Tuesday 26 February 2013

Stir-Fried Pork & Chayote Noodles

Every single time I walk into a Chinese supermarket, I spend way too much time picking things up, looking at them, and then putting them back again. 40% of the time they end up in my basket instead, with a promise to myself that I'll find out what it is when I get home and use it then. This may well be the reason my kitchen cupboards are full to bursting with unidentifiable objects and my housemates don't even open those particular ones anymore, through fear of the Cupboard Avalanche. 

Occasionally though, I'll pick up a Perishable Item which forces me into action. I'll admit it; I picked this one up because it looked like a bum.

Chow chow has many other names, like cho cho and chayote. Used across both Caribbean and Chinese cuisines, soups and stir fried dishes seemed most popular. I stuck with what I was most familiar with and went down the Chinese route. 

I used up bits and bobs from my collection of dried weird things in the cupboard, and coupled it odds and ends from the fridge, which this dish is perfect for. The chayote (which is what I'm calling it from now on) is much like a cucumber though less watery; it retains its crunch even when stir-fried, and adds a bright subtle freshness the dish. Minced pork belly fried until brown and crisp make the flavour base, with each individual vegetable braising together to meld their flavours and textures together. 

With this dish its important to cut all your vegetables up into matchsticks so that the dish chews nicely. I know it sounds weird but if you chopped your carrots into lumps and the black fungus into big sheets it just doesn't work as well. Besides, I find the chopping therapeutic. 

You may find the list below a bit daunting but you can find it all at Oriental supermarkets and you can similarly stuff your cupboards silly. 

Stir Fried Pork & Chayote Noodles

Serves 4 with sides - rice and stir fried vegetables, for example

1 chayote, peeled and julienned
2 carrots, julienned
1 celery stick, julienned
(Whatever vegetables you have, chopped julienne; courgette and cabbage would be good, perhaps peppers too)
4 dried shiitake mushrooms
A small handful of dried black fungus - or wood ear mushroom, which you can buy dried and already julienned
4 sticks of tofu bamboo or tofu knots
70gr dried of glass noodles 
50gr pork belly
1 tbsp dried prawns
2 cloves of garlic minced
1 inch of ginger minced
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp water
2 spring onions to garnish (I ran out and had to use red onion, as you may see...)

Boil some water and soak the mushrooms, black / wood ear fungus and tofu sticks in a bowl for 15 minutes. Soak the glass noodles in boiling water for 15 minutes too. 

Meanwhile, mince your pork belly and julienne your vegetables. Heat 3 tbsp oil in a wok and fry the pork belly on a high heat, stirring. You want it properly brown and crispy. Remove to a plate. Heat the wok up to a medium heat, and ensuring there's enough oil, fry the garlic and ginger. Fish out the dried prawns and add these in, stir frying until fragrant. 

Add your vegetables incrementally as to how quickly they take to cook - so I went tofu sticks, celery, carrots, then black fungus, shiitake mushrooms and then add the soy sauce, oyster sauce and the water. Cook for a few minutes, then add the chayote. Through the noodles in, and cook together on a medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes, adding more water when needed. 

To serve, garnish with spring onion. I like to eat this with rice and a vegetable or meat dish on the side. 

Friday 22 February 2013

Dabbous, Fitzrovia

Dabbous was one of those places that was infamous for its hype. Booked up for months and months in advance, yada yada yada, I got the opportunity to go. The opportunity passed me by swiftly, due to being stuck with an enormous workload. A rearranged lunch was made and that too sailed past for the same reason. Third time lucky, I was determined to go, even if I spent most of my morning at work doing some deep breathing in the toilets, wondering whether the onset of this (what I later discovered was) norovirus would rule me out once again.

But I bravely soldiered on. Huddled against the cold, I battled through the windy streets of Fitzrovia. The bar downstairs which serves bar food, was completely empty; I wondered why everyone who was so desperate to try the food wasn't there instead. A ginger beer-based cocktail went towards settling my stomach. The first course of chilled shrimp broth with a perfect fold of candy beetroot and a hint of shiso leaf was challenging in my condition, but not impossible and it even perked me up a little. Next, speckled endive leaves arrived arranged carefully in a bowl like a blossoming flower, dusted with gingerbread crumbs, with a hint of bergamot. 

