Monday 29 June 2015

C Food, Camberwell

I've spent the last few days in France by the seaside, sipping (ok, glugging) Provençal rosé, frolicking in the sea and generally having a lovely time. I came back to a slightly greyer London, dejected and tired so I was completely delighted when I arrived at C Food, a new pop-up in Camberwell. Just off the Peckham Road, the courtyard this weekly pop-up is housed in took me right back to the holiday spirit I'd just left behind. When we arrived, musicians were strumming guitars gently, and twinkling fairy lights festooned the space.

Brightly coloured tables and benches are set out for groups to dine at, sharing family style. Held every Sunday until 27th September, for £25 set price for food, the menu kicks off with bundles of peppery radishes and nutty, seeded bread.

Oysters, freshly shucked come at two per person, a fine example, briny with a splash of lemon. We slurped on a blush rosé, £18 per bottle, easing me back from my French binge.

New potatoes, boiled and buttered, scattered with parsley are handed down the table and soft floppy green leaves are dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette. Platters of seafood (for four to share) are served on ice; a dressed crab, rich with brown meat, was eagerly piled on top of the bread and dolloped with dill or plain homemade mayonnaise. Plump prawns are mess-makers, the bowl beneath catching the discarded shells. I've not often had cold mussels but these were sweet and firm, less wobbly than a hot preparation. Smoked salmon is generous (I would have liked some capers, but I do love the things) and a ramekin of smoked mackerel paté benefitted from a squeeze of lemon. As darkness fell, one bottle turned into two and the doom of the impending Monday melted away.

Dessert is simply strawberries drizzled with cream and dotted with mint leaves, a nod to this month's Wimbledon and a refreshing and light end to the meal.

Safe to say I really enjoyed C Food - it was the perfect antidote to the holiday blues. By the end of the meal we were chatting to our neighbours long after the evening had settled in. I could barely believe we were in the hustle and bustle of Camberwell, and it was quite the shock turning back onto the main road. You can buy tickets here.

(I was invited to C Food but all opinions are my own. Obviously.)

If you prefer your mussels hot over cold, I have a cracking recipe for Mussels in Lemongrass Broth in Chinatown Kitchen - you can buy it here.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Clear Beef & Turnip Soup

The Chinese have plenty of ways of cooking their version of a 'beef stew'. The Taiwanese and Sichuanese add a bit of spice to theirs with chilli bean paste, to make a rich, red broth - I have a recipe in Chinatown Kitchen, using ox cheek. At one of my favourite noodle shops in Hong Kong, Kau Kee, they only sell beef - brisket, tendon and 'slices'. You can get it in clear soup or in curry soup - both are incredible. I also like cooking the beef in Chu Hou sauce, which is made with fermented soybeans, ginger and garlic.  

I return to the clear version frequently, and I find it's light enough to be a year-round dish. The scent and fragrance of the soup from hours of simmering is mouth-watering. The soup is clean, slightly sweet, intensely beefy - you don't have to have noodles with this, you could also spoon it over rice. 

Clear Beef Brisket & Turnip Soup

Serves 4

1kg beef brisket, cut into bitesize chunks
500gr beef bones (optional)
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of a cleaver
7 slices of ginger
2 spring onions, whites and greens separated, both chopped finely
2 star anise
1 stick of cinnamon, or cassia bark
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 lump of yellow rock sugar, about 10gr
1.5 litres of water
3 large turnips or mooli, peeled and sliced into bite-sized chunks
1 tbsp cooking oil
1 tsp salt

Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add the brisket, bones, 3 slices of garlic and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, drain the water away and rinse the beef pieces, as well as the saucepan well to get rid of the scum. 

Return the saucepan to the stove and heat the oil. Add the garlic and remaining ginger and stir-fry until fragrant. Add the beef pieces and bones, then sprinkle in the cooking wine. Add the cinnamon, rock sugar, star anise and the salt, then the water. Bring to the simmer and simmer for 1.5 hours with the lid on. Alternatively you could put this lot in a pressure cooker and cook at pressure for 15 minutes. 

Next, add the turnips and cook for a further 40 minutes (5 minutes in the pressure cooker). 

Carefully drain the broth into another saucepan, and discard the beef bones. Reduce the broth for 5 minutes on a rolling boil, then add the whites of the spring onions and take off the heat, returning the turnips and beef to the pot. 

