Monday 18 November 2013

Khao Soi Noodles

In my travels in Thailand, I never came across Khao Soi noodles, but then I never went anywhere further north than Bangkok. This noodle dish is typical of the Chiang Mai and northern Laos regions, and are also much like (and probably derived from) the Burmese 'ohn no khao swe', one of the Burma's most famous dishes.

I first tried this dish at Janetira Thai on Brewer Street in Soho over the summer and was instantly hooked.  It's a rich, filling dish; chicken is simmered in coconut milk with a spicy curry paste until the sauce is thick and the meat is tender. This sauce is ladled over fresh egg noodles and garnished with crispy fried noodles, bright, crunchy pickled mustard greens and vibrant pink shallots.

So on a wet, windy and cold night, I needed something warm and comforting. While some might veer towards meaty stews, my thoughts often stray to something Asian and spicy. I cheated with shop-bought Mae Ploy red curry paste and added additional flavourings to pep it up a bit, which turned this into an easy and quick mid-week dinner. Home-made curry pastes with fresh ingredients are invariably better, but this was a great fix. 

My local Asian supermarket was all out of fresh egg noodles so I used dried, and subsequently couldn't be bothered to cook and then fry a portion of the noodles for the crispy garnish. My laziness was detrimental to the enjoyment of the dish - a little crunch contrast to the egg noodles goes a long way. That showed me. 

Khao Soi Noodles 

Serves 4

For the curry paste:
4 tbsp red curry paste, home-made or shop bought (use a decent brand, like Mae Ploy)
1 tsp medium curry powder
1 tsp minced ginger
1 inch of fresh tumeric, minced (wear gloves, or you'll have yellow hands) or 1/2 tsp tumeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder

Bash the tumeric with the ginger and the curry and coriander powders, then mix in the red curry paste. 

4 chicken legs
1 tin of coconut milk
2 tin's worth of water or stock
1 heaped tbsp of palm sugar, to taste
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 black cardamom pod
2 tsp fish sauce, to taste
4 bundles of fresh egg noodles - you want a tagliatelle-like thickness. Untangle about 1/5 of each bundle to set aside for frying
Cooking oil

To Accompany: 
4 Asian pink shallots, sliced finely
100gr pickled mustard greens, it usually comes vac-packed - not the Sichuan, spicy sort . Rinse well and chop into bitesized pieces
2 limes, quartered
A few sprigs of coriander, chopped
1 spring onion, julienned
Nam prik pao (roasted thai chilli paste, but any chilli oil will do - in fact it's pretty spicy anyway so you may not need it at all)

Don't shake the tin of coconut milk up - you want the separation of the coconut cream from the milk. If you have this, open the can and skim it off the top. Add to the wok and fry it for a couple of minutes, then add the curry paste and fry for 5 or so minutes. If your can of coconut milk hasn't separated, then no worries - use a quarter of the coconut milk and simmer down for 10 minutes until thickened, before you add the curry paste. 

Add the chicken legs and cover the chicken legs with the sauce well. Add the rest of the coconut milk, black cardamom pod, kaffir lime leaves and the tins of water / stock, and simmer gently for 40 minutes, turning the chicken legs every so often. Add the palm sugar and fish sauce bit by bit, tasting as you go along. 

Meanwhile, for the fresh egg noodles, fry the reserved noodles in a little oil until crisp. Place on kitchen towel to drain. For the rest of the noodles, add to boiling water, boil for a couple of minutes and drain. Divide into bowls. 

Bring the chicken curry up to a rapid simmer. Add a chicken leg to each bowl, then ladle the sauce over equally. Serve with the accompaniments on the table for everyone to add bits and pieces to their liking. I found a squirt of lime was essential. 

(I'm going to Bangkok and Koh Chang in January. Where must I go, what must I eat? Tell me all, please!)

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Propping Up the Bar: Merchant's Tavern

Merchant's Tavern has, for a wee while now, been the talk of the town. Angela Hartnett's put her name behind the place, and none other than the indomitable Thomas Blythe looks after the front of house. If ever there was a more snazzily dressed manager, I'm yet to meet them. 

