Wednesday 23 May 2012

The Draft House, East Dulwich

It has been 3 months since I moved to East Dulwich and I still don't particularly feel like I've settled in. Lordship Lane, its backbone, is lined with expensive furniture shops, wine bars and nice cafes, a far cry from the 24 hour Londis that I used to live opposite. Now I miss its impressive array of instant noodles and instead, I can grab myself a loaf of sourdough for Saturday brunch, previously unheard of. I don't know why I reject it so; I imagine it's because I feel more of an affinity to the skint art students of New Cross than I do with the moneyed young parents wheeling their prams along the Lane.

In any case, at least I have several nice pubs to pretend I'm still a skint student in. The most recently opened is The Draft House, fourth of its kind, which I was recently invited to for a burger and a beer.

Bedecked in its signature green furniture, I was amused to hear they'd used parcel paper for the wallpaper. 'Foot-long' pork scratchings are so before they're cooked; once puffed up and ready for munching, they're served poking out of a glass. Salty and with the right amount of squidge underneath the skin, these were a great little nibble.

The Draft House have their own take on the current on-trend soft-yolked scotch egg. Served with a curried mayonnaise, the meat around the egg is gently spiced with a little sweetness. A big beast, I managed 3/4 before I got scared I wouldn't be able to finish my burger. If I liked beer more - sorry, it's true - this would make a great Sunday afternoon snack with a pint. As it happens, it goes well with cider too.

The menu is split into 3 burgers, with a few other salad / pasta mains. I went for The Poke; a burger with chillis, cheese and battered onion rings within. Requested medium, the burger was a bit overdone but the chillis had a proper kick. I squished the thinly battered onions into the cheese and patty for easy eating, and the salad came on the side so that you could construct your own. Besides the over-cooking issues, it was a decent burger in a sweet, sesame bun. Chips were thin and crisp - my favourite - and skin-on.

With its wide selection of craft beers, The Draft House looks welcome to the scene; on a Wednesday night it was pleasantly busy, and not just with crusty-bearded beer nerds (I know, I know, beer is cool now). Now all I have to do is start loving beer and then The Draft House and I would be inseparable. 

The Draft House

21 Lordship Lane,
London SE22 8EW

Sunday 20 May 2012

Salted Caramel Cheesecake

Salty caramel cheesecake. Just those words strike fear in any dieters heart, but joy in mine. There's no greater contrast than the sticky sweetness of the caramel, with savoury undertones making it deeply addictive. Crushed amaretti biscuits form the base of the cheesecake, lending its almond flavour to the otherwise plain cheesecake filling. 

It's not the kind of cheesecake you can plough through in one sitting with a spoon. This stuff is rich. Decadence doesn't even come near it. Thin slices are the way forward, unless you want to lie beached on your couch like I currently am. 

I used a pie dish as I seem to have lost my cake tin, so if you have one I'd recommend using a springform cake tin to make it easier to remove. 

Salted Caramel Cheesecake

Serves 8? It's big.

1 x 200gr packet of Amaretti biscuits crushed with a rolling pin
60gr butter
1 tbsp sugar

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Melt the butter and toss with the Amaretti biscuits and the sugar. Press into and up the sides of a greased pie dish / springform cake tin measuring 9" across the base. Bake for 15 minutes, until browned (I left mine in a little too long so keep an eye on it). Remove and leave to cool.

2 x 200gr cream cheese
100gr caster sugar
120ml double cream
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs

In a mixer, attach the paddle attachment and mix the cream cheese and the caster sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and beat well, then add each egg, beating well in between. Add the cream and mix well. 

Turn the oven down to 160 degrees C. Spoon into the cooled biscuit base and bake for 60 mins. By then it should have puffed up and have lost some of the wobble. Remove and leave to cool. Meanwhile, make the salted caramel sauce. 

150gr soft brown sugar
80gr butter
100ml double cream
A hefty pinch of sea salt flakes

In a large saucepan (don't be tempted to use a small one, you want some good whisking space) heat the sugar up until it has all melted, stirring occasionally so that it melts evenly. Add the butter in and whisk well until incorporated. It may look lumpy and a bit gross at this point. Whisk in the cream, poured in a steady stream. Cook gently while whisking until smooth and silky - this may take a few minutes. Add the salt and then taste - carefully, it'll be molten - and add more if you think it needs it. I like my caramel quite salty. Leave to cool.

Spoon the caramel onto the cooled cheesecake and put it in the fridge for at least an hour. When serving, sprinkle the top with sea salt flakes. 

