Every year, Action Against Hunger hold an auction, to which restaurants, chefs and food people submit prizes for. I've long since been a supporter of theirs; way back in 2011, I helped cooked a dinner for 55 in aid of the charity, so I was only happy to help, and I blithely promised a dinner for 8 cooked in the winner's home.
When the auction itself started, I realised what I was up against. It's not a competition, but there were some serious prizes going. I made my friends promise me that they'd bid at least twenty quid so it wouldn't be too embarrassing if it went for nothing. I refused to look at the auction until it was all over, lightly sweating at the palms in anticipation. £926 was the final total - an intimidatingly generous amount. I set off writing the menu, and getting in touch with suppliers to help out with ingredients.
Everyone I spoke to was wonderfully accommodating, and generous. Turner & George supplied the meat; a beautiful pork shoulder for the Bo Ssam, that was roasted and served with spring onion and ginger dressing, kimchi, and coriander and jalapeño sauce. This was slow roasted and then absolutely packed with brown sugar for a final blast to create a caramelised, fatty pork crust - hunnggghhh. This is one of my favourite sharing dishes, as you have to use your hands to cup a lettuce leaf, spoon a little rice into it, top with pork and sauce / pickles, and shovel it in. It's communal eating at its best.
Obviously we had to have dumplings just because I love them and I have become pretty good at folding them, if I say so myself...
With such a generous donation, I really wanted to have something in the meal that was particularly luxurious (even more so than a really decent piece of meat), something you wouldn't normally cook at home for yourself or for a small dinner party. Lobsters are often a bit daunting, especially as it's best to buy them live for them to be at their freshest. See Woo helped me out with all my Asian ingredients; they were total mega-stars at their Chinatown shop, and furnished me with everything, from dumpling skins to pickled mustard greens, chillis, dried shiitake mushrooms, the lot. Since they had an incredible new live fish counter complete with lobster and crab tanks, I fired off a cheeky request for four live lobsters and held my breath.
Success! They were MASSIVE. They were pulled from their tanks thrashing, and I hauled them home, people eyeing my bag warily. It happened to be the day my tube line was undergoing works and there were no taxis. I'm not sure how much the lobsters appreciated 2 tubes and a bus. Into the freezer they went.
In their sleepy state, the lobsters were gradually warmed up in their salty pot bath so they were good and asleep before they died for my cause. Have I mentioned how massive they were? They were so big I had to borrow my neighbour's stock pot, as mine was insufficient. Once just cooked, they were plunged into an ice bath to be ready to be stir-fried the next day, for possibly the best noodles I've ever cooked.
E-Fu (or yee mein) are a type of noodle that are sold in a round yellow cake. They're 'luxury' noodles, brought out at special occasions, mainly celebrations. They're soft and airy, and their sponginess soaks up whatever sauce they're cooked in. Often its simply ginger and spring onion, but with a pretty killer Sichuan chilli oil recipe I've been honing for a while, I took them up a notch. After all the food that had already been served, I was startled to find the dish came back completely empty, besides the shells. "They're licking their chopsticks!" my friend / waitress whispered to me. It's a bit labour-intensive, but it is worth it.
Lobster E-Fu Noodles
Serves 8 with other dishes, or 4 as a main with vegetables
4 live lobsters, cooked in salted water until barely cooked
8 spring onions, whites and greens separated
5 cloves of garlic, minced
3 inches of ginger, peeled and minced
100gr beansprouts, rinsed well
100gr brown shimeji mushrooms, washed and separated
4 tbsp cooking oil
2 rounds of air-dried E Fu noodles
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp dark soy sauce
2 tbsp mirin
2 tbsp sake
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 tbsp cornflour
100ml water or chicken stock
1 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar
For the Sichuan chilli oil:
200ml vegetable oil
1 piece of cassia bark
1 star anise
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 black cardamom
3 tbsp coarse ground red chillis
2 inch piece of ginger
1 head of garlic, cloves separated but in their skins
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp soft brown sugar
Firstly, make the oil the night before. Add the cassia bark, peppercorns, star anise, coriander seeds, garlic, ginger, cloves, and cardamom to the oil and heat until a fizzing sound. Keep on a low heat and simmer for 1 hour. Add the sugar, soy sauce, and chillis to a large heatproof bowl, and heat the oil up so it's shimmering for just a moment, and then VERY carefully pour over the chilli mixture. Leave to cool, and leave overnight. Strain into a clean jar.
You can prepare the lobster whichever way you prefer, but we found that leaving the tails in the shell was nice for people to see and work on, but extracting the rest of the meat from the claws was the best idea unless you have the right utensils and people like getting messy. So take a good half hour or so to do this, as it can be fiddly. I'm talking like I did this but I made my friend bash those claws out while I, uh, folded dumplings.
Twist the head off, then the claws. Lay the back out flat and using a sharp knife, cut lengthways through the tail. Any green tomalley or red roes, extract and add to a bowl. Use a hammer to bash the claws in and pick out the meat. Keep the shells; they make a great bisque. Once you have extracted all the meat, place in the fridge.
Add the tomalley and roes to the sauce mixture and work well, so there aren't any lumps. Chop the whites into 2 inch pieces, and finely slice the greens and set to one side.
Heat the wok until smoking, add half the oil, and stir fry the beansprouts and mushrooms for 3 minutes, constantly stirring. Remove to a large plate. Add the rest of the oil and add the garlic, spring onion whites and the ginger, and add the lobster meat, stir-frying briskly for a couple of minutes, just so you get the aromatics flavouring the lobster meat. Remove to another plate. Add the beansprouts and mushrooms back in, along with the noodles and the sauce mixture. Heat on a low heat, tossing everything together well, and add the lobster meat back in to warm through. Drizzle with another 3 tbsp Sichuan chilli oil.
Take off the heat, place on a snazzy serving dish, and maybe use a lobster head to garnish. Serve with tongs for people to help themselves.
(I'm also cycling across Ghana in November for child.org; you can sponsor me here, if you so wish. I'd be forever grateful!)