We visited on a Sunday afternoon, that awkward time in between lunch and dinner. I wouldn't describe the space as what one might traditionally call a tavern - that, for me, brings to mind a lot of gloomily lit room decorated in dark wood panelling, tankards of mead on offer - but instead an airy, banquette-lined spacious bar, opening to a dining room lit by skylights. 

We perched on stools by the bar, facing a fridge full of cured meats, dangling tantalisingly. One of us sipped on an absinthe-laced cocktail, while the other nursed a 'Dr. Henderson the Younger', heady with Fernet Branca and gin. My eyes widened a touch at the pricing on the main menu, and instead we decided to graze on the bar menu. 

Pigs head and veal kremeski (sic) - a well posh croquette yes? - were plump fingers of perfectly crisp, liberally seasoned slow-cooked meat dribbled with a tarragon mayonnaise. Served in a little copper pot, they were just the thing I can imagine were deceptively time-consuming to make.

We further tested the skills of the fryer with blisteringly hot cauliflower spheres, the cheese-stuffed middles eager to ooze from its carapace. They were how I'd like all my cauliflower cheese from now on - intense creamy brassica flavour. Haddock fish fingers came with a tartare sauce so deliciously tangy it was hard not to just eat it all up with your fingers... as you can see.

We took a well needed vegetable break, and the Little Gem lettuce, braised and dressed with brown shrimp and pickled cucumber was the ideal foil for all the richness we'd indulged in. The pickled cucumber took the thinly shaved ribbon form and was unexpectedly but pleasantly sweet. Fat, amber prawns (top pic) whiffed of freshly fried garlic, spiked through with chilli. Their bodies, de-shelled were eagerly swiped through the aioli, though the juices sucked from their heads were a little on the bitter side.

Then, the main show/heart stopper arrived. Ogleshield and ham toasted sandwich might, on paper, sound rather dull. But we knew that to charge £8 for a toasted sandwich it had to be something special, right? So we ordered it, and it was amazing. Thick, soft bread fried until crisp in what I suspect was butter was stuffed with cheese that surely must've been mixed with bechemel, it was so rich and luxurious. The ham was substantial; thickly cut, proper ham. The sweet-sour pickles were a palate-cleansing necessity, the Picpoul de Pinet helping it along a bit. It's the best toasted sandwich I've ever had. We rounded off our indulgence with a perfectly wobbly vanilla-flecked custard, topped with boozy prunes. 

Avoiding the so-perceived costly dining room menu in favour of the bar turned out to be a vain attempt, as we faced a £50-a-head bill. 

36 Charlotte Road
London EC2A 3PG

Merchants Tavern on Urbanspoon

Monday 11 November 2013

Hot & Sour Mustard Green Soup

The humble mustard green, also known as gai choy in Cantonese, is a vegetable you normally see preserved in pickle form. The Vietnamese eat them pickled with dishes like braised catfish hot pots, or braised caramelised pork belly; basically any rich, salty dishes. The Thais eat it on the side of Khao Soi (a rich, coconutty curried noodle soup) amongst other dishes. The Chinese often stir fry them, and in particular the Sichuanese pickle the knobbly bit with chilli, so that it looks like an alien.

When fresh though, it's quite the different beast. Unlike spinach or watercress, this is no wilting wallflower - it holds itself robustly, and stands up well to a long simmering. Don't let the name fool you; it's not really that mustardy. Slightly bitter and grassy-tasting, it's often made into soups, and the hot-n-sour treatment is as good as any. 

On a lazy evening with a little time on your hands, it couldn't be simpler. Simmer some pork ribs (or use pre-prepared, home-made stock), add some flavourings, and simmer it all together for a while. Leave the chilli and tamarind out for a cleaner-tasting, comforting broth-like soup, or do as I did and ramp the flavours up a touch. 

