Wednesday 25 January 2017

Chinese New Year 2017

Chinese New Year starts this Saturday, 28th - the year of the rooster. Here's a round-up of places to eat during the celebration, which lasts for two weeks. Time Out has a great list of things happening in London to mark the new year.

TaTa Eatery, in Haggerston, is having a 9 course collaborative feast with chefs from Koya Bar, Taberna de Mercado, and BossLady to present a Chinese sharing feast rooted in "pairing European ingredients with Asian attitude", as is TaTa's concept. Running from 12 noon until 11pm on the 28th Jan, you can book via their website for £48pp. I visited TaTa's pop-up and their new site, and if you're looking for innovative and incredibly delicious cooking with Asian styles, this is sure to be a belter.

Soho's Yauatcha has created specialist red coloured pastries, as well as a red dim sum platter and cocktail to celebrate the new year with this traditionally auspicious colour. Available until 11th February.

Hakkasan is celebrating with a limited edition menu, featuring very traditional dishes, such as braised abalone, double-boiled soups, steamed turbot, and other premium ingredients - obviously this comes at a high-end price of £88 pp. This runs until 11th February.

The Duck & Rice have an additional menu available, from 23rd Jan - 5th Feb - Cantonese lobster, stir-fried curry crab, salt-baked chicken and potted rice, amongst others.

Raw Duck in Hackney have 'Dumpling Mondays' where the first Monday of the month is, well, dumplings. Their dumpling recipes have come down through generations, and the first Monday of February just so happens to be the 6th, during Chinese New Year.

Sambal Shiok are doing a £20 pp special tasting menu of prosperity salad, a snack platter, one of their great laksas and dessert, Jan 28th to 11th Feb. 24 hours advanced booking required - here are the details.

Crosstown Doughnuts are offering 6 x Pandan doughnuts for Chinese New Year, for £19 - available 27th - 31st Jan.

Otherwise, get a bunch of you together and head to Gold Mine for a shiny, lacquered roast duck Cantonese bbq blow-out.

Things to order:

Turnip Cake (loh bak goh)
Roasted meats
Whole fish, normally steamed
Lobster noodles with ginger and spring onion
'Lo Hei' - a raw salad mixed by tossing ingredients up high with chopsticks. The higher you toss, the more good fortune you capture.
Rice cakes, or 'nian gao'
Sweet rice balls ('tong yuen') for dessert

Recipes for lots of these are in Chinatown Kitchen, too.


Clean your house before the 27th.
Try and see as much family as you can.
Wear as much red as possible. Even your pants.


Cut your hair. You're cutting the wealth out! Some even don't wash their hair for the first few days.
Snip long noodles shorter. Noodles resemble longevity.

Monday 16 January 2017

Mercato Metropolitano, Borough (ish)

Last November I cycled 480km across Ghana with Child.Org, a brilliant charity doing great things in Africa. I'd wanted to do something of the sort ever since I was due to cycle London to Paris over three days in 2014, but a silly accident on a trampoline involving a lot of rosé curtailed that challenge, and my ankle for a good 6 months. All that training (questionable) needed to be put to use, so I bullied my friend into coming to Ghana with me. In the lead up to the trip, we spent many weekends gawping at huge houses as we hauled our arses repeatedly up the Surrey Hills, pedalled across the Essex countryside in the freezing pissing rain, and negotiated the A21 and miles of traffic through Kent.

Nothing could really prepare us for the heat and humidity that awaited us, though. No amount of training in England's Autumn can make you comfortable with 38 degrees in the shade, and 90% humidity. It was like cycling through soup. Some cried. Some almost fainted (hello!). There's no pretence of being comfortable; coupled with the factor 50 you have to slather on thickly, you soon become one big soggy mess. It was hard, and tiring, and at points a bit scary, and frustrating, and sometimes really tedious, and invigorating, empowering and joyful, and by day 3 I wanted us to extend that 5 days by another 5. Turns out you do get used to it. All that lovely sponsorship money powered me through too. And jelly snakes.

Anyway, there's nothing like a really challenging shared experience like that to help you bond with your companions. It wasn't even day 2 and we, almost perfect strangers, were asking each other "how's your bum?" On our long, sweaty days over many kilometres I'm fairly certain I talked shit to all 60 of my fellow riders, one of which was one of Child.Org's trustees, Ben, and we gleaned that I like food, and Ben works with Mercato Metropolitano on their social media side, so thus we arranged a tour of this exciting new food market. (There was a point to this story, see?)