Fishing those leaves out and cramming them, unladylike into my mouth cheered me no end; the bright, unusual flavours, so distinctly separate yet bound together with the freshness of mint convinced me I'd made the right decision and that yes, I would enjoy this lunch very much indeed.

Mash and gravy sounds so innocuous on the menu, but what turned up was pure decadence. The creamiest, smoothest buttery mashed potato and a rich meaty gravy was comfort food at its finest. A shaving of truffle helped it along a bit. Excuse me a moment while I relive this memory (though, now that I think about it, Lucky Chip's creamed potatoes were almost as good).

Not currently on the tasting menu but requested as an extra course, Dabbous' famous dish is of an egg shell sliced in half with precision. Filled with coddled egg it was silky smooth and studded with woodland mushrooms. It was understandably the signature and I begrudged every spoonful I ate, wishing it wouldn't end.

A rather strange dish of halibut followed; laid bare on a plate with a spear of dill pickle, it was served at room temperature; the skill of the kitchen showed in the delicate texture of the fish, which we later heard was salted before cooking. I marvelled at its technical skill and the feeling of it in the mouth, but remember little about the flavour. I actively disliked a dish of pork belly sat atop a spiced mango chutney. Cloying and overly rich, I abandoned much of it. My companion snaffled the crisp crackling.

We were back on track with a tiny bowlful of blood orange with marjoram and olive oil. Sweet and cleansing, the olive oil added a grassy savouriness to it. Rum baba was deceptively enormous; arriving in glassware I wanted to steal, the sponge was positively soaked in rum, the crumb of it loose and yielding. An ethereal, almost foamy vanilla cream softened the punch of the rum.

The room, industrial in its fittings, was barely comfortable. This is not the place to take someone who appreciates linen tablecloths. But service was that perfect level of completely unremarkable - that is to say, they did they job well in making sure we had everything we wanted. I left happy, shuffling to the bus stop, unknown at the time that this was to be the last meal I'd eat for three days. Thanks Norovirus! Although there were a couple of dishes that I either wasn't blown away by or didn't like, there were others which were inventive (the endive), and others of downright deliciousness and at £59 per head for the tasting menu, one of the best value at this level of cooking. I'll be back - mainly because I've just noticed they do chicken wings on the bar menu...


39 Whitfield Street

Tel: 0207 323 1544

Dabbous on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Lucky Fried Chicken

NOW CLOSED - Lucky Fried Chicken at The Grafton is now serving Lucky Chip burgers.

So the good people of Lucky Chip have done it again. My last visit to The Sebright Arms ended in meat hysteria - meat-steria? - after stuffing my greedy little face with not only burgers but chilli cheese fries, hot dogs and cheese croquettes; I just couldn't stop myself, and I wasn't sorry (until I tried to get to sleep that night). This time, on my visit to the Lucky Fried Chicken residency at The Grafton Arms in Kentish Town, I was a little more restrained. I sorely regret it now.  

The upstairs of The Grafton is set out like a takeaway shop with a lit up menu above the counter and booths to sit in. Well, apparently it is; the night we visited it was closed for a private function. I'm not sure I've gasped as dramatically as when I read that little sign. But, no matter as they serve chicken downstairs in the main pub area too. The menu is simple, with boxes and buckets of chicken offered, reminiscent of our favourite Colonel; coleslaw, creamed potatoes, baked beans, bean and potato salads make up the 'Salad' section, and sandwiches and sides complete the menu. That's the kind of salad I could get on board with.

When the chicken arrived, it did so on a tray; our 5 enormous pieces (jumbo box, £12.50) steaming hot, accompanied with a small pot of mash and gravy, and a tub of coleslaw, clearly home-made. No gloopy mayonnaise-laden filth, thank god. Two small dinner rolls completed the plate. I wished we'd ordered the french fries. 