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Eating in Tulum, Mexico

After three days in Mexico City, it was time to head for the coast. Brilliant white beaches beckoned and we had a lot of sitting around to do. Tulum was our destination and after an exhausting plane ride - there is absolutely no need to cheer every time we hit turbulence, okay? - we were rewarded with just the sound of the waves crashing outside our beach hut. 

Eating well and cheaply in Tulum, particularly down the stretch of beach we were on, was tricky. Lined with eco beach huts and boutique hotels, they catered for the tourists for tourist prices and on our first night it was quite the shock to have spent £40 on dinner, compared to the usual £10. 

With one eye on the budget, we decided to get a couple of bikes and do some cycling. 7km away, the town of Tulum was small but down some deserted side streets we found what we were after. A taco stall. 

For £1, I got two panuchos, said to be a speciality of the Yucatan region. The tortillas are split and deep fried, then stuffed with refried beans and topped with chopped chicken, pink pickled onions and slices of avocado. Squirty bottles of salsa were already at the table, the green being incendiary and the red milder. 

Sat under the shade in the sweltering heat, it knocked the socks off the £15 pasta dish we'd eaten by the beach the night before at Posada Margherita. Another day, on the edge of town an unassuming red fronted cafe was dark and disorientating inside. Having sat down, we realised there was no menu and the lady beckoned us towards the kitchen so we could point at which dishes we wanted. I picked the most interesting-looking which turned out to be meatballs with potatoes in a smoky chipotle sauce.

The meatballs were light and fluffy, the smoky tomatoey sauce lingering at the back of the throat with a suggestion of heat. A huge bucket of tamarind drink, sweet and sour at the same time cooled me down.

Chicken braised in a green sauce was tangy with lime and tomatillo, served with rice and beans on the side. A closed steamer tray stacked full of soft floppy tortillas turned out to be the best of the trip; delicate yet pliable, they made an excellent scooper. We paid up our £3 each and cycled off slowly, our bellies full.

I had wondered where all the beach barbecues plentiful with fish were and we never found them so instead we asked our snorkelling guide where the best fish restaurant was, for locals. He pointed us to a hotel, affiliated to where he was working and once that was out of the way he also wrote us down 'El Camello', in Tulum town. It wasn't much to look at but when we were there, and we went twice, it was always busy. 

Whole fried fish was deep fried and served with black beans, rice and salad. While we were eating it, a couple of men sauntered in with a couple of fish straight off the back of their pick up truck.

I kept seeing 'coctels' available so this time we decided to try one, 'mixto'. Our server was skeptical as it contained raw oysters, but we urged him on. A huge cocktail glass emerged stuffed with octopus, huge prawns and raw oysters. It was doused in lime juice and salsa, and topped with avocado and a little onion with coriander. 

Served with Saltine crackers (as it was everywhere we went, and is apparently traditional elsewhere too), this was tangy and fishy. It was pretty overwhelming and after a couple of mouthfuls each, we were pretty done. We didn't want to prove the nice waiter wrong so we ate it all up.  The one we ordered was a small, and later on I saw three petite Mexican ladies share a huge boat of it. We were humbled.  

At another visit, we tried the small ceviche. The Mexicans have a strange idea of small, but we weren't complaining. We stuffed ourselves silly piling the onion, tomato and coriander mixed with prawns high on totopos with salsa.

I fished out tiny crabs and an incredible number of prawns from this seafood soup, and it was so addictive I carried on until well past my totally-stuffed limit. All I could do afterwards was sip a tequila and flop into a taxi. Each meal cost us about £12 for two with beers.

Other places we visited that were on the stretch of beaches were El Tabano, a lovely restaurant specialising in Mexican home cooking set on the jungle side. Hartwood, at about 7.5km was also beautiful, set under pretty trees, with delicious American-Mexican food cooked in a wood-fired over. Both were roughly £25 a head and on the 'splurge' end of our spectrum.

Hottest salsa of the trip was also the most unexpected. Hungry after a long and sweaty walk down the beach, we wandered into a boutique hotel and were the only diners for lunch. A dark red oily salsa was offered with caution and upon taste I knew I was in serious trouble. Stars littered my vision and I could only curl my toes in horror, rendered speechless. The fish tacos were amazing (though expensive) and I am only sad I didn't take a picture, or write the name of the place down. Sorry. That's terribly unhelpful.

Travel Tips:

- We flew with Volaris, then got the ADO bus - which is actually a very nice air conditioned coach - from Cancun airport to Playa del Carmen (about 1 hour). There you can get a colectivo to Tulum town (another hour). This is much cheaper than a taxi all the way - the ADO bus was around 200 pesos (£10) and the colectivo 40 pesos, £2 - whereas taxis can be about US $150. It's also more interesting watching these colectivos pick up seemingly random people on the side of roads.

