Sunday 25 October 2015

Stir-Fried Pork & Cucumber

If there's something my people definitely love doing, it's stir-frying salad items. Lettuce, check. Tomatoes, sure. From my experience, the Chinese (especially older generations) don't much like eating raw vegetables. My dad made a tuna salad once and my grandmother tipped the whole lot into a wok and stir-fried it for a good few minutes. We all stared on, wide-eyed.

Just as often as cucumbers are served raw for salads and crudités in the West, they can also be cooked with great result. The key is to keep them big, so they don't dissolve in the pan, and to salt them well to draw the excess water out of them before you cook them. It also helps to cook them on a high, ferocious heat to get some smokiness in them. They become denser, a more concentrated flavour. This is the simplest of stir-fried dishes, and you need only a few staples to get a very tasty result.

Stir-Fried Pork & Cucumber

Serves 2

1 larger cucumber, sliced lengthways in half and deseeded
1 tbsp table salt
A handful of sugarsnap peas
2 spring onions
1 tsp minced ginger
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
200gr pork (leg or tenderloin), sliced thinly
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp cornflour
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp dark soy
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
A pinch of white pepper
2 tbsp vegetable oil

For the sauce:
1 tbsp water
1 tbsp light soy
1 tsp dark soy
1 tbsp Chinkiang vinegar (sub with half sherry vinegar and half balsamic if you don't have this)
A pinch of sugar
1 tsp cornflour

Peel the cucumber in stripes so that you have large green and white stripes. Chop roughly in large pieces, toss in the 1 tbsp salt and place in a sieve. Leave to drain for half an hour, then wash thoroughly and leave to dry. Meanwhile, marinade the pork in the soy sauces, rice wine, sesame oil, cornflour and white pepper.

Separate the whites from the greens of the spring onion, and slice into 2 inch sections. Slice the greens finely and place to one side.

Mix the sauce ingredients together.

Heat 1 tbsp of oil until smoking hot, then fry the pork, tossing occasionally, for 2 - 3 minutes. Remove to a plate. Get the wok smoking hot again, add another tbsp of oil, then add the ginger and whites of the spring onion. Add the cucumber and sugarsnap peas, and stir fry for 2 - 3 minutes until they get some colour on them. Add the garlic, and continue to stir-fry for another couple of minutes. Add the pork back in and stir to combine for another minute or two, then add the sauce ingredients. Stir-fry until the liquid thickens slightly, then remove from the heat and serve, garnishing the top with spring onions. Serve with rice.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

A Basic Bun Rieu

I've never been to Vietnam. All my experiences of Vietnamese food are in and around London, from what used to be almost weekly trips to Café East in Surrey Quays, and traversing the lengths of Kingsland Road. I once went on a date to Salvation in Noodles in Dalston, and had such a delicious noodle soup that I sought out to create it myself, cobbling what I could gather from the interwebs. That's all set to change, with a trip to Vietnam planned in January - Saigon, Phu Quoc and Hoi An - hit me up with best things to eat and places to stay, please!

So this Bun Rieu is very basic. It's the basic retelling of this dish, originally from the Mekong, from someone who has never visited it. I can only apologise now for any lack of authenticity, but what I do know is that it tastes really good. Some recipes add pork to the crab mixture for a more solid cake, and others add fresh crab meat; I wanted to try this as unadulterated as possible. 

It's made using a very tomato-heavy broth, sometimes reddened by annatto seeds (I didn't bother) and funked the funk up with fermented shrimp paste. It's the runny type, almost violet in colour, and that shit stinks, yo. It's also called Mam Tom, and the Chinese also use it as 'fine shrimp paste'. I have a bit about it in Chinatown Kitchen, along with accompanying recipes of how to use it to delicious potential. You'll recoil like you've been shot if you take a long whiff of it. You'll rejoice when you realise that once cooked, it transforms. 

What does seem key in this recipe is 'minced crab in spices', that you can buy in cans from Vietnamese and Chinese supermarkets. Without it, you'll have to pound paddy crabs to a pulp, with shells and all. Don't ask me what the spices are. I have no idea. 

What you're aiming for is to make the broth, then add the crab mixture so that when it cooks, it makes a big floating crab cake for you to break up into each bowl. The soup is simultaneously tart and sweet with tamarind and tomato, deeply reminiscent of the sea. Bun are round noodles, and they slither about in the broth; served with an assortment of herbs, to flavour each mouthful. You can buy all this stuff in London at Longdan (various branches). 

