Saturday, 23 July 2016

Muffuletta - the Ultimate Picnic Sandwich

Muffuletta. Hur hur. Muffuletta is a round loaf, the lid sliced off, innards removed and layered with ingredients. The whole thing is then squished overnight, so that it's nice and compact to slice into. It's the perfect picnic lunch, as it's easily transported, and leaved nothing behind. 

It's traditionally from Sicily apparently, though they also use sesame bread, and  other such things such as olive salad to season it. I used a combination of cured meats, cheese, herbs and grilled vegetables. The key, really, is to make sure everything is good and dry before you start layering up, otherwise you're going to get a really soggy bread. 

You need a round loaf, with crisp outsides and soft innards. Slice that lid off, and pull out the insides. You can reserve and blitz that for breadcrumbs. 

Smear the inside with pesto, and then layer with sliced cured meat. I used chorizo and salami, you could use ham, serrano ham, etc. 

Add some grilled red peppers; I used the jarred version you can buy in supermarkets. BLOT WITH KITCHEN PAPER FIRST. No sogginess. Add some basil, perhaps.

Carry on with grilled aubergines, sliced mozzarella, sliced salami, perhaps pickled mushrooms or artichokes, until you get to the top. All blotted first. Make sure you can get the lid on. 

Wrap it tightly in cling film, then in foil, and weigh it down with something heavy, placed on a plate to even out the weight. Leave somewhere cool (but not the fridge) overnight.

Slice to serve. This is quite a sandwich; it'll serve 6 easily as a snack / with other bits, but that really depends on the size of your bread. For ease, I sliced it up pre-park outing, wrapped them all in cling film, put it back together again, and re-wrapped in the foil. I didn't want to wander around Victoria Park with a bread knife. You might be a bigger risk taker than me, though. (DON'T). 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

John The Unicorn, Peckham

It's a stupid name. Who is John? And why does he have a unicorn? It has a garish frontage, of large bold type with pink and teal signage, sticking out like a sore thumb on Peckham High Street. It's an Antic-owned pub, and by and large I've been a fan of them as they make a real effort to make each different from the other. This particular one is shabby chic inside, obviously decorated with unicorns, and it's absolutely cavernous. A huge downstairs bar / pub area and a garden is augmented with an upstairs restaurant. 

Despite its flaws (John. The. Unicorn.) the food is really very good. Head Chef Ben Mulock spent several years at The Opera Tavern, so naturally the food has a vaguely Spanish slant. Grilled cubes of light bread, served with a yeasted butter were smoky and airy, the butter giving off that mouth-wateringly savoury flavour that I love Marmite for. Chicken heart skewers were pink and juicy, on a bed of smooth white bean pureĆ©, and ridiculously good value for £4.25.

Nuggets of beef brisket were crispy and atomically hot within, topped with a pickled red onion. The menu changes every so often, and while these aren't available anymore, I imagine their replacement, smoked haddock arancini, are just as good. 

Cured trout with samphire was slightly less successful; it tasted like the fish was ever-so-slightly over-cured, so the texture was hardened. The samphire gave a good seafood flavour, but overall it needed more citrus. We bored of this quickly, though it was pretty.

We were back on track with burrata served with char-grilled tenderstem broccoli, pesto and chilli. I often think burrata is just fine drizzled with a fruity olive oil, but this was a worthwhile addition too. That creamy, dreamy cheese. 

My favourite dish of the evening was the wood-fired cauliflower with pomegranate dressing; I often have cauliflower roasted with houmous and I find the whole thing can get a bit claggy, but this bean pureĆ© was a lot lighter, creamier and all the more balanced. The pomegranate added a sweet tartness, detracting from the fire and smoke flavour. I loved this. 

I didn't love the roasted pork shoulder, the only 'main' we ordered. Served with sliced granny smith apples and roasted, crisp new potatoes, it would have been great had it not been so salty. I couldn't take it, though I did ask for it to be packaged up for me to take home, as reheated with a bland carb (I had it with rice and chilli sauce) diluted the saltiness. All the components of a great dish were there, I just wondered if there was some sort of mistake with the seasoning. 

Desserts were decent; I enjoyed my pannacotta with wild strawberries, but its the cauliflower I'll be going back for. 

John The Unicorn
157 - 159 Rye Lane
SE15 4TL 

Full disclosure; we had our bill comped, but that was very much to our surprise and we didn't know this when we ordered. All opinions are obviously my own and unfettered. 

Monday, 27 June 2016

Banh Banh, Peckham Rye

When I was travelling around the South of Vietnam, I was besotted by the food there. Giant bowls of steaming hot broth came with tangles of noodles, and baskets of fresh glistening herbs to tear into, to season each mouthful. Each street corner was cluttered with ladies hunched over charcoal barbecues, wafting smoke lazily as skewers of meat sizzled away. Every scent was mouth-watering, and I found it almost impossible to go by several hours without a snack. 

