Sunday, 29 May 2016

Potsticker Soup Dumplings

I long for the day London gets a Din Tai Fung. I'm still convinced we still might, because bloody everywhere else has; Dubai, LA, Hong Kong, Macau, Sydney, Melbourne - even Seattle has TWO branches! Come on! Anyway, if you haven't been to Din Tai Fung, you must; they make some really good siu long bao (soup dumplings). Delicate steamed little dumplings of different flavours, filled with soup to pop in your mouth. It's a real art, getting the skins thin enough so they're not doughy, but robust enough to hold the delicious broth and filling. I haven't found anywhere in London that matches their quality, though I haven't attempted the higher end Park Chinois-type places, admittedly. 

What's a girl to do when the craving hits? Make my own. 

I won't lie. It's not a quick process, and I knew that on the undertaking. The reason for this is that you need to make a stock out of chicken bones and pigs trotters so that it heavily gelatinises, and you can then whip it into the dumpling filling. Have you ever wondered how they get that soup in the dumplings? This is it; when the dumplings are cooking, the meat jelly melts into the soup. Phwoar. Meat jelly. So it's really a 2 day affair where you need to make the stock, solidify it, and then the graft happens. 

I also decided to add the complication of making my own wrappers. This was so that they would be pliable enough for me to pleat them into buns. My bun-pleating went all sorts of horribly wrong - @mayluuluu I am not - so I stuck to what I knew, and decided to turn them into potsticker soup dumplings instead. 


It worked damn well, but you definitely need a really good non-stick pan for this, lest anything sticks and you burst your precious dumplings and thus rid them of their juice. Disaster. If all goes to plan, you should be rewarded with these beauties, ready to be dressed with soy sauce, a touch of vinegar and chilli oil. Crunchy bottomed, steamed top and bulging with soup. Pretty exciting stuff. 

Potsticker Soup Dumplings

Makes around 30

For the broth, and the day before: 

1 pig trotter
400gr chicken wings
3 slices of ginger, lightly bashed
The whites of 4 spring onions, chopped roughly
A few white peppercorns

Put the pigs trotter and wings in a large saucepan and cover with water. Add a hefty pinch or three of salt, and bring the water to the boil. Boil for 5 minutes and discard the water. Now clean everything really thoroughly under cold running water; this helps keep the broth scum-free. 

Put everything back into the pan, cover again with water, add the ginger, spring onion and peppercorns, and simmer on a low heat with the lid on for at least 3 hours. You should have at least a litre of broth by the end of this, as you're keeping the lid on. Remove from the heat, leave to cool, and fish out the trotter and chicken wings. Strain through a sieve into a large bowl, then line the sieve with muslin or kitchen towels and strain again. Then simmer gently for half an hour without the lid to reduce down by about a third. Remove, and taste - you'll need to add around a teaspoon of salt at this stage, but add it incrementally and keep tasting, in case it gets too salty. My neighbour's cat very much enjoyed the chicken wing meat stripped from the bones. Waste not want not. 

Place the broth in the fridge overnight. 

For the filling:

300gr fatty minced pork
2 inches of ginger, grated into a bowl, with 1tbsp water in it
The greens of 4 spring onions, minced
A large pinch of white pepper
1 tbsp oyster sauce 
2 tsp light soy
A large pinch of salt
A few leaves of Napa cabbage
Cooking oil

Dipping sauce & garnish: 

Slivered ginger
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
1 tsp chilli oi
Snipped chives

In a large bowl, add the pork, salt, oyster sauce, light soy, white pepper and spring onions. Squeeze the ginger pulp and add the ginger water to the pork via a sieve. Mix the pork in one direction continuously with chopsticks until it starts to become a sticky lump. You'll need to do this for at least a few minutes. 

Take the meat jelly out of the fridge, and you'll only need half. You can freeze the other half. Chop into cubes, and mix again into the pork, stirring one direction continuously, and eventually whipping the pork up with the jelly until everything is amalgamated and no jelly lumps remain. 

You can make your own wrappers (double the quantities in that recipe) which is a bit of a pain and it takes a long time, or use ready bought, the meat-receiving side wettened. Fold them like so (YES IT'S ME being all awkward and that, sorry). Do make sure the folds and top are well sealed. 