Bun Rieu

Serves 4

750ml vegetable broth
3 large tomatoes, chopped roughly
1 tsp fine shrimp paste 
1 tbsp tamarind puree
1 tbsp fish sauce 
1 can of crab with spices
150gr dried shrimp, soaked for an hour in cold water, drained and then blitzed until fine
2 eggs
2 large spring onions, whites and green separated
2 cloves of garlic, minced
200gr dry weight bun noodles (labelled jiangxi noodles), cooked until tender and drained
A bunch of Thai basil
A few sprigs of rau ram (hot mint) 
A few mint leaves
A few perilla (or shiso) leaves
A small handful of coriander
4 tofu puffs, soaked in boiling water and squeezed dry between two spoons, then halved.
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 lime, cut into 4 wedges

In a large saucepan, heat 1 tbsp the oil until shimmering. Mince the greens of the spring onion and add to the saucepan, along with the garlic. Cook until fragrant, then add the crab. Stir well and cook for 5 minutes, then decant into a bowl to cool. Add the blitzed dried shrimp.

Clean the saucepan out and add the oil again. Add the whites of the spring onion, minced, then the chopped tomatoes. Add the broth, tamarind, shrimp sauce, fish sauce and simmer for 10 minutes until the tomatoes start to break down. Don't boil it. 

Whisk the eggs into the crab and shrimp mixture. Turn the heat on high, and add this to the broth, drizzling it as you go, then let it cook, undisturbed, for another 3 or 4 minutes. Take off the heat. Check the seasoning; if it needs more salt add a touch more fish sauce.

Divide the noodles into 4 bowls, add 2 tofu puff halves, and ladle the hot broth over it evenly. Garnish with mint, perilla, hot mint, coriander and basil leaves, then top with a lime wedge and serve immediately. 

Sunday 11 October 2015

La Pubilla, Barcelona, and More On Catalonian Food

When people talk about Barcelona and food, invariably they talk about where the best tapas bar is, or where to find the best tapas but actually being as it is in Catalonia, tapas isn't actually local to Barcelona. Tapas is native to Andalusia, though adopted all over Spain. Compared with Madrid, whereby anywhere you stop for a drink and you really do get a tapa - be it olives, or marinated anchovies or the like - Barcelona isn't so. You sit down and order from a menu. Catalonian food is characterised by dishes such as botifarra, a pork sausage with spices, or escalivada - smoky, grilled vegetables such as peppers and aubergine. The most common Catalonian dish served in Barcelona is pan con tomate, or pa amb tomàquet in Catalonian; toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and topped with tomatoes, rubbed until the pulp has been spread on the bread and the skins discarded. Topped liberally with salt and olive oil, this accompanies almost every meal. 

Keen to get a try of real Catalonian food, we went to La Pubilla, recommended by Su-Lin. I wasn't expecting such a sleek, minimal room, and being that it was unfathomably early for dinner (8:30pm!) we were the only customers. All the menus are in Catalonian or English, no Spanish equivalent. Some of the words are shared, though by and large we were baffled. 

Having already had a meat and cheese pitstop, we weren't exactly famished so we were rather pleased to find that the starter portion sizes were quite elegant. Marinated mackerel (top photo) with Salmorejo (a creamy gazpacho) was vividly orange, pretty on the plate and the flavours, married with the shaved fennel, were bright and perky. I am so obsessed with Salmorejo I was gulping down cartons of the stuff that you can buy from the fridges in the supermarkets. 

A halved, baked peach stuffed with shredded stewed duck was somewhat richer; the duck was scented with a little anise and the soft flesh of the peach worked so well with it. We pulled it apart with forks, spearing firmer raw peach cubes alongside. What a brilliant idea; I was concerned it might be a bit reminiscent of the (usually) abominable duck a l'orange, but we needn't have worried. Our third starter, a brawn-like shaved pressed meat with pickled chanterelles and herbed creme fraiche was less successful, though not disastrous; just a touch on the bland side. 

For mains, we all went down the seafood route and this was salted cod with cod throats (!) and white beans. I loved this. Though the skin would have been better crisp, I loved the slithery aspect of the cod throats, which were barely discernible unless you were looking for them. The cod was cooked so that firm flakes came away, pearlescent and creamy. This, like the rest of the mains we had, was better shared as what with being salt cod and all, it was quite... salty. 

Monkfish was declared the dish of the night by some of the table, and I almost agreed. The fish was cooked incredibly well, and it was sat on a bed of black rice, squash and tomatoes. It was light though it felt decadent, as most monkfish dishes seem to me; it's such a firm steak of a fish. 

But for me, this lobster rice was the dish of the night. A giant casserole came to the table, with it's own board to protect the table from its ferocious bubbling. Underneath the broth was soupy rice, creamy and rice from cooking in lobster bisque. This could have served 4 alone but we gamely ploughed on, eating the lobster-soup-rice, until all that was left was the lobster itself. Implements were requested, and viscera flew as we extracted all the sweet lobster meat from the shell. Meanwhile, this being our second dinner, I was full to bursting - my waistband was protesting - but onwards I continued, until there was nothing left to be eaten. 