Mercato Metropolitano is on Newington Causeway, a bleak road that connects Borough and Elephant and Castle. There's not a lot going on there, but what with Bankside and Southwark regenerating faster than you can say the word, it's only a matter of time before it becomes the hot new place. The market is a shining beacon of warmth and deliciousness; it is huge - housed within an old paper factory, it has a definite warehouse feel about it. Braziers and stoves burn in outside spaces, while inside was toasty warm, street food vendors lining the edges, and benches providing ample seating in the middle. I've long lamented street food festivals which now seem to be all queues, smoky from bonfires and balancing plates while awkwardly standing and trying not to splash burger juice on my coat. God I sound like a grumpy grandma.

We visited before Christmas and Mercato Metropolitano was festivity personified. A small choir sang carols on a stage, and a huge beautiful tree dominated. I noticed that none of the stalls had any branding - all of them remain largely generic, which seems slightly peculiar to me. Our first stop was an oyster and bellini truck, and our bellinis were made with the rim of the glass being painted with liquid chocolate. This was a new one on me, and goddamn it was delicious. I'd like all my rims painted with chocolate please (too much?).

What followed was a whirlwind of food, a flurry of dishes and the only thing to do in this situation is to eat as quickly as possible as it takes a while for your brain to catch up that the body is full, so that once it does register you're fit to burst. Nothing a sluggish cycle home can't fix. Argentinian steak sandwiches came first, from a menu that hovered around the £7 mark for a hefty sandwich. Amusingly the 'vegan grill' consists of aubergines and Provolone. This one was surprisingly light, the bread crisp and airy. The steak was so tender that you don't get that thing where when you bite into it the whole steak comes out and is left flapping against your chin. Drives me mad, that.

One of the stalls, called Tiny Leaf, was absolutely beautiful; plants grew out of the walls, and it was living greenery and health and freshness all in one place. They're vegetarian, organic and work on a zero waste principle. The bubble and squeak cake, served on top of romesco sauce was further topped with pickles and herbs.

The chap manning the rotisserie chicken stall went to great lengths to describe their French, slow-grown chickens, so deeply flavoured they're sometimes mistaken for guinea fowl. The skin came burnished, the meat juicy. A ginger and chilli sauce was incredibly moreish, and even more so with a double-dunk of sauce and aioli. A very Frenchly dressed salad had a big hit of mustard. If I still worked at Bankside their chicken, chips and a green salad for £6.50 would be a difficult lunchtime option to beat.

I was less keen on their pulled pork burger. The sweet, glazed brioche bun was a good example of its type, but the combination of mashed avocado and chicken was a little bland, and in any case I'm not sure why you'd 'pull' chicken when you could deep fry or simply roast it.

We were hitting defcon 9 levels of stuffedness by the time we got this tapas board, but the little empanadas were deceptively light, given their deep fried status. Boquerones were soused in vinegar and the meats were of high quality, served as is traditional with those little bread torpedoes. I've sampled better croquettes elsewhere - it's really hard to beat José's, or Barrafina's.

Still though, there were arepas to be had. I've never had one before and I wasn't expecting much - it just looks like a pitta pocket? - but I was blown away by this one. Cooked in front of us, the circular rounds of bread were pressed onto the flat grill, then split open and stuffed with chicken, tomatoes, and salsas. The bread was crisp and light - made with maize flour, they take on a light corn flavour and a great texture, light and fluffy inside. I wish I could have eaten more of this, my favourite of the night.

We threw the towel in at this point - the pizza and fritto misto stalls would have to wait for another visit, the fresh pasta and mozzarella bar for next time - and we headed for dessert.

Build your own tiramisu. Hello, second stomach! 

Yup, it is just as glorious as you'd imagine. You can choose from a selection for every stage of this dessert, from the sponge finger base, to fruit, chocolates and custards. I was the literal kid in a sweet shop, face pressed up against the glass, jabbing at my selections.

Mercato Metropolitano isn't going to win any trend awards. You won't find the next hot young taco-slinger here, nor will you come across many kimchi-chicken-chipotle-bulgogi-sushi-doughnuts. Predominantly European food, with a couple of Japanese and Vietnamese stalls dotted about, the emphasis here is on good, high quality produce. They have a big grocery shop where you can buy cured meats and cheeses, fresh pastas, dried pasta and speciality Italian products. I've already bought Sicilian sausages, and fresh burrata to eat at home. They host events such as pasta making workshops, or ukelele sing-a-longs, and string quartets play. It feels like a grown-up version of Street Feast, one you can take your mum to for a glass of wine and a pizza and have a comfortable and warm sit down, or stop off on your way home from work for some good charcuterie, or bits for dinner. Maybe with a sneaky arepa on the side. And a tiramisu.

Mercato Metropolitano
42 Newington Causeway
London SE1 6DR

Open Tuesday - Saturday 11am - 11pm, Sunday 10am - 9pm

I was Ben's guest so I didn't pay for anything but as always all views are my own. 