Place the dumplings on the cabbage leaves (the leaves are so that they don't stick to the plate) while you make the rest. 

Either freeze them now, or cover them and place in the fridge (maximum a day, really) or cook them. To do so, add a tablespoon of oil to a non-stick pan on a medium heat and add the dumplings, flat side down. Fry for 3 minutes until golden, and then add around 5 tbsp cold water, plus the saucepan lid so that they steam. Let them steam for 5 minutes, then remove the lid, evaporate the water off, and let the bottoms fry again for another minute, at which point they should be bronzed.

To serve, garnish with snipped chives, mix the dipping sauce together, and for god's sake - let them cool for 5 minutes, unless you want boiling hot soup squirting straight down your gullet.

As an aside...

If you live in London and can't be arsed to make these, I can make them for you! 30 of them! But wait. What's that? Yes, I DO want something in return. SPONSOR ME!  

In November I'm cycling 500km across Ghana with over 6 days and I'm fundraising for them. All proceeds go to the charity and its projects; my trip will be entirely funded by myself. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

Pappardelle with Lamb & Olive Ragu

I will readily admit I am a terrific pasta fiend. It makes up a lot of my diet; it's just so easy, and satisfying. I'm a pretty active person so I don't buy into any of this 'pasta makes you fat' carb-avoidance, so don't get my started on courgetti. A lot of the sauces I make to go with my pasta binges are quick versions, that take as long as it takes for the pasta to cook, but once in a while, I'll go all out with a long, slow-cooked sauce, richly reduced over time, to dress those glossy noodles. 

I favour the noodle-shape. I won't eat penne. I don't know why, but there's something about that shape I just don't like. Rigatoni is great. Penne? No. 

If you're into pasta as much as I am, there's no doubt you'll have tried all the brands, from supermarket's own, to De Cecco and more. My new favourite is La Pasta di Aldo (bought here), an air-dried egg pasta. It takes a shorter time to cook, around 7 minutes, but it has the bite of dried pasta, and the flavour of fresh. It's not cheap - £3.99 for 250gr - but it's really worth it for the superior texture. 

I don't recommend that you put away 150gr pappardelle in one sitting. It was the night before Tough Mudder, a half marathon slog through obstacle courses and freezing water so I needed the energy. 100gr is much more civilised, though I don't regret that portion for a second. Lamb shoulder is cooked with alliums in a tomato sauce until it reduces, the lamb falls apart into soft chunks, and the whole lot is finished off with sliced olives and spinach. Vitamins. A hearty grate of pecorino finishes it, and the promise of a slump on the couch afterwards.

Lamb & Olive Ragu

Serves 4 normal people

300gr lamb shoulder, shank or braising cut on the bone
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced 
2 ribs of celery, peeled and diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 sprigs of thyme
2 tins of the best canned tomatoes you can find
2 tbsp tomato puree
1 tsp sugar 
1 tsp sherry vinegar
1/2 tsp salt, + to taste
Black pepper
A large handful of green olives, pitted and sliced
2 large handfuls of fresh spinach
400gr dried pappardelle
A small handful of basil leaves
Pecorino, to serve
1 tbsp cooking oil

In a large saucepan, add the cooking oil on a medium heat and brown the piece of lamb all over, slowly, until deep bronze. Remove and place to one side. Add the carrots, onion, celery, a few twists of black pepper and garlic and cook over a low to medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, puree, sugar, sherry vinegar, salt, and refill a tin with water and add that too. Bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and blitz with a stick blender. If it's very thick, add a little more water. 

Plonk the lamb back in with the thyme, place the lid on and simmer very gently on a low heat for 2.5 hours. 

Remove the lamb, leave to cool for 15 minutes while the sauce reduces further without the lid. Remove the meat from the bone and chop roughly, and add back to the sauce. Add the olives. Continue to cook on a low heat without the lid. It should be making a plop plop sound, and make you regret wearing a white shirt nearby. 

Meanwhile, cook the pappardelle in heavily salted water, until al dente. Reserve a mugful of the pasta water, add the spinach leaves to the pasta, give it a good stir so they wilt, and drain. 