Serve with rice, or ladle over cooked noodles to serve. I cooked rice noodles and cavalo nero for the opening shot, served with chilli oil. 

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Som Saa, Hackney

Have you ever enjoyed a restaurant so much that you revisited the night after? 

There are so many restaurants in London, especially new ones opening up all the time, that it would seem like madness to do so, but I did do it. One Friday night, we rocked up bang on 6pm to Som Saa in Hackney. It's situated in an archway underneath London Fields train station. If you ever went to Burnt Enz, sadly now relocated to Singapore, you might recognise the space as it's the same one, in the Climpson Arch. They're in residence there, headed up by Andy Oliver and Tom George. Andy's pedigree is solid, having trained at Nahm in Bangkok and The Begging Bowl in Peckham. I knew I was already enamoured with his food from this brief stint in 2013.

They are in the arch temporarily, until they find themselves a permanent home. It's always busy; it was reviewed well, and Thai BBQ is so-hot-right-now. On visit number 1 we put our names down and took to some outside benches with snacks and drinks, nibbling on cashews spiked with chilli and lime. This prawn with samphire on a betel leaf is intended to be eaten whole and it was absolutely gorgeous. It's one of those things that slap you round the face and demand that you pay attention. The perfume of the lemongrass, the citrus lime, balanced with fish sauce, a hint of lime leaf - masterful.

After a brief wait (which wasn't really a wait, given that we were seated, with snacks and drinks. There are worse ways to queue) we were seated. The first to arrive was the coal-roasted aubergine, garnished with a soft boiled duck egg, resplendent with herbs. Smoky, silky and sweet, sticky rice we have unlimited amounts of was perfect for mopping up the sauce. 

Lon Kapi is smoked mackerel and raw vegetables served with a dip of shrimp paste and coconut cream. I knew I had to have this, as I also know the lengths they go to to make their own coconut cream by hand. It is not in vain. Leaves of bitter chicory contrast wonderfully with the slightly sweet dip. I particularly enjoyed the sour / sweet chunks of green mango too. 

As for larger dishes, the sea bass is deep fried whole and served looking panicked. It's covered in herbs, so you have to rootle around a bit for the morsels of flesh. Roasted rice is pounded into a powder and sprinkled on top, for a bit of crunch. 

We also tried a Isaan-style som tam; at Som Saa, both Isaan and Bangkok styles are offered. The Isaan is not for the faint-hearted; this particular style of Thai cooking, from the North East of the country, is known for being spiciest, and features sour and fishy flavours heavily. Indeed, the som tum is made with fermented crabs. It sure was funky. It was so spicy I glanced over to a man eating it and his head was thrown back, he was slightly perspiring, and he was gulping the air. 

I came back the following evening with 4 friends. We ordered everything from the menu with glee. 

This time we had the Bangkok som tam, which comes with crispy pork. Crispy pork makes everything better so there was a clear winner between the two options. 

All the other dishes I enjoyed again, though none of us were particularly fond of this grilled oyster mushroom on chicory. I think it was the dill, it jarred somewhat. 

The grilled onglet with herbs, lettuce and roasted red chilli paste made a great little parcel to pop in the mouth. Onglet is known for for being particularly flavoursome as it comes from the diaphragm - as such it has to be cooked very rare so that it remains tender. I would have paid a little more for a fattier, juicier cut like rib-eye. 

Soup was the clear, soothing broth with mushrooms bobbing about in it. Our table heaved with plates as elbows knocked into shoulders as we attempted to dish the soup out. It was reviving and comforting. Some remarked that it was bland, but I thought that really was the point of it. 

Thai meals are all about balance. Some dishes are meant to be on the sour side, some spicy, some mild, and you're also supposed to have dishes that lean to a sweeter angle. Our palates were becoming slightly fatigued - a couple of the salads were quite similar - and then this baby turned up. It's a Northern-style pork belly curry with pickled garlic and ginger. Northern-style in this sense meant no coconut milk, just rich, sweet, anise-scented sauce that the fork-tender pork belly cooked in. I loved the ginger on top; it cuts through that richness and livens it up. I loved this dish very much. In fact, I loved Som Saa very much.

Both times at Som Saa I spent around £25 on food, while the bill for drinks can go up depending on how long you're waiting. And how many of these you drink. The Sang Som hangover was strong. 

