Sunday 24 April 2016

XO Sauce

It feels, perhaps, a little cruel posting about XO sauce when dried scallops are so difficult to get in the UK. But just in case you know of someone heading to Hong Kong soon, or if you manage to find some sold online, then this is the recipe for you.

XO sauce doesn't actually contain any cognac, which 'XO' is so commonly associated with. XO here is used to denote luxury and high quality, an exclusiveness gained from using very expensive ingredients. The sauce is made up of dried scallops and dried shrimp, along with garlic, shallots and chilli. The whole lot is then carefully simmered in a lot of oil to dehydrate and intensify the ingredients, thus creating a sauce that is sweet, spicy and intensely savoury all at once. It's addictive; I stir it into rice, drizzle it on steamed vegetables, blob it atop eggs, noodles, congee. I've mixed it with a little mayonnaise to smear on a fish finger sandwich. It's very versatile.

XO Sauce

Makes 1 litre

300gr dried scallops, rehydrated overnight in cold water
80gr dried small shrimp, rehydrated overnight in cold water
12 garlic cloves, minced evenly
150gr shallots, minced evenly
80gr cooking chorizo, or Chinese dried ham, cut into tiny cubes
8 birds eye chillis, minced
50gr dried chilli flakes
60ml decent light soy sauce
1 tbsp brown sugar
700ml vegetable oil

Drain the shrimps and scallops, and using your hands work the scallops so that they're in fine and even threads. Pound the shrimp in a pestle and mortar, or use a food processor, to process them into a fine dust.

In a large wok or saucepan, add 50ml of the oil on a medium heat, then add the garlic, shallots, chilli flakes and sugar. Stir to combine, and then add the rest of the ingredients and the rest of the oil. Cook on a medium heat until everything starts to sizzle and fizz, then turn it down to a low heat and leave to very gently simmer for 3 hours, stirring occasionally. It should deepen in colour, and intensify in flavour. If after 2 hours this hasn't happened, turn the heat up ever so slightly for the last hour, taking care it doesn't burn.

Once cooled, pack into sterilised jars, leaving a good layer of oil over the top of the contents.

Friday 15 April 2016

Springtime Totally Inauthentic Courgette Carbonara

Shh. Don't tell the Italians.

There's enough trouble and strife over what constitutes a traditional 'carbonara', without lil' ol' me wading in with this massively inauthentic one, all claiming to be a carbonara and that. Cream? No cream? Cream? No cream? 

I'm in the no cream camp. I like my pasta dressed, glossy and evenly coated, not rich and swamped; just swathed. But I also like vegetables in my life, I like greens and I like incorporating their texture and flavour. Don't get me wrong, I'm never going to do away with the pasta entirely and agonisingly shave courgettes to make courgetti (BARGH) but just a little makes me happy. So I added courgette to this carbonara, and also a handful of parsley. They'll get over it. 

Springtime Courgette Pasta 'Carbonara'

Serves 2

200gr spaghetti, linguine, or fusilli (pictured)
100gr pancetta, cubed
1 courgette, julienned (get one of these handy peelers)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 eggs, beaten
A huge handful of finely grated parmesan
A small handful of flat-leaf parsley, minced
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp olive oil

Put on a big pan of well salted water to boil, then add the pasta. 

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan and fry the pancetta on a medium heat until crisp, adding the julienned courgette halfway. Add the garlic, turn the heat down to low, and stir well, frying for another 3 or 4 minutes until the garlic has lost its harshness. Take off the heat, throw in the parsley, stir and set aside. 

Add the cheese to the beaten eggs into a large bowl with a pinch of salt and pepper and mix well. Add the bacon and courgette mixture to the eggs when it has cooled. 

When the pasta is al dente, reserve a mugful of the pasta water and drain. Very quickly, add the pasta with a couple tablespoons of the pasta water to the eggs and toss gently but thoroughly with a pair of tongs. You want the eggs to set but not scramble. Add another tbsp of pasta water, and mix again thoroughly, before placing on warmed plates or bowls. Season generously with pepper. 

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Portland, Fitzrovia

Tuna tartare with salmon roe & seaweed crisps
It's not often I visit somewhere four times without writing it up; I obviously like it a lot to keep going back, especially with the number of restaurants in London that I have yet to try. Portland, situated just north of Oxford Circus, has quietly impressed and fed me for a couple of years now. I've been there for many occasions; my father's birthday dinner, a boozy leaving lunch, a work lunch, and a lunch just 'cos. One must lunch.

Truffle & Gruyère macarons
Razor clams
The menu starts with snacks, usually irresistible, and often a little startling in flavour; a true amuse bouche, really. On my most recent visit even before the snacks we had cheesy gougère pastries, warm from the oven, which popped in the mouth to reveal molten, luxurious cheese. White truffle and Gruyère macarons are really clever; mushroomy, sweet, balanced into savoury by the cheese. Raw razor clams are chopped up and drizzled with kimchi and wild garlic oil, to be slurped down in one. It's never nothing short of a delight. 