Banh Banh has opened recently in Peckham Rye. Great! Near my house. Owned by Peckham-born Vietnamese siblings, the restaurant inside is light and airy, a small number of wooden tables, nearly all booked. The menu is short, concise and keenly priced, ranging across the ubiquitous summer rolls, through to noodle salads and pho. 

Banh khot pancakes (£9) pictured above are their speciality; small, crisp savoury pancakes, their predominant flavour is coconut. A large prawn nestles in the middle, and the idea is to wrap the pancake in lettuce and herbs, dip in a nuoc cham-based dipping sauce, and eat. It's a messy business, and unfortunately I didn't really get on with them. They were just incredibly bland.

Flock and Herd fish sauce wings (£6) were impressive for the meat's good provenance, but were not even comparable to ones better, such as Salvation in Noodles' version, or those of Smoking Goat. They were apologetic in flavour, lacking in a crisp exterior. We lost interest quickly. 

It was a very warm evening, so instead of the pho, we opted for the cold bun noodle salad (£9). This came with barbecued pork patties, a spring roll, julienned lettuce and cucumber, all to be mixed in with fried shallots, noodles and a fish sauce dressing. Once again, I found the flavours to be muted; it was all very mild and felt a bit generic. 

Better was the papaya salad, which had proper acidity and zing. The black sesame cracker was a nice touch, to pile the salad on to.  

Likewise too, the beef in betel leaves drew no complaints with us, and we happily munched away on these, drenching the vermicelli noodles underneath with more nuoc cham sauce. 

All in all, it was all a bit meh for me. I had expected fun and exciting things from a place that billed itself as 'Vietnamese street food', but actually everything felt a little tame. I really wanted to like Banh Banh, but there was just no magic. 

Banh Banh
46 Peckham Rye
London SE15 4JR

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Padella, London Bridge

It's such a simple concept that it's a wonder no one thought of it already. But in a climate where you can't move for courgetti and people spiralising the shit out of our poor, unsuspecting root vegetables - M&S now sell 'noodles' made from butternut squash. I ask you! - I am glad that common sense has prevailed and the people of London are queuing up to get their forks twirling around some proper carbs. 

Padella is a cute little spot, and comes from the people that started Trullo, an Italian restaurant in Islington that's always really busy, and still turning out some incredible food at prices that won't make your eyes water. Their signature dish was braised beef shin ragu, served with pappardelle, and the popularity of that dish paved the way for a pasta-centric casual restaurant. It's by Borough Market, and you'll know it by the queue that now snakes out of its door.

I went during the press preview for lunch, and I loved the marble-topped tables and the high bar where you can watch the chefs preparing each dish. I found the squid ink tagliarini, dotted with mussels and deep with the flavour of the sea, to be a little gritty, the pici cacio e pepe (that's a hand-rolled noodle-like pasta in cheese sauce) a little too chalkily al dente. But that beef shin ragu with large, flappy pasta folds was good as ever, a delicate shaving of parmesan decorating the plate. Promise shone through.

A few weeks later I went back and after queuing an hour with a friend, happily nattering away, we sat down ravenous and resolved to order pretty much everything. This time we were seated in the cavernous basement, tables lining the walls, another bar overlooking the drinks preparation area. Burrata was served simply dressed with fruity olive oil, and a refreshing radicchio, watercress and rocket salad was bitter and properly peppery, reviving our palates for what was to come. A little salt on the leaves goes a long way. Tagliatelle with nduja, mascarpone and parsley was, as the waitress warned, nose-runningly spicy. Those delicate ribbon-like folds of pasta were a masterpiece. 

This time, the pici cacio e pepe was cooked perfectly, with a strong black pepper flavour coming through. Is anything so simple, so satisfying? Cheese, pepper, butter, pasta. I'm not sure. We waited for our third pasta dish, while the serving staff, obviously harried from the busy dining rooms, rushed past. Our beef shin pappardelle had been forgotten, but no matter, as in catching their attention we were then able to order the other three pasta dishes we'd also had our eye on. 

Tagliatelle with smoked eel and amalfi lemon was generous and rich, though comparatively it became a little one-note in flavour, the smokiness overwhelming.

You know what this is. It's that glorious beef shin pappardelle. It tasted like the beef had been braised in butter, so tender and flavoursome was it. We questioned whether that width was regulation pappardelle size, and then we realised we didn't care, as we gobbled it up.

Pesto will never taste the same again, after a sterling dish of Stracci Genovese. Stracci are sheets of pasta, torn into irregular pieces, wafer-thin and silky. Made properly with potatoes and green beans, the pesto was bright with basil.  