BUT THE CHICKEN. It was glorious. Crisp spicy crust, giving way to unbelievably juicy meat, all the way down to the bone. It must have been brined. I had to get a knife and fork as the chicken was too hot to put my face but I was too impatient to wait. 

The glory didn't end there, as the creamed potatoes with gravy was similarly delicious. Perfectly smooth mash, savoury chickeny gravy. The dinner roll was repeatedly dunked into that mash until I'd realised I had eaten it all myself. My date didn't seem to notice. Coleslaw was light and crunchy, very celery-heavy which I don't have an issue with. For £12.50 we were satisfied well - ok, I probably could have eaten another piece of chicken and a bit more mash but that is just my own gluttony - and made for pretty great value. 

I'm already planning my next trip. It is open for "just a few weeks" (from 13th Feb) before they turn into a burger bar so hurry up and go.

Lunch: Tue-Sat 12-3pm, Sun 12-6pm

Dinner: Tue-Thur 5.30-10pm, Fri-Sat 5.30-11pm

The Grafton Arms
20 Prince of Wales Road
London NW5 3LG

Monday 18 February 2013

Grilled Aubergines in Nuoc Cham

When I'm feeling particularly poorly or over-indulged, it's usually this dish I want to make. Served lukewarm or at room temperature, the aubergines are cooked twice and then covered in a sweet, spicy, sour dressing, tinged with fish sauce and smashed through with garlic - basically, nuoc cham. 

Originally, the recipe came to me with the aubergine grilled whole until collapsed, the insides scraped out and mashed through with the dressing. I experimented with this version by flame-roasting it against a gas burner before peeling, creating a smoky result. Too smoky, even, and too rich for my tastebuds that cried out for something lighter. So I took it back to basics; for me, aubergines get their best texture when you give them a good double cooking. Slim Asian aubergines were split into four lengthways, their flesh held together by the stem at the top. Fried for a few minutes in hot oil so that their skins are blistered and curling, they are then transferred to a oven dish and placed under the grill to ensure the insides are soft and silky. 

Coriander is fairly essential for this, with perhaps mint being of less importance - I've made it without, but it is better with.

Grilled Aubergines with Nuoc Cham

Serves 2 with other dishes

3 Asian aubergines or use a normal aubergine cut into fingers
4 tbsp vegetable oil
A handful of coriander
Half the amount of mint

Slice the aubergines lengthways into 4, keeping the stem intact so it holds the aubergine together. Heat the oil in a wok until almost smoking, turn the heat down to medium and fry the aubergines well, turning occasionally. Do not burn. Set aside, laying the aubergines in an oven dish. Cook under a medium grill for 20 minutes, turning the aubergines half way through. 

Chop the mint finely, and the coriander roughly. Set to one side. If you have roots on your coriander stalks, wash them well, chop them finely, and add them to the pestle and mortar to be ground into the nuoc cham sauce.

For the Nuoc Cham: 

Essentially, this sauce should be made as you like it. Keep tasting and adding as some will prefer it more sour, some sweeter, some more or less spicy. This is how I like mine. 

1 bird's eye chilli (use more if you like it really hot, less if you don't)
1 fat clove of garlic
2 tsp brown sugar
1 lime
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp water 

In a pestle and mortar, crush the clove of garlic with the sugar until it is a smooth paste. Deseed the chilli and chop it roughly, then add to the mortar and give it a good pestling. Add the lime juice, mix well. Add 1 tbsp of fish sauce, taste. Add 1 tbsp water, taste. Keep doing this until you have the desired piquancy or pungency that you like. Remember you can always add but you can't take away. 

To assemble, place the aubergines in a dish while warm and pour the dressing over. Garnish with the chopped mint and the coriander, and serve with rice. 

