Monday 30 November 2009

Pie Weather

Rain. There has been so much of it. Every morning I draw the blinds back to find the balcony deluged. My shoes are leaking, my hair is frizzing and the wind? Well the wind only serves to make me look (even more) like a banshee. It has been a trying few weeks. The only consolation in this is that the weather makes me thinks of hearty food. As the rain rolls down the windows and the wind howls around this corner of South East London, thoughts turn to curries, stews and pie.

I spotted ham hocks and immediately snapped them up. They were such great big meaty beasts they needed to be simmered in separate saucepans. Having been cooked for a few hours with some classic flavourings, the flabby skin was discarded and pink hunks of meat carved off the bone. Paired with some greenery in a lightly creamy sauce, the home-made rough puff pastry topped it and added some extra richness. I was surprised by how easy the pastry was to make; I've heard from several people that life is too short to make puff pastry. While it didn't have as many layers as shop-bought, it had enough to be light, flaky and buttery.

This isn't a recipe you can knock up after work - there aren't many ingredients but it requires advance planning. What you are rewarded with is pure comfort to dive into. I found it didn't need any potatoes; just a side of steamed greens to ease the conscience.

Ham, Leek & Pea Pie

Serves 4

2 ham hocks
5 sticks of celery
4 carrots
1 onion
1 clove of garlic
2 sprigs of thyme
1 leek
300gr peas
100ml milk
100gr butter
100gr plain flour

For the pastry

250gr unsalted butter at room temperature
125gr plain flour
125gr white bread flour
A pinch of salt
Cold water
1 egg

Soak the ham hocks in cold water overnight, changing the water if possible. This is to prevent the meat from being overly salty. Place the hocks in a pan of water and bring to the boil to remove impurities. Once it does so, discard the water and place in another pan of water, bringing to the boil. Add the onion, carrot and 4 sticks of celery, roughly chopped. Simmer for 3 hours.

Remove the hocks, reserving the liquid and leave to cool. Slice off the skin and hack the meat off the bone, discarding any big lumps of fat and gristle. Slice the remaining celery and leek finely and fry in a pan in a little oil. Add the clove of garlic, chopped finely, and the leaves of the thyme stripped off the stalk. Fry until softened. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan and then add the flour to make a roux. Add the milk bit by bit, whisking any lumps out as you go. When all the milk is added, take off the heat and set to one side.

Strain the liquid the ham hocks were simmering in. Add 800mls of this (depending on how big your pie dish is) to the pan with the vegetables in and slowly whisk in the milky roux. Bring to the simmer and simmer for 10 or 15 minutes until it thickens up nicely. Lastly, add 3/4's of the meat in along with the peas (they'll cook in the residual heat) and take off the heat. Taste, season with salt and pepper if needed, and then spoon it into your pie dish to cool.

To make the pastry, I modified this recipe, whacked it on my pie, glazed it with egg and baked it at 180 degrees for 40 minutes. It fed 3 of us until we felt sick; I think I even ate it cold (pastry and all) out of the fridge the next day.

The stock made from simmering the hocks makes a great soup - it does jellify but that's a good thing. I added red lentils and pearl barley and with the last quarter of ham in it and some wilted spinach, it made a really delicious dinner.

I am all hammed out... for now.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Snazz Sichuan

My love for Sichuan food continues. I started cooking it a long time ago, starting off with Ma Po Tofu, and later branching out to fish fragrant aubergines, cucumber salads and home-style beancurd amongst others. The heat of the chilli and the numbing effect of the Sichuan peppercorns was addictive. Later, we visited Chilli Cool and I was astounded by how tame my home efforts were in comparison. We sweated through the meal, eyes and noses streaming. We declared it a success.

Since then, we recently visited Gourmet San in Bethnal Green. Huge portions were daunting and we barely finished any of the 7 or 8 dishes we'd ordered, and I left feeling somewhat neither here nor there about the place. Last night was the turn of Snazz Sichuan, located in King's Cross. Six of us descended upon the place for a friend's birthday. Seated around a big table with the laziest of susans, the service was the best of the three places we've been to. Our waiter, Arthur, tried to explain to us that Sichuan food is spicy and oily and there "might be some strange things on the menu". We gazed back at him in glee.

The first to arrive was one of my favourite cold dishes. Ox tongue and tripe in chilli oil had a strong sesame favour. The texture of the two meats were contrasting, the former being smooth and the latter reminiscent of chewing on a bath mat. The crushed peanuts on top provided a welcome crunch. Cucumber salad had a healthy amount of crushed garlic adorning it. Marinated in rice vinegar, it was soothing to the heat of the other dishes and the garlic was surprisingly tame.