Lobster sabayon
Beautiful crockery showcases the most incredible ingredients, treated just with the slightest teasing of complementary flavours. Last Autumn, a creamy, cheesy, almost a carbonara-like dish of salsify with crisp cured ham comforted us, like a soothing hug on a plate, carbonara-like in flavour. Now that we're coming into Spring, lobster in a sabayon-like sauce, light and luxurious, was heaving with al denté verdant vegetables. Their menu changes daily, reflecting the seasons and the produce that comes with it. 

Portland is pretty much perfect to visit as a party of 3, since they offer 3 choices per course. I'm not one to opt for the vegetarian offering though, especially not if the Specials board lists Challans duck glazed with maple syrup, confit duck, foie gras and grilled pear. It was £30, which isn't a trifling amount, but also came with the most stunning salad I've had, and unfortunately did not document pictorially, I was enjoying it so much. It was made up of crisp vegetables, fresh peas and finely shaved pear all tumbled together, to shine through the richness of the duck. If I'm honest I'd have done away with the confit duck; it didn't add much to the party. 

Sides are often superfluous but I usually enjoy them; on our latest occasion roasted cauliflower was far too cooked, and fell apart into a mush. But I've had gorgeous cheesy potatoes in a fluffy, creamy sauce which made me glad I had the space for them. Desserts are always inventive; pumpkin, blood orange, and meringue I originally veto'd but our server was horrified for us to miss it, and he was quite right. Look how pretty it is! A hazelnut eclair was light as air, pretty as a picture. Chocolate with beetroot and blackberries last year was the absolute epitome of Autumn, deep and earthy, lightened by sweet chocolate mousse. 

I'm a great fan of Portland. I never fail to have a really lovely time there; they make me feel like a grown-up, and on a special treat. The prices do too - it's not cheap, or affordable enough to be done regularly, but it is good value for the level of cooking and the quality of the produce. Quite an important distinction, that. The service is helpful, especially with the wine list which I'm told is rather special, and warm and welcoming. On the second time I visited I was startled into wide-eyes when my waiter chimed "welcome back!". It felt nice to be remembered, homely even. 

113 Great Portland Street
London W1W 6QQ

Tel: 0207 436 3261

Sunday 10 April 2016

Dover Sole & Wild Garlic Nuoc Cham Noodle Soup

It's Spring! It's Spring! The evenings are getting lighter, the days longer, and ok sure whatever the weather is not getting any warmer but that's just round the corner. 

I get more excited about wild garlic than I do about asparagus coming into season. Asparagus you can technically get all year round - and apparently you are a very bad person if you buy the Peruvian stuff (though no one seems bothered that we're clearing them out of avocados for our trendy brunches) - but wild garlic is just a very short season, from around March to June. The leafy greens grow in woodlands, and are easy to spot; a pointed leaf that smells strongly of garlic. 

Apparently. I just buy it from the vegetable stall that sets up in the farmer's market in Camberwell, because Camberwell does not have any woodland, and quite frankly I can't be arsed to go find any. I won't begrudge them the £1 for going to do the hard work for me. 

When cooked, wild garlic wilts like spinach does, so I tend to use it raw to flavour things, like I did with this noodle soup. Here, I've used it instead of the traditional garlic cloves to make a spicy, salty, sour nuoc cham sauce, that's Vietnamese in origin. It's really lovely, this - a light, delicate broth that's flavoured with lemongrass and chilli, and for good measure I also simmered the Dover sole carcass in there, after I was done with filleting it, for a little extra depth. You can use any greens you like; a couple stalks of purple sprouting broccoli and some sugar snap peas were my preference. You can use white fish fillets of any kind but you may need to source some fish stock for the richness (a simmered hake head would do nicely).

Dover Sole & Wild Garlic Nuoc Cham Noodle Soup 

Serves 2

1 Dover sole, around 400gr, skinned and filleted (here's a How-To)
160gr dried flat rice noodles, cooked in boiling water until tender, and drained
1 stick of lemongrass
2 red birdseye chillis
A handful of greens, blanched and refreshed in ice water
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar
Juice of 1 lime
A large handful of wild garlic
A drizzle of chilli oil (optional)

It's really an assembly job, this. Divide the noodles into individual bowls and garnish with the blanched vegetables. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan with a lid, add around 400ml water with the lemongrass stick, roughly chopped up, one of the red chillis, roughly chopped, and the dover sole carcass (but not the skin). Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes with the lid on. Add the dover sole fillets, simmer for 3 more minutes, then remove the fillets and set to one side. Place the fillets into the noodle bowls evenly. 

Mince the wild garlic by hand, and place in a bowl with the sugar, fish sauce and lime. Add the chopped chilli and mix well. Taste, and adjust if necessary. 

Strain the broth and bring to a hard boil, then pour evenly over the bowls of noodles. Plop a healthy tablespoon or two of the wild garlic nuoc cham on top, and drizzle with chilli oil if using. 

(For more recipes using Nuoc Cham, or other noodle soups, buy my book, Chinatown Kitchen.)