Tuesday 12 February 2013

The Shed, Notting Hill

In honesty, I wasn't expecting to like The Shed. When a friend recommended it to me, having been enthralled with the food, he followed with 'it's twee as fuck though'. With its Notting Hill location - land of the braying smugsters - these factors were not painting a good image in my head. 

And gosh, was it twee. The whole place is indeed fitted out like a shed. Lights hang from tractor fittings and the loos are wallpapered with cartoon farmland print, the type you might get in a child's bedroom. Oil drums serve as tables for two, though when we visited on Saturday night reservation-less we were led to a communal table next to the kitchen's pass. It was stiflingly hot. A complimentary packet of seeds (mustard sprouts for us) are presented to you with your bill. 

But I did like it. Perhaps it was because the manager looked a little like R Patz, and you couldn't fault him for his enthusiasm when he told us his story of opening the place with his two brothers. One works in the kitchen, and the other the farm they get their ingredients from. Even when he topped my sherry up with white wine, it was okay as the apology was profuse and the sherry replaced. 

The food was hard to choose from, with 2 / 3 dishes recommended per person and at least 90% of the menu I wanted to order. 'Mouthfuls' at £1.50 each were described to us as one-bites; beef tartare on crispbread was excellent, as was the pork crackling with apple sauce. Smoked mackerel pate on a lettuce leaf was something I would wang together for friends at a 70's themed dinner party; I wouldn't order it again. 

Split into 'slow cooking' and 'fast cooking' dishes, a crisp-skinned fillet of whiting was served atop a mound of crushed potatoes, loosened by lemon and oil and chilli. This was the dish that I was most loathe to share of the small plate concept in play here; I loved it. 

Chorizo with labneh, crispbread and sprout leaves was a hefty portion, with a touch too much of the spiced pork; nevertheless, the cooling yoghurt worked well in making the ideal mouthful. Crispy cuttlefish (above) with almonds on sweet chilli beans was better judged in size; while delicious, any more of it would have become cloying from the sugary spiciness. 

Another top dish was chicken hearts with butter lettuce and blood oranges. Butter lettuce is a totally underrated leaf, usually eschewed for the trendier rocket or little gem leaves; here, its floppiness worked perfectly in a lukewarm pan of tender hearts, slightly pink in the middle, and acidic orange segments. It sounds strange, it certainly looked odd but it tasted great. 

Hogget cheek braised to tenderness completed our set of dishes; I may have been too full to appreciate it at this point, but it was just fine - no massive fireworks, it was a decently cooked piece of meat on a sweet onion puree, with a superfluous biscuit which I suppose comprised the 'tart' aspect of the onions. A shared pudding was far better received; we wibbled that pannacotta heartily (as you can see...), gobbled down with a glass of English apple brandy. 

The bill for two with service, aperitifs and wine brought a slight wince to the face at £110 - maybe because I had to pay it all, having lost a frivolous bet. It's not cheap, but the flavour combinations and quality of ingredients were interesting and unusual enough to make me alright with it. 
122 Palace Gardens Terrace
London W8 4RT

Tel: 020 7229 4024

Sunday 10 February 2013

Sichuan Wontons

It's Chinese New Year and 2013 is the year of the snake. To celebrate, I cooked a dinner for some friends and we all agreed that these Sichuan wontons were the star of the show. It may have been due to me making everyone do the folding; things taste better when you make them, right? But you can't really go wrong with pork dumplings doused in a fiery sweet, salty, garlicky sauce.

These differ from the Cantonese wontons in that they don't contain prawns; I couldn't find any worth using, but in any case the sauce is so punchy that the robust flavour of the pork stands up better than with the delicate flavour of prawns. Get your friends round to do the folding and you'll be done in mere minutes.

Sichuan Wontons

Feeds 6, when served with other dishes

1 packet of wonton wrappers - you can buy these in Chinatown in the fridge section
450gr minced pork - you want a bit of fat in this
4 dried shiitake mushroom, rehydrated in boiling water for 30 minutes
1 tsp grated ginger
3 spring onions, minced
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp oyster sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten

Chop the mushrooms finely and mix with the pork in a large bowl. Add the ingredients except the egg (and the wrappers...) and stir well with chopsticks until it has all combined well.