A dish we hadn't tried before was this, jelly fungus. A type of dried mushroom, they were slippery little buggers and there was much flinging around. They were delicious; once again flavoured with sesame and chilli, they were crunchy yet soft. 'Strange Flavoured Rabbit' wasn't particularly, but had a good balance of salty, sour and slightly sweet. Boiled pork belly slices in chilli completed the cold dishes and was the least memorable.

Dry & Spicy Pigs Intestines (above) were the birthday boy's favourite, and one of the better hot dishes. The slices of intestine were crispy in some places, gooey in others. The intense porky flavour was tempered by the millions of chillis and Sichuan peppercorns that were piled on the plate. It was the dish that started off the tingling in the mouth. Another favourite was the Hot & Numbing Pork (picutured top). Tender slices of pork, which I suspect had previously been velveted, swam in an pot of angry red chilli oil and Chinese cabbage, topped off with chilli flakes. I think it was declared the favourite of the night; I noted we all spooned the fiery oil over our bowls of rice. We must be masochists.

Zhongzi Crescent Dumplings are something I've made at home, though mine weren't bathed in chilli and garlic oil which is obviously where I went wrong. Soft skins with a bit of bite encased a juicy porky filling. I tried not to scoff them all.

The award for most disappointing dish of the night was the barbeque prawns. It came in a cute fish-shaped dish but under a mass of chips (?!), chillis and peanuts the prawns were strangely tasteless and overcooked.

We ended with a portion of deep-fried sesame balls filled with red bean paste, a dessert that reminded me of my childhood. It wasn't necessary at all really, I was so full it hurt every time I took a breath in.

The final bill ended up being £31 each, including beers and service. It was a little higher than I was expecting but then we had a behemoth amount of food (and we finished it all). The pricing seemed strange on some of the dishes - simply cooked pea shoots were £9 and whilst I appreciate pea shoots aren't the cheapest vegetable, this seemed quite high in comparison to the £8 rabbit dish which surely required more labour. We could have done away with a couple of dishes, such as the bbq prawns and a chicken and lotus root dish we were talked into having, which I found a bit bland. Of all the Sichuan restaurants we've visited, the decor was also of a higher standard and less utilitarian than Gourmet San, but I found the flavours to be more toned down and lacking the eye-twitching spiciness of Chilli Cool.

Full Flickr set here.

Snazz Sichuan

37 Chalton Street
NW1 1JD Tel: +44 (0)20 7388 0808

Snazz Sichuan on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 24 November 2009

In a Drunken State

I was recently invited to a press and bloggers' brunch to preview Towards A Fluid State. It was organised by Angela Newell and Hayley Sudbury, the duo that make up The Tasting Sessions - "curators when it comes to social lubrication"- it promised to be a boozy and fun affair. Boozy and fun I like.

So one Saturday morning not so long ago, I made my way to Broadway Market. Hackney isn't an area I frequent very often, and anticipating getting lost, I was infact almost an hour early. No matter; Broadway Market was bustling in the crisp autumn sunshine, and I busied myself with a banh mi, a delicious Vietnamese baguette washed down with some rocket fuel coffee. When the time came, I headed for the venue. Upon entry, I was handed a test tube of clear liquid. I was warned not to shot it, and I wondered if my reputation preceeded me. The liquid was infact 80% proof and had a strong flavour of mustard. When mixed into the Bloody Mary I was given, it made for a great drink.

We whizzed through a few tastings; biodynamic Champagne paired a vegan canape, a couple of whiskeys paired with cheese. Gin cocktails came with a bit of molecular gastronomy - spheres of fruity cocktail dissolved in the mouth. A couple of 'geishas' arrived to herald the tasting of an earthy sake made from brown rice.

Next up, a troop of black caped people came in, carrying black balloons and gave us pins. I could see what the end point was going to be, but I was nervous. I am not a fan of needles and everywhere I looked people were brandishing them. On the count of three we were ordered to puncture the balloons, and a sweet, vanilla-scented aroma filled the room, one apparently found in Couvoisier. After a tasting of this and a quick munch of some Bompas & Parr Courvoisier flavoured jellies, we were then given a breakdown of what we had consumed and promptly told to eat it. Rice paper menus.

We ended the two hour stint with a tasting of a very exclusive Courvoisier, poured by an impossibly glamourous, white-gloved representative of the company.