Monday 9 January 2017

St. John Bread & Wine, Spitalfields

I suffer from a condition that, I suspect, a lot of Londoners have - it's the kind of condition where we're always striving for that next buzz, the next discovery of something new, exciting, fresh, perhaps a hint of one-upmanship (admit it). In this town where restaurants seem to be opening every other minute, there's a relentless scrabble to get to it first, get to it quick, get it while it's hot. 

Last week I made plans to meet a friend for dinner, and I hurriedly rattled off my internal Rolodex of new places we should go and be adventurous at. Nope. I pulled out my iPhone list of places I want to try. On that wet, dark January night none of them appealed, and I floundered. A message came through. "Sudden feeling. St. John?" I leapt on my bike. 

I'm shaking that condition off now. I don't want to get there first. I don't want to be the first-week-nerves guinea pig, bombarding them with my expectation. I want them to settle into their stride and relax into it a bit. I want to be looked after by people who are relaxed, perhaps old hat at this. That's why I'd floundered. 

St. John Bread and Wine opened in 2003. 2003! I was mid-way through my A-Levels then. The room is warmer than the original Farringdon location, which I find austere to the point of frosty. The menu reads like a dream of things I just really want to eat, and when the waiter came to take our order, we spent 10 minutes doing an entire U-turn of it with him. 

Roast shallots with goats curd and mint (£8.40) came topped with a tangle of mustard-dressed rocket. The kitchen forgot about the mint entirely, though given we didn't notice until almost the last bite perhaps it wasn't necessary. The shallots were roasted to complete sweetness and collapse, with only a hint of shape left to them. The sharpness of the mustard dressing, the pepper of the rocket and the cream of the goats curd made us want more each mouthful, each bite. It's the fourth time my friend has had this, testament to how good it was. Obviously the bread is stellar, being St. John's bakery hub - right in front of me, I kept eyeing up loaves to take away, and doughnuts oozing with filling under a tented canopy.

Cold middlewhite pork with dressed leaves and radishes (£8.80) was exactly what it was. Why don't I ever have any leftover roasted meats to create this with? The salad itself had a tangle of bitter leaves, offset by another mustard-heavy dressing. Oh, if they could bottle that dressing I would buy it by the gallon. Nose-clearing, tangy joy. 

I was going to use this as the opening photo but apparently not everyone eats fish heads, and some are a bit squeamish about this sort of thing? As soon as we saw the hake head on the Specials board at £24.60 for two, my friend insisted it was the most 'me' menu item ever, and therefore it was destiny for us to order it. I think that's in reference to the Malaysian fish head curry that I insisted we include a photo for in my cookbook, which scared the hell out of everyone. Fergus Henderson, Chef Patron of St. John, once said "It's only polite really if you knock an animal on the head to eat it all: tripe, heart, feet, ears, head, tail. It's all good stuff." It's also a very Chinese philosophy, that, one I've been brought up with. 

This was served with leeks slathered in aioli. The head was roasted, and included some neck for extra meatiness, the pearly white meat pulling away from the skin and bones easily. I really love hake; substantial yet light and with just the most delicate texture. We dug around that head, pulling out the best nuggets just behind and under the eyes, stopping short at the eyeballs themselves. The leek-y aioli accompaniment was good, though the aioli a little on the timid side for me. I felt a little hard done by in the lack of potato filler. No fish n' chips? 

Still, it made room for dessert, which my unconscionable friend ordered three of while I popped to the ladies. Hokey pokey ice cream, all three enormous scoops of it, the chocolate terrine with brandied prunes, and of course one cannot pass up on the madeleines, pictured top. Never pass on the madeleines, for they are the best £4.50 (per half dozen) you'll spend. Our table was awash with puddings, and envious eyes darted over at us. There we were, on January 6th, decadence personified. I regret nothing, not that light, moussey chocolate with the fudgy prunes and tangy creme fraiche, no. Not the cold crunch of the honeycomb swirled within the ice cream that we could barely finish, save dipping our already honey-sweet cakes into. Even less so when I had a slightly stale madeleine to accompany my cup of tea the following morning. 

With service and a bottle of house white, labelled by St. John simply as 'Blanc', our bill reached us at just clear of £90. We spent 3 hours there, whiling the evening away, happy as clams. 

94-96 Commercial Street
E1 6LZ

Saturday 7 January 2017

Sicilian Sausage, Spinach & Cashew Cream Bucatini

Hello, hi! It's been a while, hasn't it? I can't say why it's been this long - life got in the way, maybe? Except even when I was working full time and writing a cookbook and testing recipes in my 'spare time' I still managed to write blog posts, so that's not it. 