Take a wonton wrapper in your hand, the point of a corner pointing to your wrist. Wet the top left and right edges with a finger dipped in the beaten egg. Add a heaped teaspoon of filling to the centre and bring the bottom edges to meet the egg washed edges to make a triangle. Gently squeeze the air out of the area around the filling and seal well. Bring the two points of the corner to meet around the front, wetting one edge with a little egg to seal it. Place on a floured plate and repeat until the wrappers are finished.

You can freeze them on a sheet and then combine in a bag once frozen, and cook from frozen. Or, if using now, cook in lightly simmering water for 5 or so minutes.

For the sauce:

6 tbsp chilli oil with its sediment
4 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
2 tsp finely minced garlic
1 stalk of spring onion

Combine the chilli oil, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and vinegar. Mix well until all is incorporated, and then add the minced garlic. Slice the spring onion on the diagonal but save as garnish.

When the wontons are cooked, drain them well and combine with the sauce. Scatter the spring onions on top as garnish.

Friday 1 February 2013

Trullo, Islington

Way back in the mists of time (well, 2011) I visited Trullo for lunch and I remembered being dumbstruck by a beautiful, silken dish of tagliolini with courgettes and brown shrimp. Ordered to share between my friend and I as a in betweeny starter and main, it stole the show for me. There was a delicacy to it, a lightness to the dish but also it was also luxurious - I imagine it was swimming in butter. The restaurant was busy - really busy, with families and couples alike lunching. Therefore, I was surprised when before Christmas an email landed in my inbox from their PR asking if I'd like to go and review it.

I would have written about it when I first went had I not been writing about it for someone else, so I accepted but then had to cancel due to sickness. A certain sense of relief came from the cancellation; I had done much agonising over whether I want to do invite-to-reviews anymore. It sounds spoilt of me, but I find the whole process toe-curlingly awkward; from the knowing look when you walk in and tell them your name, to the (usually) desperate to please service and all the time I'm thinking 'god, all this for ME?'. And then you get to that bill stage, or rather the lack of it; the signal to end meals and leave is not there anymore and each time I felt like a criminal asking for my jacket and shuffling out of there without that finality. All that before you even get down to the whole subjectivity argument. 

So I decided to go on my own dollar and I'm jolly pleased to report that the pasta was still astonishingly good, the staff still friendly and attentive and packed out on a Tuesday night until 9:30pm, when we managed to nab a last-minute table. After a fortifying quince and prosecco cocktail at the bar, we settled down to our table to order. I wasn't enormously hungry (for once) so I opted for a starter and a pasta.

I love bitter leaves and chicory and dandelion are amongst my favourite. Blood orange segments softened the bitterness somewhat, and the curls of cheese slowly mixed into the dressing, giving it creaminess. A near-perfect balance of flavours.

Obviously I'm going to win photographer of the year with my picture of what can only look like worms in cheese - you'll have to take my word for it that the pici with Amalfi lemon, garlic, marjoram and parmesan was glorious. When asked what pici was, our waiter said it was like a hand-rolled spaghetti, a little thicker and without egg in the dough. Being a huge fan of anything noodle-shaped, I was sold. The pasta was chewy, not soft and the lemon sauce not in the slightest bit astringent but rather more gentle and perfumed. Not cheap at £9 for a small portion, mind. 

Beef shin pappardelle was equally well received (and equally dear), though a main course of mackerel cooked on the charcoal grill could have benefitted with a little more time on the heat. 

We rounded off our meal nicely with a wibbly-wobbly lemon tart and another bottle of wine before we eventually got the message that perhaps the staff might want to go home. There's often talk of places outside W1 being nice 'neighbourhood' restaurants but I'd cross town for Trullo's pasta so I won't put it in that camp. 

300 - 302 St Paul's Road
London N1 2LH

Tel: 020 7226 2733

Trullo on Urbanspoon