Add the pasta back to the saucepan on a very low heat and add the lamb ragu in ladlefuls incrementally, tossing the pasta as you go, adding a dribble or two of the cooking water. You want it to come together in a glossy, rich sauce. Keep adding the lamb ragu and tossing the pasta until the pasta is just coated, but not swimming. You may have some sauce left. Yay!

Dish into warmed bowls or plates, top with grated pecorino and a few scattered basil leaves, and serve. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Bigbe Chicken, Chinatown

I get pretty excited about new arrivals in Chinatown; often restaurants are changing their names for whatever reason and not much else changes, but on a wet and windy trudge through Soho I saw a shining yellow beacon; Bigbe Chicken, a specialist Taiwanese fried chicken shop. 

I popped in one evening, late, around 9:30pm to see what was up. Obviously still very new, it's a really simple set up; fried chicken, fried squid, sweet potato fries, and soft drinks. That's it. Don't come here looking for a salad. 

I asked the nice chap behind the counter lots of questions; they're new, the chef is from Taiwan, and they serve really good fried chicken. The powders are for you to select to have shaken on your chicken. I asked so many questions, in fact, that the chef offered me up some of their off-menu chicken skin, freshly fried, and for the other customers waiting too. He raised his eyebrows - "are you sure?" - surprised that I hoovered it up (I think a lot of Chinese are still surprised by white people enjoying the 'undesirable' bits. They also never notice the Chinese bit of me.)

The man is obviously incredibly talented at the fryer, for that was one tasty chicken-pop. I was talked into a behemoth chicken breast, battered out flat and bigger than my head (£5.50). Once out of the frier, I asked for a mixture of plum powder (sweet and tangy) and chilli (not spicy enough, but a good tingle). 

The chicken is well marinated, crisp and juicy. I burnt my tongue and scraped the roof of my mouth scoffing it down. Sweet potato fries, which they very sweetly insisted I have after I'd paid for just the chicken, were great; crisp, salty and with soft insides, and also garnished with flavourings. Next time - curry powder.

Afterwards, I died of salty thirst. It's probably not going to win any health awards, but it was so filthy-good. Shame the sign printer managed to print off all their wall art with 'deep fired chicken'. 

I'll be back, undoubtedly. 

Bigbe Chicken
10 Little Newport St, 
London WC2H 7JJ

Sunday, 24 April 2016

XO Sauce

It feels, perhaps, a little cruel posting about XO sauce when dried scallops are so difficult to get in the UK. But just in case you know of someone heading to Hong Kong soon, or if you manage to find some sold online, then this is the recipe for you.

XO sauce doesn't actually contain any cognac, which 'XO' is so commonly associated with. XO here is used to denote luxury and high quality, an exclusiveness gained from using very expensive ingredients. The sauce is made up of dried scallops and dried shrimp, along with garlic, shallots and chilli. The whole lot is then carefully simmered in a lot of oil to dehydrate and intensify the ingredients, thus creating a sauce that is sweet, spicy and intensely savoury all at once. It's addictive; I stir it into rice, drizzle it on steamed vegetables, blob it atop eggs, noodles, congee. I've mixed it with a little mayonnaise to smear on a fish finger sandwich. It's very versatile.

XO Sauce

Makes 1 litre

300gr dried scallops, rehydrated overnight in cold water
80gr dried small shrimp, rehydrated overnight in cold water
12 garlic cloves, minced evenly
150gr shallots, minced evenly
80gr cooking chorizo, or Chinese dried ham, cut into tiny cubes
8 birds eye chillis, minced
50gr dried chilli flakes
60ml decent light soy sauce
1 tbsp brown sugar
700ml vegetable oil

Drain the shrimps and scallops, and using your hands work the scallops so that they're in fine and even threads. Pound the shrimp in a pestle and mortar, or use a food processor, to process them into a fine dust.