I have a recipe for Tom Yum soup, amongst other Thai gems in my book, Chinatown Kitchen - in case you're out of reach of Hackney, or just prefer cooking at home. 

Arch 374 Helmsley Place,
Hackney, London E8 3SB

No Reservations

Summer Opening Times

Dinner:        6pm-late Thurs - Sun
                        (last orders 1030pm)
Lunch:          12-3pm Sat / Sun only

Garden:        6pm-late Thurs / Fri
                        12-3pm & 5pm-late Sat / Sun                  
                        weather and kitchen permitting

Sunday 7 June 2015

A Wok Trick, & The Prakti Charcoal Grill

Thanks to @BluePatchTeam for the photo

Yesterday I was at Rye Books in East Dulwich doing a cooking demonstration for my new book, Chinatown Kitchen. I taught a small gathering how to fold wontons and potsticker dumplings, before they got stuck in themselves to have a go too.

The chap in the flat cap is Alastair, owner of Rye Books. When we first met he gave me a Praki, that little red thing there, to experiment with, as that was what we were going to use to cook the dumplings at the demonstration. Alastair sells these in his shop - Prakti are a charcoal burner manufacturer from India, and the burners are designed to use less fuel and be more efficient. Originally aimed at home cooks and restaurants, they're also a brilliant camping stove - portable and easy to carry, but also easy to light and to control the heat from the charcoal. I'm terrible at lighting barbecues - there's usually a lot of flapping, often resorting to liquid lighter - and I was surprised to find I managed this one first time.

We've taken it on trips with us - we cooked sausages for sandwiches in a car park in the middle of the countryside. They don't give off much smoke either, so you can use them in smaller spaces...

...Like my balcony at home. I was worried the smoke would blow into other people's flats, but it's quite well contained. Placing a few sheets of foil or a ceramic tile underneath it stops the ground from scorching. Here are some masala mutton chops that tasted almost as good as Tayyabs; I bought them from the refridgerated Halal butchery counter in Asda on the Old Kent Road. I strongly recommend them - they are s.p.i.c.y.

One trick I did find was that wok cooking is pretty great on the Prakti. My electric hob is nowhere near hot enough for traditional wok cooking, but if you sit your wok on a charcoal grill, the charcoal heats up higher than a conventional hob, thus giving you some proper stir-fry ability. Also, the charcoal imparts a lovely flavour. I cooked egg fried rice, and the whole operation only took a few minutes longer than it would have done on the stove, for far superior results.

It had a great level of 'wok hei', literally translated as 'breath of the wok', that much-sought-after wok flavour you get from cooking at a super high heat.

There's a recipe for egg fried rice in Chinatown Kitchen - you can buy it here.

You can pick up a Prakti at Rye Books - they're £65 each.

Monday 1 June 2015

Eating and Drinking in Madrid

I very much feel like Madrid might be my spiritual home. It's a culture and a city where standing around drinking cañas (little glasses of beer) or a glass of wine warrants a small, free dish of food coming alongside it. If you want something a little more substantial, you can order from a menu, sometimes in half portions (media), or you can move on to another bar. There's no stress. In a more formal restaurant environment, often there's still a bar you can perch at if you don't want to commit your entire appetite to it. And then! Then you go down for a nap between the hours of 5pm and 8pm, before you start it all again. I mean, what's not to love? 

The streets are wide, clean and tree-lined; its a very green city. We spent a very enjoyable Sunday cycling around Retiro park and going across the lake in a rowing boat. The services like the Metro and the buses are cheap and frequent, rarely crowded, certainly not to London's standards. I fell in love. 

We had a lot of restaurants, bars and markets all marked out on a map; there was no way we'd ever have ben able to visit them all, but my theory is that it's good to have options. Here are our top eats: 

Day 1, and how better to orient ourselves than this market is bang smack in the middle of Madrid's city centre, by the Plaza Major. It's in a big shiny building, and is full of food producers' stalls. We particularly liked the shop selling things on cocktail sticks for a Euro a go - usually olives, with anchovies or sun dried tomatoes, skewered together. We also tried melba toast topped with a generous wodge of smoked salmon, or a quenelle of bacalao, creamed together with potato. Bocadillos stuffed with Iberico jamon went for €3 a pop, and people wandered the alleys absentmindedly picking pieces of jamon from a greaseproof paper cup. We stopped off for a little beer, bolstered by tortilla which we had cold as we hadn't learnt what 'caliente' meant yet (hot). I discovered salmorejo in Seville and fell it love with it; it's just like gazpacho with the addition of bread to make it creamy, and it would turn out to be the only vegetable we'd eat in days. 

