty grilling stripes on them.
Next I turned to one of the quick fusion dishes - ham and pea shoot noodles, a cute summer take on pea and ham soup. I always love a pink and green pasta dish, so I was very well disposed towards it just because it was pretty. I felt there was something lacking in the flavour, so I added some chopped spring onions, which added the oniony brightness I was looking for. Very quick, very simple, and I suspect this is something children would eat without too much of a fight.
The teriyaki salmon was also really quick to throw together and the sauce was much nicer than any of the commercial ones I have tried. I would usually have teriyaki dishes with rice, but the noodles and bok choy were very good with it. I still have some leftover in the fridge, which I think will cuddle up to some chicken fairly soon.
Having then made a trip to Chinatown, I was able to make a couple of the more complex dishes. The curry laksa had a really authentic flavour (and by "authentic" I mean it tastes like the ones we used to get in Sydney). I forgot about the eggs on the stove, so they were boiled to buggery, but the combination of tastes, temperatures and textures made it such a pleasure to eat. Even if you think you don't like tofu, I urge you to try this with the fried tofu puffs - the way they hold the thick gravy is heaven.

The last dish I tried before voluntary admission to noodle detox was Hong Kong-style wonton noodle soup. I was starting from behind with this because instead of picking up wonton wrappers (thin, square, white) I picked up dumpling wrappers (thicker, round, yellow), so the description of how to fold the dumplings made not a lick of sense to me.
Mimi pointed me towards this video of how to fold round dumplings. I watched it about ten times before taking a deep breath and heading into the kitchen. I was very happy with how they turned out! I think they look quite professional, although I confess it did take me quite a lot longer than the girl in the video. I used just egg yolk to seal them, because I used the white for the week's batch of spiced nuts, but that was plenty to hold the dumplings together.
Now, Mimi claims that she isn't an expert, just an enthusiast, but from the point of view of another enthusiast, this book contains considerable expertise. She has an engaging writing style and explains the origins of her dishes really well. There are a lot of authentic recipes (in this case, "authentic" meaning containing ingredients that might scare your honey-chicken orderer in the local Chinese restaurant) without being overly didactic. I think it's a really valuable resource.

It's available from Amazon of course, but if you buy it directly from her, she'll sign it and you might get a little picture with the dedication. If you are really lucky, she might draw you an Urchin of your own.
We had a slightly higher wonton-to-bowl ratio than is traditional.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Curry and samosas

The thing about Paul being a contractor, is that every three to six months or thereabouts he is in a new workplace. Navigating new colleagues, new politics, new office culture, new desks, new places to have lunch. Sounds hellish to me, but he is used to it. One of the ways he has figured out to speed up the integration process is talking to the new colleagues about food.

Of course, him talking to colleagues about food tends to result in him coming home and asking me to cook the things they have been talking about.

A couple of weeks ago, it was samosas. Now, we have a bit of marital discord when it comes to samosas. For Paul, a samoosa (sic) is a spicy lamb triangle, wrapped in filo pastry. For me, samosa pastry is sturdier, filled with potato and pea masala and folded into more of a cone shape. To fulfil his request for homemade samosas, we compromised. I made my own flour and water pastry, filled it with spicy keema mattar, and attempted to fold it into triangles. The folding wasn't wildly successful; there is clearly a knack to it that I don't have, but the samosas themselves, served with a tamarind and date dipping sauce, were really delicious.
Then this weekend, the request was for a mutton curry. Or rather, the pronouncement was that he was going to make a mutton curry. Which he did, and very delicious it was too, chilli-hot and thick with freshly ground spices. To accompany it, I made this delicious sweet and sour aubergine dish, Hyderabadi Baingan, which is going just below nasu dengaku on my personal list of the most delectable aubergine dishes in the world.

I also made some garlic and coriander naan-y flatbreads. Normally I use a yeast-raised dough for this sort of flatbread, but as I had some buttermilk left over from the scones of the previous weekend, I decided to make a soda bread. Indian-Irish fusion - the face of modern Britain. I was actually startled by how little difference there was in texture between this and a yeast-raised bread. It was fluffy and elastic and just right for mopping up the turmeric-yellow juices. Of course, several days later my fingernails are still the bright yellow of a habitual smoker, but such is life.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Meat-free Monday - eggs, peas and feta

I saw a picture on pinterest, of a dish similar to this, but the link didn't work and my google-fu let me down. So I made up my own version. It has several of your so-called five-a-day and is utterly delicious and satisfying.

Spread a bag of washed baby spinach leaves on a wide, microwave safe plate and zap for a minute, just to wilt it a little.

Top with a finely sliced spring onion, 80g each of shelled edamame, sugar snaps and peas, cooked until just tender and drained thoroughly. Sprinkle with 50g cubed feta (or, in this case, reduced-fat Greek-style "salad cheese"), boiled eggs and 1tbs balsamic vinegar. Season with freshly ground black pepper.

SouperSundays it's one for Deb's Souper (soup salad and sammie) Sunday.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Quo Vadis, Soho

My husband has a long-standing crush on Jeremy Lee. I think it was born while watching Great British Menu, and then consolidated when Lee appeared alongside his friend and former boss Simon Hopkinson - one of Paul's other long-standing food crushes - on Simon Hopkinson Cooks. However it came about, it's meant Quo Vadis has been on his wishlist for a good couple of years.