We stumbled out into the blinding daylight, headed for the pub across the road to digest our brunch over a few pints. I didn't really know what to expect from the afternoon, but if this preview is anything to go by then I would suggest getting tickets to the actual event at a Dalston warehouse on the 5th December quick snap. Slightly surreal, informative and lots of fun.
Tickets from £16.50.

Just in case you think I've suddenly acquired some snazzy camera skills, sadly this is not true. Photos are from The Tasting Sessions and the full set can be viewed here.

Sunday 22 November 2009

The Blaggers' Banquet

You may have read about The Blaggers' Banquet on other blogs, there was a lot of us involved. The brainchild of Niamh of Eat Like a Girl, The Blaggers' Banquet was conceived after she attended an Action Against Hunger fundraiser, and this was the charity the Banquet was supporting.

The premise was for us bloggers to blag as much free food, wine and beer from suppliers and PRs to serve to 50 people at Hawksmoor, who generously donated their restaurant and kitchen for a day and night's use. Two weeks before the actual event, I sent out a few emails to PR people and was overwhelmed with the response. I was given a pear-coloured KitchenAid (which is being auctioned online right now), 50 bottles each of Marston's Pedigree, London Pride and Innis & Gunn beers, as well as Badger Applewood cider. Not a bad haul at all.

When the actual day came, I found myself outside Hawksmoor on a Sunday at 11am. 11am! That's dedication. I was to be doing prep work and when we went inside we got straight to work sorting out the veg boxes, deciding who did what job. Alex and I were to make gougères, which we flavoured with thyme and chives. Niamh and Sig were on hand to pull us together, organise the chaos and generally run things smoothly. The afternoon plodded along and then suddenly 4pm came around as did a flurry of activity. Canapes were made; Alex and I took it in turns to kill our biceps making the choux pastry and squeezing a greasy piping bag much to our hilarity. Other canapes were crispbreads smeared with a dollop of goats cheese topped with pomegranate seeds, chives and vanilla salt. There were also skewers of tomato, mozarella and basil with a pesto dip.

Photography by Mark N -

The starter, made by Charlie of Eat My Nels, was monkfish and beetroot tartare with a tomato salsa. Fish For Thought drove it from Cornwall that very day, a mammoth 10 hour return journey, ensuring us the freshest fish possible.

The mains were buffalo steaks from Laverstoke Park with Bearnaise sauce. A lamb hotpot and a spiced winter stew, with meat from Donald Russell was made by Neil of The War On Cookbooks.

A gold-dusted chocolate fondant was made by Signe of Scandelicious, with Trish Deseine's chocolate. Topped with a quenelle of creme fraiche it was rich, fudgy and decadent. To finish off the desserts, wobbling jelly boobs from Bompas and Parr tickled us all. Lastly, cheese from Brockhill Farm, Trethowan's Dairy, Pong and Barbers 1833 made up the cheeseboard.

The bar staff did a great job of mixing up cocktails to go with the canapes. Freely flowing wines were matched with the dishes by Douglas and Denise, some of which came from the Tejo. After dinner, an auction was held for some brilliantly blagged items, like a hamper from Harrods. I think we'll all agree that the night was a complete success, pulled off amazingly well by Niamh and Sig, as well as everyone else.

The online auction is still going on, so check back on this page to get bidding on the items.

Saturday 14 November 2009

The Inauguration of the Marmarati

Once in a while you get an invitation you can't refuse. An email, inviting me to a secret and rare event revealing Marmite's Inner Circle. A follow-up 'phone call from the utmost poshest accented Fotherington-Smythe and I received the above.

So on a dark, rainy night I made my way to No. 5 Cavendish Square. Early as usual, we had a drink in the bar before going upstairs, where the event was happening. We got chatting to the other invitees over never-ending glasses of Champagne, while a man tinkled on a ivory-white piano. Before long, a curtain was pulled back to reveal a richly and sumptuously decorated long table.

It looked festive. Large acid-red bunches of cherries were laid alongside bouquets of red and gold flowers. We had name cards to dictate where we were to sit. A blindfold accompanied each place. I let out a nervous giggle. Our host of the night was in a pirate get up and talked us through what was happening. We were made to stand, swear an oath of allegiance to Marmite, and were introuced to the Marmite team.