- On the return though we discovered an ADO coach from Tulum town straight to the airport; the last one is at 11am every day.

- Opposite directly opposite the ADO bus station in Tulum over the roads of traffic was a great hole in the wall place that do tacos and tortas of only carnitas - they will wrap you up a torta for your journey.

- You can cycle up to the Mayan ruins, there were plenty of bikes to hire. Bring a sweat rag though as it is HOT.

- Taxis in Tulum are plentiful and cheap. They all knew where 'El Camello' was and most are friendly and will suggest you a nice place to go and eat.

- We didn't find anywhere to get drunk on the beach at night. I KNOW. Goddamn we tried too. Mezzanine Thai Bar was a nice cocktail place with a terrace though.

- We stayed at Posada Lamar, which was a lovely beach hut. The beach huts are simple and the toilet and shower open plan so, er, make what you will of that. They only serve breakfasts. Ahau Tulum looked lovely when we walked around it, so I would head for them if I were to return. Accomodation isn't cheap in Tulum.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Eating in Mexico City

In Mexico City everyone is trying to sell you something. People walk up and down the Metro cars touting whatever they have on offer, ranging from chewing gum to milk frothers. Young men modify their backpacks, building speakers into them to play you a selection from a compilation that they've put together, for 10 pesos. The streets are lined with people selling crafts, stalls laden with fruit to chop up and sell to you. Taco carts entice you with the smell of tortillas steaming and frying, to be piled on with meat and topped with salsa. After a long day of being sold at, a calming beer with a sipped shot of tequila and a sangrita was a perfect rest.

On our first day in Mexico City, overwhelmed by the sheer size of it, we headed south for Coyoacán to have a mooch around Frida Kahlo's house. That there was a market nearby had a lot to do with it, for we know that best street food is often found at markets. 

If we expected the hustle and bustle of a loud and busy weekend market, we weren't to find it here. We moved around Mercado Coyoacán with ease. Many shops sold brightly coloured ornaments, what I can only describe as tat, but others sold hessian sackfuls of dried chillis and brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. 

As we passed through one corner, particularly smoky and thick with the smell of pork, a man walked past carrying huge discs of pork scratchings. Chillies bubbled merrily unattended in fat, and we were led to an area with bench seating set up. 

A man approached us excitedly brandishing a strand of silky pork. Alarm bells rang in my head of accepting such a thing - for all I knew, that man could have wiped his bum with that hand previously, but I didn't want to seem rude so I gobbled it down. It was intensely porky, glistening with fat. Another hand appeared from another stall with a similar tasty morsel. They'd enticed us.

The counter that had a good crowd around it got our vote, and a couple of tacos each with carnitas (pork cooked in lard, basically) were ordered. Each of these came with two tortillas, the idea being that whatever falls out of the first few mouthfuls can then be used to make a secondary taco. Alongside, pork scratchings puffed to crispness. I piled on the salsas. The innocent-looking one, far left of the above photo was so spicy it almost made me cry. My cheeks flushed. I wolfed down some of the cucumber and radish salsa before realising that that too was spiked with habenero chillis. I sucked air through my teeth until the flames subsided.

These are not the 'tacos' I'm used to; none of that Old El Paso crispy shell filled with minced beef nonsense. No, these are floppy steamed corn tortillas piled with succulent pork. A touch of onion and coriander, a few slimy nopales (cactus) slices and a squeeze of lime, perhaps a drop of fiery salsa and these were perfect. For me, they turned out to be the best of the trip. 

Afterwards, we wandered around the leafy streets of Coyoacán and had a beer in the main square. Mariachi bands serenaded lunchers and it was quite idyllic. My preconceptions of Mexico City, what few I had, were blown. A further wander around the district where we were staying, Condesa, blew me away further. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting; I suppose something akin to Bangkok in hustle, bustle and sensory overload but what I found was clean streets and calm. 

Bags of potato chips were sold everywhere - street corners, in Metro stations etc. When you order them they squirt the crisps with chilli sauce.

We went to Mercado Lagunilla, near the historical centre on the Sunday. Inside the covered area is quite disconcerting as we came across rows and rows of huge prom-style dresses, and tiny while lace dresses for little girls. There must have been hundreds of them. Baffled, we stopped for some sustenance and found it in the way of quesadillas. These aren't as the quesadillas you might expect as they don't all have cheese in them. My quesadilla with flor de calabaza (squash blossom) was made in front of me. A tortilla is slapped on the hot plate, stuffed as requested, flipped and then served. 

Mexican corn is said to be the tastiest of them all. It may well have been but I was too busy sneezing to find out after having inadvertently snorted the chilli powder it was dusted in. 

Speaking of which, they cover everything in salt, lime and chilli. Including my watermelon and mango. 