Mercado San Anton is also looks to be worth a visit; unfortunately we went on a Sunday after lunch when more snacking wasn't possible, purely to have a drink on the roof terrace. 

2. Álbora:

We came to Albora, a recently Michelin-awarded restaurant, only because we were promised that this place would have some incredible jamon. It's not my usual vibe on holidays - it was a bit sleek and snazzy, but the bar area was more casual than it looked. We had the 3 types of jamon, the Joselitos trilogy that came in three tiers and featured jamon across the ages. For €30 this was no trifling matter, but indeed it was some of the tastiest ham I've eaten. For good measure, we tried some croquetas but I fear nothing will beat Barrafina's; these were a little cold in the centre. 

3. La Venencia - Calle de Echegaray, 7: 

No pictures here, as they're not allowed. I'm not sure why. This is a sherry bar, and it's so typically Spanish. A dish of olives and a plate of peanuts were devoured as we worked our way through the Manzanilla and Fino options. 

As soon as we walked into Casa Gonzalez we both went "OOOF". The pong of cheese hits you full in the face as you walk in. The front of the place is a deli, selling cheeses and meats. Out back, tables and chairs to seat around 30. Unbeknownst to us, the menu is 70% cheese. We were overwhelmed with choice. A Galician cheese with honey came slathered on crunchy bread, while another fonduta-type melty cheese, studded with quince jelly, was pure comfort. All the bars we'd been to before were absolutely rammed with men, so much so a drunken stag placed his face in my hair in order to give it a good sniff - I KNOW - and we discovered where all the Madrilenian women were hiding - they were eating cheese on toast. 

4. Street XOEl Corte Inglés de Callao, Calle de Serrano, 52

I wouldn't recommend staying out till 5am, dancing like a dickhead in a dodgy club, and then attempting to go to Street XO for your first meal of the next day. It's everything it could possibly be to be the most unfriendly to those with a hangover. But Asian Spanish fusion curiosity got the best of me. Firstly, it's tricky to locate - Google Maps says off the Gran Via, and Google also says is closed. After a bit of digging, we found it on the tenth floor of El Corte Ingles in Calle Serrano, a posh part of town. We walked into a queue at 3pm - no big deal, we're Londoners, we know queues - except banging beats are blared at you while you wait. 

Once in, diners are sat around a large bar. In the middle of it, the chefs cook the dishes. I love this type of dining, as you get to have a good nosy at what everyone's cooking. Mirrors lining the bar above your head facilitated having a peer at what everyone had ordered, too. 

Weirdly their chefs whites are held together with fastenings as how might get on a straight-jacket, which made me feel all sorts of uncomfortable. Woks are flaring, grills are flaming and it is pretty hot. Everyone is SHOUTING too. Hangover at DEFCON 9. 

It was our ordering, I'm sure, but the first thing served to us was this still-warm razor clam with coconut cream and ponzu jelly. It was challenging. We slurped it down bravely though. 

We were back in more familiar territory with Iberico pork belly ssam, and it was glorious, though I would have liked more lettuce and I'd have chucked the tartare-like sauce out. Less successful was the Kentucky fried quail, which was completely overpowered with flavour, mostly left untouched. 'Singapore laksa' made using those big, juicy red prawns, carabineros, were 'fusioned' by using large pasta shells instead of noodles, though to what better effect I'm not sure. More of an Asian bouillabase. The chef pulled the head from the body of the prawn to dish it up and held it up with his chopsticks, gesticulating towards us. "You must suck this." HANGOVER. 

We paid the not inconsiderable (for Madrid) bill and went straight to the nearest park for a lie-down. It doesn't sound like I enjoyed it much, but I did really - I liked the idea behind it, I liked the madness of the menu. It was just all so... flavoursome. 

After a solid nap, we headed back out, still mildly out of sorts and delicate of self. Sala de Despiece turned out to be the second 'experimental' meal of the day, sent to taunt and challenge us again once more. The walls were lined with Styrofoam, and a long central bar housed both diners and chefs. When we were told we had to crawl under the bench to get to where we would eat, our laughs were cut short when we realised they were serious. 