Blindfolds on, we were given small silver pots of Marmite to taste. Shooters of lemony lime sorbet in between each tasting (of which there were three) cleansed the palate. Champagne glasses were topped up regularly. I'm afraid I didn't catch the names of any of the variants (if there were any?). Of the three, my favourite was the third, and I think it was the strongest. It had a deep, unctuous and mouthwatering flavour, the kind of intense savouriness that makes your mouth pucker up a bit.

With that, we wrote our comments, posted them into a wooden treasure chest and were back in the bar. Marmite cocktails, decorated with a sprig of rosemary tasted of coffee with the barest hint of the yeast extract. Nibbles came with a Marmite dip (natch). Lord Marmarati signed us our inauguration certificates.

It was a fantastic event and only made me love Marmite more. It was so well executed with a bit of quirky creativity; booze was free flowing and the entertainment was excellent. The end of the evening was a little more than hazy and it was rather a surprise when I found this photo...

Marmite also have a pop-up shop, on Regent Street - link HERE.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Tejo and the Cork Forests

After a heavy night quaffing wine, downing some gin, and a 4am dirty burger scoff I awoke after 3 hours sleep to shuffle towards a coach to take us to the cork forests north of Lisbon. Hosted by the Quinta do Lagoalva, a two hour journey took us here. I was expecting clusters and clusters of trees, but instead there weren't many. The cork trees were a stunning colour; recently stripped, they were the same colour as the cows that were milling around in an adjacent field. Amorim, a leading cork producer, sponsored our trip and I have to admit, the hungover fuzz meant I didn't listen to our guide, Carlos, as much as I should have. Nevertheless, the cork trees were fascinating. Some were over 100 years old but can live up to double. The cork is only harvested after 25 years and is used for a variety of things; shoes, life jackets, that sort of thing.

A quick demonstration on how the cork is stripped showed that great skill and care is needed. One wrong move, a cut too deep means that the tree becomes scarred and won't heal properly.

After this, we moved off to Quinta do Lagoalva taste some wines. Some refreshing roses, dry whites and full bodied reds were tasted, and it was perhaps the first time I've spat (elegantly I'm sure...) - it was a bit early in the day for my fragile state. The winemakers showed us the wines they had on offer and they were an interesting bunch, later sitting down with us for lunch to sample more of their delicious wines. In addition to this we had a jaunty tour round the vineyards in a horse and cart.

Lunch was a simple but tasty affair consisting of a well-dressed salad, pork in walnut sauce, rice bejewelled with sultanas and, much to our delight, an industrial tub of praline ice cream. We finished off with a 46 year old dessert wine, thanked the Tejo winemakers (pictured above) and hopped back aboard the bus. I assumed we were homeward bound, but in fact we were making a quick stop at a cork factory.

It was truly an awesome sight. Piles and piles of cork stacked in neat piles covered an area as far as the eye could see. It would have made a brilliant adventure maze; having ventured down an aisle of cork it was eerily quiet, almost soundproof. We wondered what it would be like to live in a house made of cork. Carlos did a quick question and answer session which became not-so-quick. He did his best to explain to us how the cork industry have been trying to combat cork taint, in finding the best possible way to treat the cork. I got a bit distracted and wandered off, poking and prodding bits of bark here and there.

We arrived back in Lisbon, a full 9 hours later but a day well worth dragging my corpse out of bed for. I was a shell of the person I once was, but gamely soldiered on. Dinner, drinks and a bit of dancing later, I declared myself spent and was in bed by 2am. Rock n' roll.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Vinoble Wine Tasting in Lisbon

You may have gathered from my last post that I spent a long weekend in Lisbon, for 2009's European Wine Bloggers' Conference. I'm not a wine blogger, nor have I done many posts on wine. I write about what I know, and as I don't know a lot about wine, I've never been very confident in writing about it. I am aiming to change this and this weekend was a step in the right direction.

On the first night, we remarked on the irony that we drank absolutely no wine whatsoever. After a few Super Bocks down by the water we gorged ourselves with roasted chicken, and then hit the ginjinha bars - little holes in the wall selling little plastic cupfuls of brandy, drank on the streets. The bottles were packed full of cherries and we got a couple of cherries in our cups at one or two places. The brandy ranged from tasting like cough syrup at worst, to a lovely fruity liquer at best. The soaked cherries were potent. We wobbled back to our hostel.

Nursing a slightly fuggy head the next day, we made our way to the rather plush Grand VIP Lisboa, where the conference was being held, and where we were to stay for the rest of our trip. On the first evening, we faced two formal tastings; one with Vinoble and the next with the Douro Boys. We were to taste a mammoth 26 wines. I was nervous. Tweets flew around warning us to spit the wine, or we'd never make it through. I've never spat wine out.