Last week, our fortnightly date night coincided with a sister-in-law's birthday, so we decided to be a little more extravagant and finally go to book a table.

I was a bit early, having miscalculated how long I needed to spend in See Woo, which triggered the only real flaw in the evening. While they said it wasn't a problem, showed me to the table and fetched me a menu and a glass of prosecco, when Paul, and then Shiona arrived, they were shown to the table and abandoned without menus or drinks for quite some while. We seemed to have arrived right at a changeover point for staff and couldn't attract any attention.

Once we did flag down a waiter, however, service was smooth, the pacing of the meal was spot on and the food was divine.
Paul ordered a mysterious bottle of Italian pinot noir with a German label. We've had a few pinot neros recently, which have generally been quite hearty. This was much more delicate, and perfect for a warm night with a mixture of red meat and fish dishes.
 The smoked eel sandwich is a signature dish, which I believe Lee brought with him from his previous gig at Terence Conran's Blueprint Cafe, so Paul chose that as his starter.  He said it was sublime - creamy and smoky - although he wasn't sure what the sauce was. I'd have assumed horseradish but he didn't think so.
In an effort to moderate the amount I ate, I manfully rejected the offer of the delicious-smelling sourdough bread. Although this led to a pet peeve - they took away the bread and butter plate. I mean, it was a good thing, because it stopped me from changing my mind, but they can't know that I am not going to change my mind! That bit of virtue out of the way, I ordered a starter of artichoke, lemon and ricotta crostini.

Let me tell you, this was the most perfect dish I have eaten this year. Fragile, crunchy, oily toasts topped with beautiful fresh ricotta, tiny chargrilled artichoke hearts, citrus wedges and a tumble of toasted nuts and fried breadcrumbs. I think the cool kids are referring to such things as "savoury granola". I assumed, from the name of the dish, that the citrus wedges were lemon, but they were a delicate pink colour and had a mild, fresh flavour that didn't immediately scream "lemon". It was so beautifully balanced in flavour and texture, I could eat it every day for a month at least.
Like any good food blogger, I'd checked out the menu online before leaving the house. And I'd had a sudden burst of recommender's remorse. Shiona isn't a particularly adventurous eater. She prefers well-done meat, fairly lean, and no offal. Fish, but no other seafood. Fortunately there was a roast lamb with peas and polenta that appealed to her. I had a taste, and the polenta was pure witchcraft - crisp on top, with peas incorporated into the polenta, it had a soft, almost custardy texture in the middle. Definitely a dish to win over polenta naysayers. And the lamb was cooked slowly, until it was only barely pink in the middle, much more to my taste than very rare, French-style lamb.
Paul's main ambition in eating out, for the last year, I guess, has been to get a really large, well-cooked tranche of white fish. He's very specific about these things. He thought his brill with girolles and beans was good, but suffered by comparison with the smoked eel sandwich.
As for me, I was captivated by the idea of eating puffball mushrooms, having seen footage (possibly on a David Attenborough show) of the way they explode into spores. Fortunately this was a young mushroom, picked before the spores had formed, sliced and fried with lots of garlic  and served with delicious tender pork, asparagus and broad beans. Spring on a plate.

We shared a correct if somewhat dull rocket salad, delicious fat chips and a lovely dish of mixed courgettes with mint. And then took a deep breath and considered dessert.
While Shiona is, as I have mentioned, quite a particular eater, she does know what she likes and what she likes is chocolate. This interest is catered to by the St Emilion au chocolat - a rich, boozy, chocolate mousse cake on a base of macaroons, first introduced to the British plate by Elizabeth David, I believe. It looked absolutely heart-stopping, but she didn't seem to struggle to finish it.
I went for raspberry shortcake. Three discs of incredibly short hazelnut shortbread, sandwiching vanilla-y custard, cream and sweet fresh raspberries. A very good end to a meal - not too rich or substantial but extremely delicious.

The bill, with tip, came to £200. Which I thought was pretty good value really (a glass of prosecco, a beer, a bottle of not-their-cheapest wine, 2 starters, 3 mains, 3 side dishes, 2 desserts, a brandy and a glass of sherry). Even better value since the room is lovely, the tables spacious and Helena Christensen was having her dinner a couple of tables down.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Pork pibil and cactus salad

I was so delighted with how this meal turned out! Pork shoulder, marinated in achiote, seville orange juice and a host of other delicious things and then cooked slowly for hours until meltingly tender. As I first had pork pibil at Wahaca, I used Tommi Miers' recipe, although as I had a bag of lovely sour seville oranges in the freezer (bought to make marmalade with, but then I made calamondin marmalade and didn't need extra) I used them instead of sweet oranges and vinegar. I made lurid pink quick-pickled onions. I made fluffy rice. And I made a salad of bottled sliced prickly pear paddles (nopales), with diced red pepper, sweet little cherry tomatoes, spring onions and coriander leaves. Then I crowned the plate with a dollop of sour cream. So many contrasting and complementing flavours, textures and colours. Just wonderful.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Lily's scones revisited

The thing that triggered my latest attempt at scone-making was strawberry jam. Not just any strawberry jam - jam made by my friend Penny from her own homegrown strawberries. It would have been rude not to.

I used Nigella's Lily's Scones recipe again, substituting buttermilk for the milk. I also kneaded the dough for a couple of minutes: you are always told not to overwork scone dough, but I think my previous attempts were underworked, which is why they were so crumbly.

These were definitely my best yet.


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