Gorditas are sort of like pasties. Split open and stuffed with various fillings, I went for refried beans. They're deep fried and then stuffed again with onions, coriander and salsa - "verde? rojo?". These were a greasy delight.

I was less enamoured with sopes, a fried corn cake topped with refried beans, lettuce and queso (a crumbly fresh cheese). It was rather bland. 

I was more excited by huarache - a boat-shaped tortilla made with blue corn. These are fried on a huge hot plate (again, at Lagunilla) and the lady there asked me a variety of unfathomable questions that I nodded along to. The corn is crisp on the outside and doughy within. I burnt my fingers trying to eat it straightaway. Again, topped with salsas, onion and cheese, these were surprisingly filling.

When I fancied some seafood, I stopped at El Caguamo, near Centro Historico. The stand has a few seats around it and I arrived at 1pm to beat the lunchtime rush. A tostada topped with ceviche - mixto - had octopus and fish soaking into the crispy base. Again, that onion and coriander salad, a little squirt of salsa (picante, por favor) and topped with creamy avocado slices. At 25 pesos (around £1.20), this was a total bargain.

I was unsure of how to tackle it without cutlery. I lifted the entire thing to my mouth and took a tentative bite and caused an almighty mess so I resorted to breaking pieces of the tostada and doing a scoopity scoop.

Soup was served in a foil bag and was packed full of prawns, mackerel, another type of white fish and herbs. The broth was slightly spicy and smoky, with a crusty baguette for soaking it all up. As I was slurping away, a group behind me were eating there, seemingly on a food tour. I had considered joining one myself, but having listened to one of the tourists wanging on for a good ten minutes about how coffee was soooooo much better in her native Brazil I was pleased we were going at it alone. 

We didn't stick to street stands all the time. We found that generally street food is perfect for lunch or late afternoon, but for dinner we preferred to go somewhere more comfortable than a plastic stool. The Mexicans don't dine like the Europeans do though, with most seemingly opting for a big lunch and a light dinner and so often restaurants that we wanted to try weren't open for dinner. Imagine how pleased I was then to find that El Califa was open until the early hours, and was a 5 minute walk from our base. 

Recommended to me by Tommi Miers of Wahaca, this taqueria is famed for its 'al pastor'.  

The meat is on a spit, rotating slowly around the grill. On top is a chunk of pineapple and the juices baste the meat. The pork is thinly shaved off into tacos and topped with a thin slice of pineapple. I watched the cooks do this quickly and expertly. The spiced pork meat is complemented perfectly with the sweet pineapple, a harmony of sweet, spicy and savoury.

Other tacos are available, like this - thin beef steak, wrapped in grilled cheese and then wrapped in a tortilla to form the taco. Hello, delicious delicious heart attack! The grease slid around my wrists as I scoffed this up. Soft tortilla gives way to crunchy cheese, then through to gooey beef.

We also had an order of beef rib tacos. Having had pretty much only pork tacos on the trip so far, this was a welcome change and the beef was tender and juicy. Green tomatillo salsa with raw onions pepped it up. 

We paid about £20 for out meal here, with tip and 2 beers each.

El Califa - Altata 22, Col. Condesa

We stayed in an awesome place - The Red Tree House. The rooms are quite small but beautifully decorated and everything about the place is comfortable and lovely. Our hosts there were super friendly, always on hand to give advice on where best to go, and in the evening they encourage you to have a glass of wine with them. Every morning we had a Mexican speciality for breakfast, such as enchiladas or chilaquiles which were delicious. 

After all that, we headed for the coast to bum around on a beach. 

Travel Tips I Gleaned: 

- Learn some Spanish, even if rudimentary. I don't think I found anyone who spoke English in Mexico City, and generally we found that people (market stall traders especially) aren't really up for the international language of hand gestures.

- Use the Metro. It's quick, cheap (3 pesos for 1 journey anywhere) and during rush hours if you're a woman you can use the specially designated woman-only carriages at the very front. The Metro map is easy to use. Taxis are still cheap but you'll get stuck in traffic.

- Eat at the food stalls that seem busy - it ensures your food is cooked fresh and high turnover of ingredients. We didn't get sick at all and we ate a lot. Test salsas carefully. Some are mind-bogglingly hot.

- Bring wet wipes / antibacterial. They don't use any cutlery and I had to keep wiping my fingers on the inside of my trouser leg. Maybe you're a less messy eater than me. 

- When ordering tacos, your order is per taco, not per serve. Also, most street food stalls want you to pay at the end as a lot of people eat one taco, then maybe another two, then maybe another one so it all gets totted up at the end.

My Flickr Set of Mexico City is HERE.