In a large wok or saucepan, add 50ml of the oil on a medium heat, then add the garlic, shallots, chilli flakes and sugar. Stir to combine, and then add the rest of the ingredients and the rest of the oil. Cook on a medium heat until everything starts to sizzle and fizz, then turn it down to a low heat and leave to very gently simmer for 3 hours, stirring occasionally. It should deepen in colour, and intensify in flavour. If after 2 hours this hasn't happened, turn the heat up ever so slightly for the last hour, taking care it doesn't burn.

Once cooled, pack into sterilised jars, leaving a good layer of oil over the top of the contents.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Springtime Totally Inauthentic Courgette Carbonara

Shh. Don't tell the Italians.

There's enough trouble and strife over what constitutes a traditional 'carbonara', without lil' ol' me wading in with this massively inauthentic one, all claiming to be a carbonara and that. Cream? No cream? Cream? No cream? 

I'm in the no cream camp. I like my pasta dressed, glossy and evenly coated, not rich and swamped; just swathed. But I also like vegetables in my life, I like greens and I like incorporating their texture and flavour. Don't get me wrong, I'm never going to do away with the pasta entirely and agonisingly shave courgettes to make courgetti (BARGH) but just a little makes me happy. So I added courgette to this carbonara, and also a handful of parsley. They'll get over it. 

Springtime Courgette Pasta 'Carbonara'

Serves 2

200gr spaghetti, linguine, or fusilli (pictured)
100gr pancetta, cubed
1 courgette, julienned (get one of these handy peelers)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 eggs, beaten
A huge handful of finely grated parmesan
A small handful of flat-leaf parsley, minced
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp olive oil

Put on a big pan of well salted water to boil, then add the pasta. 

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan and fry the pancetta on a medium heat until crisp, adding the julienned courgette halfway. Add the garlic, turn the heat down to low, and stir well, frying for another 3 or 4 minutes until the garlic has lost its harshness. Take off the heat, throw in the parsley, stir and set aside. 

Add the cheese to the beaten eggs into a large bowl with a pinch of salt and pepper and mix well. Add the bacon and courgette mixture to the eggs when it has cooled. 

When the pasta is al dente, reserve a mugful of the pasta water and drain. Very quickly, add the pasta with a couple tablespoons of the pasta water to the eggs and toss gently but thoroughly with a pair of tongs. You want the eggs to set but not scramble. Add another tbsp of pasta water, and mix again thoroughly, before placing on warmed plates or bowls. Season generously with pepper. 

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Portland, Fitzrovia

Tuna tartare with salmon roe & seaweed crisps
It's not often I visit somewhere four times without writing it up; I obviously like it a lot to keep going back, especially with the number of restaurants in London that I have yet to try. Portland, situated just north of Oxford Circus, has quietly impressed and fed me for a couple of years now. I've been there for many occasions; my father's birthday dinner, a boozy leaving lunch, a work lunch, and a lunch just 'cos. One must lunch.

Truffle & Gruyère macarons
Razor clams
The menu starts with snacks, usually irresistible, and often a little startling in flavour; a true amuse bouche, really. On my most recent visit even before the snacks we had cheesy gougère pastries, warm from the oven, which popped in the mouth to reveal molten, luxurious cheese. White truffle and Gruyère macarons are really clever; mushroomy, sweet, balanced into savoury by the cheese. Raw razor clams are chopped up and drizzled with kimchi and wild garlic oil, to be slurped down in one. It's never nothing short of a delight. 

Lobster sabayon
Beautiful crockery showcases the most incredible ingredients, treated just with the slightest teasing of complementary flavours. Last Autumn, a creamy, cheesy, almost a carbonara-like dish of salsify with crisp cured ham comforted us, like a soothing hug on a plate, carbonara-like in flavour. Now that we're coming into Spring, lobster in a sabayon-like sauce, light and luxurious, was heaving with al denté verdant vegetables. Their menu changes daily, reflecting the seasons and the produce that comes with it. 

Portland is pretty much perfect to visit as a party of 3, since they offer 3 choices per course. I'm not one to opt for the vegetarian offering though, especially not if the Specials board lists Challans duck glazed with maple syrup, confit duck, foie gras and grilled pear. It was £30, which isn't a trifling amount, but also came with the most stunning salad I've had, and unfortunately did not document pictorially, I was enjoying it so much. It was made up of crisp vegetables, fresh peas and finely shaved pear all tumbled together, to shine through the richness of the duck. If I'm honest I'd have done away with the confit duck; it didn't add much to the party. 