I used a lot of things I had floating around in the fridge, as you tend to do after a big steamboat session which is really my new, favourite Sunday lunch. Fish balls went in there, along with a few cubes of freshly fried tofu. Carrots, roll cut so that they made a decent mouthful lent a sweetness. For a more substantial meat you can have a bowl of steamed rice on the side, to soak up some of the flavoursome broth. Anything you like really; just had those greens and the flavourings. 

Hot & Sour Mustard Green Soup 

Serves 4

200gr pork ribs, cut into lengths about the size of your thumb (you can ask your butcher to do this) 
1 head of mustard greens (from the Asian supermarket), washed and cut into bitesize pieces
1 small onion, peeled and sliced into half moons
2 carrots, peeled and roll cut
A few slices of firm or freshly fried tofu, blanched (optional, but tasty)
A handful of fish balls
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, minced
2 large fresh, red chillis, chopped finely
2 tsp tamarind puree, or dissolve a small block of tamarind in boiling water and drain
1 medium tomato, chopped roughly
1 tbsp light soy sauce
A few sprigs of coriander
Cooking oil

Blanch the pork ribs in water, so that all the scum floats to the top. Drain and rinse the pot and the ribs well. Heat a little cooking oil in the pot and fry the onion, garlic and ginger until soft. Add the chilli and fry for a little while longer, then add the ribs. Cover with tamarind water or the tamarind puree along with 500ml water or stock. Add the carrots and cover, simmering for half an hour. Add the tomato and the mustard greens and simmer for another half hour, stirring every so often. Add more water or stock if it's looking too busy in there. Add the tofu or fish balls if using and simmer for another 10 mins. 

Taste and add a little sugar to balance out the tartness of the tamarind. Add soy sauce to taste, garnish with coriander and serve with steamed rice for a more filling meal. Have a bowl to hand to catch those little rib bones. 

Thursday 7 November 2013

Pick n' Mix: Part 6

Pick n' Mix fell by the wayside somewhat but we're back on a roll with a smearing of butter. London's seeing several new restaurants opening at the moment, and Foxlow was one I was most excited about. From the team behind Hawksmoor, it's styled as more of a neighbourhood restaurant (I wish my neighbourhood was Farringdon...) and has a more casual vibe. I was invited along to their preview and the menu reads like a mash-up between Hawksmoor and Pitt Cue, with a lot of smoked meats on offer, as well as their usual steaks.

Crispy five pepper squid (£7) had the ideal crunchy exterior and tender innards. Garnished with tiny rounds of sliced lime, it was poshed-up salt n' pepper squid, accompanied with a ginger-spiked mayonnaise. Just the phrase 'baby back Iberico ribs' (£8.50) danced at you from the menu, wiggling their seductive hips, whispering "eat me" until there's nothing you can do but order them. They didn't disappoint; a sweet glaze covered the plump ribs, which crucially kept some bite. For me, there's nothing worse than floppy rib meat, you know the type; the stuff you can slide bones out of without disturbing the plate. I have perfectly functioning teeth, thank you.

Ten hour smoked beef short rib with kimchi (£16) was a hulking beast - excuse the photo, the lighting was... atmospheric. Often beef rib can be hugely fatty, but this was pure slow cooked meat. Flavoursome and smoky, the tart fermented cabbage was mandatory every few bites to cut through the richness. We actually asked for a little more. Monkfish was cooked in the Big Green Egg, a ceramic smoker made famous by the likes of The Smokehouse. The result was that the fish took on a delicate flavour of charcoal, but with the tenderness of it cooked to just-there.

Sides are never a sideline with these guys, we opted out of the salad bar (there's a salad bar) and instead went for bacon-salt fries, tenderstem broccoli with chilli and anchovy and sausage-stuffed onion (all between £3.50 - £4.50). I'm sad to say the onion, stuffed with mace-heavy beefy sausage, defeated us but we demolished the rest like a flood of locusts. Salted caramel popcorn and caramel bourbon soft-serve pushed our already meat-high brains into the sugar crazed territory. In short, I loved Foxlow.