We entered the room and were faced with tables and tables of Riedel glasses set up in a crescent shape around each seat. A friend remarked that there must be at least £10,000's worth of glasses in the room. It was a nightmarish situation; there isn't usually an evening that goes by that I don't knock a wine glass. These would go down like very expensive dominoes.

We kicked off with a Vinoble's tasting of dessert wines. To start, an almond flavoured, caramelised Gran Barquero Amontillado was surprisingly dry for a sweet wine. Lustau Solera Reserva Amontillado Escuadrilla followed swiftly. Aged in American oak casks, it smelled a bit vegetal and salty. The nutty flavour wasn't immediate and was more of an aftertaste. I found it tasted better on the second sip.

One of my favourites of the evening was Apostol Palo Cortado VORS. It had a rich caramel flavour, and smelled nutty and of toast and buttery. It had a sharp finish that livened you up some, like a smack round the face. I was enjoying this tasting. Quevedo Colheita 1994 was a dark rich red colour, and was dark soft fruits on the nose. It was very sweet, coating the mouth with syrup.
The Moscatel Roxo 1999, above, was another favourite of mine. It was a beautiful light amber colour, and having been aged for 8 years in old oak barrels previously used for whiskey, I expected it to have a more oaky flavour. Instead, it was flowers, herbs and grass. It had just a hint of sweetness and had a light, tea-flavoured finish.

The Justino Henriques Colheita Fine Rich 1995, saw a return to nuttiness. It was a deep, dark brown and quite dry. A rather stark contrast to the wine we'd tried previously. The penultimate wine, Sandeman Vintage 2007 was the only in the tasting that I disliked. It was peppery, spicy and of cloves, with an earthy hint of soil. I'd heard murmurings that it was too young.

The final wine we tried was a Pedro Ximénes Gran Orden. It was the colour of iodine, and stained a yellowish tinge to the glass. It smelled of molasses, figs, and reminded me of Christmas. It tasted intensely of toasted raisins, and I didn't get a lot past that.

After this, we breaked for a glass of beer, apparently a good palate cleanser. I was cheered by my first foray into a formal tasting; no glasses were broken by my hand, and as I looked back at my notes they sounded coherent. I hope you think so too.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Pastéis de Belém - Lisbon, Portugal

Before I launch into any booze-drenched posts of the European Wine Bloggers Conference, held in Lisbon last weekend, I wanted to get this out there. This is the first place, reportedly, to sell Pastéis de Nata; Portugese custard tarts. These tarts are believed to be created by the monks of Mosteiro dos Jerónimo, a monastery in Belém, before the 18th Century. I was almost loathe to eat any on our trip to Lisbon until we visited this place as it had been so highly recommended. Of course I couldn't resist though... One does need a point of reference, after all. They were on offer everywhere.

We left the trip to Belém until Monday, at the very end of our long weekend in Lisbon. As such, we were a bedraggled bunch. It took us two hours to get there, due to getting on the wrong train(s). Pastéis de Belém is enormous - at first glance it looked like just a large cafe, but on exploring further it really was maze-like with blue and white tiled cavernous rooms out the back.

We sat down, thirsty and hungover, to peruse the menu. Salt cod cakes, beef croquettas, a couple of quiches and of course the tarts were ordered. Service was a bit scatty; our waitress arrived with our quiches, then whisked them away again to get them warmed up. They returned cold. The ham quiche was always going to me more tasty than the spinach, and it didn't let us down. Both were hefty examples.

I didn't enjoy the meat paste texture of the beef croquettes much, but the salt cod cakes were great. Slightly garlicky, flaky soft cod with delicious mashed potato, fried up and still warm. A little ketchup wouldn't have gone astray - any kind of fried potato product has me looking for the red stuff.

But what of the main event? The custard tarts were, as suspected, excellent. Flaky pastry, the outer of which was so brittle and thin it shattered like glass in the mouth - though far less harmful, of course. The custard filling had a pleasingly creamy texture, without being overtly eggy, nor too sweet. In short, I loved it. I debated having another, but as we'd already decided we would be having a second lunch, I held back.

All this, with 3 bottles of water (I told you it had been a heavy weekend...) came to 15 Euros in total.

A mere hour later, I dived into this - salt cod fillet, at a nearby restaurant. I have developed a worrying addiction to the fish.

Pastéis de Belém

Rua de Belém no. 84 a 92
1300 - 085 Lisboa

Tel: +351 21 363 74 23