Sides are often superfluous but I usually enjoy them; on our latest occasion roasted cauliflower was far too cooked, and fell apart into a mush. But I've had gorgeous cheesy potatoes in a fluffy, creamy sauce which made me glad I had the space for them. Desserts are always inventive; pumpkin, blood orange, and meringue I originally veto'd but our server was horrified for us to miss it, and he was quite right. Look how pretty it is! A hazelnut eclair was light as air, pretty as a picture. Chocolate with beetroot and blackberries last year was the absolute epitome of Autumn, deep and earthy, lightened by sweet chocolate mousse. 

I'm a great fan of Portland. I never fail to have a really lovely time there; they make me feel like a grown-up, and on a special treat. The prices do too - it's not cheap, or affordable enough to be done regularly, but it is good value for the level of cooking and the quality of the produce. Quite an important distinction, that. The service is helpful, especially with the wine list which I'm told is rather special, and warm and welcoming. On the second time I visited I was startled into wide-eyes when my waiter chimed "welcome back!". It felt nice to be remembered, homely even. 

113 Great Portland Street
London W1W 6QQ

Tel: 0207 436 3261

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Dover Sole & Wild Garlic Nuoc Cham Noodle Soup

It's Spring! It's Spring! The evenings are getting lighter, the days longer, and ok sure whatever the weather is not getting any warmer but that's just round the corner. 

I get more excited about wild garlic than I do about asparagus coming into season. Asparagus you can technically get all year round - and apparently you are a very bad person if you buy the Peruvian stuff (though no one seems bothered that we're clearing them out of avocados for our trendy brunches) - but wild garlic is just a very short season, from around March to June. The leafy greens grow in woodlands, and are easy to spot; a pointed leaf that smells strongly of garlic. 

Apparently. I just buy it from the vegetable stall that sets up in the farmer's market in Camberwell, because Camberwell does not have any woodland, and quite frankly I can't be arsed to go find any. I won't begrudge them the £1 for going to do the hard work for me. 

When cooked, wild garlic wilts like spinach does, so I tend to use it raw to flavour things, like I did with this noodle soup. Here, I've used it instead of the traditional garlic cloves to make a spicy, salty, sour nuoc cham sauce, that's Vietnamese in origin. It's really lovely, this - a light, delicate broth that's flavoured with lemongrass and chilli, and for good measure I also simmered the Dover sole carcass in there, after I was done with filleting it, for a little extra depth. You can use any greens you like; a couple stalks of purple sprouting broccoli and some sugar snap peas were my preference. You can use white fish fillets of any kind but you may need to source some fish stock for the richness (a simmered hake head would do nicely).

Dover Sole & Wild Garlic Nuoc Cham Noodle Soup 

Serves 2

1 Dover sole, around 400gr, skinned and filleted (here's a How-To)
160gr dried flat rice noodles, cooked in boiling water until tender, and drained
1 stick of lemongrass
2 red birdseye chillis
A handful of greens, blanched and refreshed in ice water
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar
Juice of 1 lime
A large handful of wild garlic
A drizzle of chilli oil (optional)

It's really an assembly job, this. Divide the noodles into individual bowls and garnish with the blanched vegetables. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan with a lid, add around 400ml water with the lemongrass stick, roughly chopped up, one of the red chillis, roughly chopped, and the dover sole carcass (but not the skin). Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes with the lid on. Add the dover sole fillets, simmer for 3 more minutes, then remove the fillets and set to one side. Place the fillets into the noodle bowls evenly. 

Mince the wild garlic by hand, and place in a bowl with the sugar, fish sauce and lime. Add the chopped chilli and mix well. Taste, and adjust if necessary. 

Strain the broth and bring to a hard boil, then pour evenly over the bowls of noodles. Plop a healthy tablespoon or two of the wild garlic nuoc cham on top, and drizzle with chilli oil if using. 

(For more recipes using Nuoc Cham, or other noodle soups, buy my book, Chinatown Kitchen.)