The menu is pretty full-on. Ingredients are listed with provenance and cooking technique. It really tested my (lack of) Spanish, so happily the waitress did the ordering for us. 

A signature dish, this tomato was peeled and topped with deep-fried basil. What you can't see is an absolutely phenomenal amount of salt buried under those basil leaves. It was delicious, but WOW it had some salt. 

Another signature dish was the carpaccio, sliced like someone had taken a sliver off a sirloin steak. It was demonstrated to us by the chef - you smear the truffle paste down it, followed by a tomato pulp, and oh yes, a giant sprinkle of salt, before you roll it up. Our own concoctions, salt excluded, were far sweeter and more flavoursome. 

Mange tout! Oh, dear vegetables, I hadn't seen you in a while by this point. Hello, greenery! Here, they were charcoal grilled and then drizzled with ponzu and chilli pepper. We reached up to a swinging basket above our heads, avoided showering ourselves with knives, and furnished ourselves with chopsticks to pick away at them. 

Chiperones are some of my favourite creatures of the sea and now I'm not sure I can ever eat them again because here they are, so lightly seared on the grill, that when you pull the tentacles from the body what can only be described as 'goo' soon followed. Hangover.

I wish we'd eaten more here, or had more of us to be able to try more dishes, because they were really interesting; a beef dish, served tableside with raspberries and blow-torched in particular was brilliant, and we saw other couples having a dish of incredible-looking steak. They seriously like their salt though. 

6. La Tagliatella 

Yup, we went to an Italian restaurant in Spain. Once we'd left Sala de Despiece we realised we hadn't eaten any carbs, and once we got near our Air BnB apartment we saw the word 'carbonara' and we became rabid for a second dinner. Hangover. We didn't know it was a chain, and actually we never got that vibe. The prices are pretty punchy, coming in at around €13 - €15 per pasta dish. We soon realised why though, and we were relieved we'd been restrained and decided to share - the portions were enormous. The taglierini carbonara was just brilliant - hand-made pasta, cooked al dente, with plenty of sauce. I think it might have been once of the best pasta dishes I've ever had. Hangover. 

7. Chocolateria San Gines

Down a small alleyway near the Plaza Major, Chocolateria San Gines is famous for the best churros and hot chocolate in town, as well as being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It's large - you queue up to order, take your receipt and sit down, giving it to a waiter to then fetch your order. It's a nice system. Two people don't need two orders of 6 churros, and one hot chocolate is enough. After four each we were more than done. But they are heavenly, crisp sticks of light and airy dough. A perfect breakfast. 

8. La Castela:

La Castela reminded me of Barrafina in atmosphere. After a solid morning flea market shopping at El Rastro (Sundays only), we headed here for some sustenance. Marble-topped high tables were ideal for perching around, and on a Sunday afternoon it was packed. We had the best tapas here; not just your usual olives (I was a bit over olives at this point), we also had fried truffled arancini balls. There is a restaurant out the back but the front bar was where it was at.

Clams cooked in Manzanilla, creamy with asparagus, were served with a hunk of bread to mop up the juices. Oxtail stew had been deboned, rich and sticky, with boulangere-like potatoes on the side. More extravagantly priced than your standard, we nevertheless declared this one of our favourite places to spend an hour, slurping on glasses of wine and eyeballing fellow diners' pork belly skewers until they take pity on you and gift you one. Yup. 

9. Casa Julio 

On a Sunday night, somewhat bereft of dinner plans and discovering quite a few places were closed, we headed to La Latina. So THIS is where all the young people hang out. Out in street corners, tables and chairs are set up outside bars for dozens of people to see the weekend away with. Behind drawn white curtains, Casa Julio turned people away time and time again for being fully booked. We propped up the bar with a beautiful plate of jamon and a tapa of boquerones, a crisp glass of white wine, topped up gratis. 

10. Hotel Emperador 

City breaks are hard, SO HARD! Sob wibble wail. After 4 solid days of sight-seeing, eating and shopping we decided a day of slobbing around was needed, and the rooftop pool at Hotel Emperador was ideal. (I'm also told this place is good, but doesn't open till July) Sure, it's €35 a head for the whole day. SURE, they charge you through the nose for drinks and food. But the pool is large and refreshing, the sun loungers are reclined, and the view is wonderful. 

Madrid, te amo. 

(With thanks to @jesusfdezprieto and @hermanoprimero for the tips!)