We were so incredibly full that we had to go for an forty minute walk before we felt anything close to being normal again. 

La Pubilla, Plaça de la Llibertat, 23, 08012 Barcelona, Spain

I still can't tell you exactly what Catalan food is, but La Pubilla gave it a good go. Word has it that their lunch menu, at €13 for 3 courses, is one of the best value in town but actually I think that might go to Granja Mabel.  I went there three times for lunch when I was working (I did actually do some work in Barcelona!) and the menu del dia was merely €10 for three courses, that changed every day. It was absolutely rammed. I hadn't expected much but actually the 'secreto' pork was one of the best pieces of pork I've eaten in recent memory, and on another day, the pigs cheek served on the bone with rice was beautiful simplicity. 

Granja Mabel, Carrer de la Marina, 114, 08018 Barcelona, Spain

Entirely on the other end of the scale was Els Pescadors, probably one of the most expensive (and reputably the best) fish restaurant in town. I mention it because here I had hake cooked in 'suquet' - another traditional Catalonian dish. The restaurant itself is a cab ride away from the centre of town, the waiters wear starched white shirts, and they wheel a trolley full of the day's catch for you to be tempted by. I sat and watched a local jazz band play in the square outside, while an Italian couple next to me streamed the football, and a pair of Chinese lads chain-smoked their way through a steak tartare. But the suquet itself was rich with seafood flavour, heavy with potato and a large piece of braised hake, cooked just under so the flesh resisted a little against the bones, took centre stage. It's not a pretty dish. I asked for some vegetables - might I have a side salad? - and they looked at me like I was crazy. For €27.50 one might have thought some vegetables might be included. But no. I skipped starters and dessert.

Els Pescadors, Plaça de Prim, 1, 08005 Barcelona, Spain

Friday 2 October 2015

Tapas 24, Barcelona

Tapas 24 is right in the middle of a bustling Barcelona, near Passeig de Gracia. I usually associate these kind of areas, the ones right in the middle of town, with our own Leicester Square; a culinary wasteland, unless you know where to look. Thanks to the good people of Twitter, I had plenty of recommendations, peppering my map of Barcelona, ensuring I wouldn't be far from a decent meal or drink.

Tapas 24 is owned by an El Bulli alumnus, bringing us traditional tapas with a modern take to them. There's a small terrace, but the main bar is in the basement, around a central cooking area. When I went my friends were a little tardy but even at the unfashionably early hour of 1pm, I was having to sheepishly save the seats next to me. They didn't like me much there.

The 'bikini' sandwich - I have no idea why they're called that, as it's probably the least bikini-friendly thing - is white bread stuffed to the gills with cheese, ham and truffles. How do they get that uniform toasty brownness? It's magic, that's what. Tasty, tasty melty gooey magic. 

The man next to me insisted we must get the gambas, so gambas we got and very good they were too. They were simply packed in salt and grilled, which made for some very salty finger-licking when we got down to de-shelling them. At this stage of the trip I was 99% salt anyway - the Spanish really like their salt, huh? - so I just shrugged and carried on. 

I was at the stage of the trip now where I was jumping on any vegetable available to me. WHY Barcelona, WHY U NO SERVE VEGETABLES? Anyway, this tomato salad was decorated with slivers of jamon, nestled in a cream that might have been influenced by tahini and topped with little orange salmon roe that popped in your mouth. It was wonderful; the tomatoes were sweet and juicy, the jamon and roe salty. I could feel my blood absorbing the vitamins. I am not being over-dramatic.

Chargrilled octopus was interspersed with big, wibbly wobbly chunks of Iberico pork fat. Sometimes the fat had a little bit of meat attached to it too. It was advertised as such on the menu, but I still felt it a little overwhelming. The flavour was incredible, but all that fat really coats the mouth. We needed a glass of rosé to steady ourselves. 

I kept seeing 'bomba' on various menus, and this is it; a giant ball of mashed potato, stuffed with minced meat, breadcrumbed and deep fried. It is topped with a spicy tomato sauce, and sat on a mayonnaise-like one too. Yes. Very yes.

Lastly, Iberico presa with chimichurri sauce had to be ordered. It's still a bit of a rarity in London, this special type of pork - reared on acorns, it's of such a high standard that one can eat it rare. Here it was seared lightly, insides still ruby red, and topped with a herby oil. It was so flavoursome it could have been mistaken for beef.

Service was fine, they were there when we needed them but otherwise completely indifferent. At around €40 a head with booze it certainly wasn't one of the cheapest lunches, but we found it to be good value - maybe I'm so used to London prices?

With that, we went to walk it off around the Sagrada Familia. Top tip: book online. It's so easy. Don't even think about turning up without a ticket, unless you really love queuing.