69 - 73 St John Street
London EC1M 4AN

Foxlow on Urbanspoon

Burger & Lobster have set up shop on the fifth floor of Harvey Nichols. I fully expect it to be completely rammed as surely the ladies who lunch would get stuck right in to lobster rolls. They give you a buzzer if there's a wait for a table, and this way you can get on with your shopping and swan over to your table when summoned. I used the opportunity at the press preview to try the burger; beefy, well constructed, cooked to medium as requested - all ticks from me. But I'd never choose a burger over a lobster, made even more evident by the lobster roll and grilled lobster we also shared. I felt a twinge of guilt when I glanced over at their forlorn faces in the lobster tank as I left. They also mix a mean martini.

Speaking of Harvey Nichols, the Pizza Pilgrims' van is also on the 5th floor for the winter. Two internal walls were taken down to get this beast in. I'll be completely transparent here - one of the Pilgrims' is my boyfriend so you can take this at face value... but I wouldn't go out with someone who makes bad pizza so, you know, it's ace.

I was invited to an evening of pickles at One Leicester Street which was hugely exciting, given what a pickle fiend I am. Chef Tom Harris talked us through all their homemade pickles - salt pickles, sweet pickles (quince is a revelation), and sauerkraut-esque fermentations.

They also make their own hams, and a Middlewhite belly and tongue ham with sour cabbage was a particular favourite (above). Pig's cheek ham with celeriac and mustard showed how the marriage between rich fat and sharp vegetable works so well, and a smoked gamey duck breast, pink and tender, showcased the sweetness of aforementioned pickled quince (below).

We finished off with a brown sugar and honey tart; so obscenely wobbly and delicately made, I near-destroyed my piece filming this masterpiece. I enjoyed One Leicester Street hugely; Tom's passion for ingredients and skills he invests in his chefs to make their own pickles and hams is inspiring. Having retained his Michelin star after St John Hotel (where he was awarded it) closed, he's clearly got a lot of talent.

One Leicester Street
London WC2H 7BL

One Leicester Street on Urbanspoon

In a fit of hypocrisy, I went along to Manchester on a friend's invite-to-review both of Simon Rogan's places. I can't defend it - he needed a companion and I'd never been to Manchester before. That's me in Manchester's Chinatown, that is. We arrived at The Midland Hotel at around 9pm, wowed by its grandeur (and the next day, by the pool and gym). In contrast to The French, Mr Cooper's House & Garden is Rogan's casual restaurant; I had wondered if we would be seeing said gardens, but turns out it refers to the decor. Part garden shed, part leather banquette, it was an enormous place. The menu is a mish-mash of ingredients from other cuisines - I spotted wasabi, tofu and chorizo all in the first minute.

Chicken wings with pomegranate molasses were deboned and served on a tangle of 'sepia' (squid ink, then?) noodles. With an attractive glaze, they were a little too tart for my palate, but juicy and full of chicken flavour. For my main, the monkfish, mussel, and potato romesco was probably the least adventurous, ingredient-wise. But it was light and pretty, not overly daunting for a meal that late in the evening. Creamed kale and spinach with bacon sounds like my vegetal dream, but was disappointly salty. Rhubarb and custard, studded with dramatic black sesame wafers was a palate-cleansing, refreshing end to the meal.

I liked Mr Cooper's House & Garden well enough, but it didn't blow my socks off like The French did. You can read about that here, if you so wish, and my pictures are here. I suspect the ox rib tartare (above) with coal oil may well be one of my most memorable dishes of 2013.

Mr Cooper's House & Garden 
The Midland Hotel, 
Peter Street,
Manchester M60 2DS

Lastly, the Plusixfive Cookbook is out and it is a beauty. Packed full of amusing anecdotes, great pictures and quirky drawings, it's also got a recipe in there from me for cocktail sausage buns, a Hong Kong classic. You can buy it here. Do. It's lovely.