I just neglected this poor little blog. Instagram is huge now, and thousands and thousands of pictures make for good scrolling. I scroll and scroll and scroll and 'like' them and see what restaurants are cooking up what and I suddenly put my phone down and I realise that I don't know anything about them really. Sure, it looks nice but what's the story? How does it taste? What's in it? I've received press releases introducing their new 'Instagrammable' dishes (kill them with fire), heard fellow diners snapping away enthusiastically for their followers even though they didn't enjoy it much, seen plenty of pictures of comped meals with hearty compliments and no indication of said comping. I'm guilty of this too, but I'm fixing it. In short, too much eye candy and not enough opinion. I like words; I've always liked words. If you say a colour to me I don't picture the colour, I picture the word written down. That is how much I like words. (Though if you like pictures my Instagram account is @hollow_legs...)

Anyway, my attention span was shot and my eyes boggled from staring at a mass of scrolling image and I realised I haven't read anything vaguely long-form in a million years. I also assumed that everyone was the same as me - food blogs are so 2009! - and then I remembered that I once made a promise to myself that I would keep writing this blog as long as I enjoy it, and entirely without regard for reader numbers. I also got an email from a Peter Roddy (hello!) who asked me when I was posting again in the subject, and the body contained just a picture of some prawns and a few tomatoes, 'an October harvest in Alaska'. If that doesn't get you going again I don't know what will. Thanks Peter for the motivation!

So it's January and we're all punishing ourselves for the wonderful time we had in December, where we danced around in fountains of mulled wine and went to parties that ended far too late for any of us to be useful at work the next day, while slightly reeking of stale regret. I'm embracing January's frugality and restriction and I'll show you how - by cooking pasta with a sausage and cream sauce. 

What? Isn't that what detox means? Truth be told, I've been meaning to do this recipe for a while. I find that creamy pasta sauces can be overly rich, too heavy, just all a bit too much. Too thick and it gets claggy, too thin and you have a very sad pasta soup. I went to a vegan restaurant a while ago and had the 'macaroni cheese' and a lightbulb went off. They made it with cashew nuts, blitzed for long enough to make a creamy sauce and even though theirs was a little granular, you got the consistency without the overwhelming richness. They also use something called 'nutritional yeast' but since I'm not an actual vegan and I'm free to get nutrition however I please and I'd rather not use something that sounds like a pharmacy product I've left it out.  

This came out far, far better than I ever dreamed it would for a cream subsitute. It was so delicious, and I doubt I'll ever go back to the dairy sauce again. Big talk there. 

Leave out the sausage meat and the shavings of parmesan that I just couldn't resist to make it fully vegan. You need a really strong food processor or a nutribullet, otherwise you'll need to soak the cashew nuts for 3 hours in water, then drain before use. 

Sicilian Sausage, Spinach & Cashew Cream Bucatini

Serves 1

90gr bucatini, dry weight
130gr Sicilian sausage flavoured with fennel (or just 1/2 tsp fennel seeds if meat-less), released from the skin and broken up
2 large handfuls of baby spinach, washed
1 small onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
A hefty pinch of salt
A big ol' grind of pepper
220ml vegetable stock cold
220ml water
60gr raw cashew nuts
1 tsp cooking oil
1 tbsp minced flatleaf parsley
Half a lemon, zested and juiced
Parmesan (optional)

In a small saucepan, add the onion and the water and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 6 minutes, then add the garlic and simmer again. There should be a little liquid left here, and you need to simmer it until it evaporates but doesn't catch, so keep watching it. Maybe 10 minutes in total.

Add the cashews to your blender / nutribullet / food processor and then add the onions and garlic mixture. Add the salt, pepper and the cold vegetable stock. Add the lemon juice and process until very very smooth. It should be the consistency of ...paint? Pancake batter?

Cook the bucatini in a saucepan of boiling water that has been salted with at least 1 tbsp salt. Meanwhile, in a frying pan, add the cooking oil and the sausage meat. Fry until browned, and leave on a low heat. When the bucatini is the hard side of al dente, reserve 1 mug of the cooking liquid and drain. Add a couple tbsp of the pasta water to the sausage meat and scrape anything off the bottom of the pan, then add the pasta and the cashew cream and bring to a low-medium heat. Add a slosh of the pasta water and using tongs, start tossing. Add the spinach and keep tossing for about 3 minutes, adding more pasta water if it gets too thick or claggy. It shouldn't need any more time than that but check to see if the pasta is to your liking.

Take off the heat and stir in the parsley and lemon zest, giving it another toss for luck before plating up and potentially adding parmesan, though I don't think it really needs it. Can't hurt though.