Ravioli of ricotta with sage butter was somewhat lacking in the flavour of sage, but when you're eating dreamy pillows of cloud, little else matters. I'd like more sage flavour though. 

Reader, six pasta dishes between two are possibly too much. One is not enough though, so take my advice and avoid wobbling home like an over-stuffed walrus and stick with two per person. You'll thank me for it. 

Obviously we were far too stuffed to even contemplate dessert, but if the lemon tart from the press preview is anything to go by, they are simple and accomplished and perhaps should not be missed if you are a sweet lover. 

With a bill of £90-ish including a litre of wine which surely would have fed 3, or even 4 petite eaters, Padella is so affordable I'd go every day if it weren't for the queues. I also have a horrifying suspicion I'd soon resemble Queen Victoria in her later years, so people of London, do me a favour and keep that queue up. 

I never thought I'd say that. 

6 Southwark Street

Sunday, 12 June 2016

My Ultimate Fish Pie

Fish pie is my favourite of all the pies. It's a little renegade, with a fluffy mashed potato topping instead of pastry; and sure, it doesn't wrap all the way around the sides. Cheese? Cheese on top? Cheese and fish? What the...? I also complete this unholy triumvirate by having just the lightest splodge of ketchup, because any type of crisp potato, like the one up top here, demands ketchup. 

I draw the line at putting hard-boiled eggs inside it though. That's just too much. Instead, I use a mixture of smoked fish, white fish and salmon, encased in a thick, rich white sauce that absolutely has to be rammed full of fragrant tarragon. If you don't like tarragon (WHY) then this is not the pie for you. 

On the topping, I have experimented far and wide with this too. One particularly fun experiment was to layer very thinly sliced new potatoes, buttered liberally, so that you get a scalloped fan effect. While it looked very impressive, it lacked the comfort of mash, and this pie really is all about the comfort. I've used a mixture of normal potato and sweet potato (don't bother), and finally I tried replacing some of the potatoes with celeriac, just because I really bloody love celeriac. It worked beautifully, but if you don't like celeriac then just go full mash. 

You must serve this with buttered peas, maybe lightly minted. I've deviated before, with steamed tenderstem broccoli, or garlicky spinach, but nothing is ever as good or as appropriate as peas. I don't know the science behind this. 

My Ultimate Fish Pie

Serves 2

1 small onion, sliced
1 bay leaf
5 pink peppercorns, lightly crushed
1/2 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 glass of dry white wine
400gr raw mixed fish; I use a mixture of smoked haddock, hake / pollack, and salmon at a ratio of 30% / 40% / 30% - chopped in chunks
400ml milk
40gr plain flour
60gr butter, + 10gr butter for the mash
A small handful of parsley, finely minced
A handful of tarragon, leaves picked and finely minced, stems reserved
1/2 a lemon, zested and juiced
350gr floury potatoes, peeled and quarted
150gr celeriac, peeled and diced into small cubes
A small handful mixture of cheddar and parmesan

Bring a large saucepan to the boil and add the potatoes and celeriac, cook until tender. Drain, and leave in the colander in the saucepan off the heat with the lid off to steam some of the moisture away, for 10 minutes. Next, mash thoroughly with 10gr of butter and plenty of salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, simmer the white wine with the peppercorns, sliced onion tarragon stems, coriander seen and bay leaf, until the white wine has reduced by half. Leave to one side to cool. 

In a small pan, add the milk and the fish, with a generous seasoning of salt. Bring to the boil, then remove immediately, and lift the fish out carefully with a slotted spoon, and arrange in an appropriate pie dish. 

In a small saucepan, make the roux by melting the butter and the 40gr plain flour on a low heat and stirring with a balloon whisk well. When the mixture turns caramel colour and the flour has cooked out, add the wine mixture through a sieve and whisk for your life, to make sure there are no lumps. Add a ladleful of milk, whisking again, and repeat. By this point, you should have a smooth sauce and be able to add the rest of the milk in without having to whisk any more. If you have got lumps, give it a quick blitz with a handheld blender. 

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Leave the sauce mixture to simmer gently for a few minutes; you want a thick sauce that healthily coats the back of a spoon. You may need to simmer it for up to 10 minutes to achieve this, but keep stirring with that whisk so the bottom doesn't burn. 

Remove from the heat, add the lemon zest and juice, taste for seasoning. Add the tarragon and the parsley, and pour over the fish mixture. Next, using either a piping bag if you can be arsed or a spoon and fork, distribute the mash over the pie mixture; the sauce should be thick enough that the mash doesn't sink. Sprinkle the cheese over the top; at this point the pie can cool down and go in the fridge or freezer to cook later, if you like. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes, until the top is nicely golden and the cheese has melted. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving, and serve with buttered steamed peas and a sploge of ketchup.

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.