Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Vietnamese Salmon with Ginger Caramel

A few years ago, I discovered a Vietnamese recipe called 'Caramel Pork Belly' that was so ridiculously simple I became suspicious while making it. How could it be so good? Melt sugar, add water, melt together, add flavourings, boom. The most delicious, sweet and savoury pork cubes cooked until tender. The sauce, flavoured with fish sauce, sugar and black pepper isn't going to win you any health awards but this was a few years ago, when I was young and carefree. I ate it almost once a week. 

I discovered some such recipe in Vietnamese Market Cookbook, written by Anh Vu and Van Tran, except this had a lengthy set of ingredients and salmon is used instead of pork. My curiosity was peaked with the use of 'gia vi', a mixture of sugar, salt, pepper and garlic powder that I haven't come across before. Galangal and ginger break up the richness of the salmon, and the surprise addition of coconut milk mellows out the bold fish sauce and sugar flavours. The black pepper brings a warming spice to the sauce, and it was so moreish I ended up spooning the leftovers straight out of the claypot and into my mouth. 

I made some adaptations to the recipe; I didn't fancy the salmon's chances after simmering for 25 minutes, so that cooking time is much reduced. I also made the most of the skin, frying it until crisp, for a little textural contrast. 

Salmon with Ginger Caramel

Serves 2 (adapted from The Vietnamese Market)

2 salmon fillets, skin separated and reserved
25gr thinly sliced fresh ginger
100ml coconut milk
1 large red chilli, sliced into rings

1/2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tbsp gia vi (which is described as 2 parts sugar, 1 part salt, 1 part freshly ground black pepper, 1 part garlic powder)
1/2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper 
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 clove of garlic, grated (on the finest setting of your box grater, or microplane)
1 tbsp grated ginger 
1/2 tbsp grated galangal 
1 stalk of spring onion, chopped diagonally

2 tbsp sugar
175ml water

Mix together all the ingredients of the marinade. Chop the salmon into large chunks, and use your hands to coat with the marinade. Set aside for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the caramel. Set a claypot or a heavy saucepan on a medium heat. Add the sugar and melt gently, stirring so that all the grains are dissolved. Cook to an auburn colour, taking care not to burn it. Add the water - it will seize, but heat until the sugar dissolves into the water. Add the fresh ginger and set to one side to cool. 

Use a non-stick pan to make the salmon skin crisps. Place the skins flesh side down in a cold non-stick frying pan, and gradually bring it up to a high heat. Use a spatula to press the the skin down, then turn the heat to medium and turn over carefully. Keep frying, pressing, turning for 5 - 8 minutes until golden and crisp. Remove, sprinkle with a little salt and place on a wire rack. 

Add the cooled marinade to the salmon for 20 minutes (perhaps cook your rice at this point). Add it to your claypot or saucepan and place on a high heat. As soon as it starts bubbling, use two spoons to remove the salmon chunks and add the coconut milk. Add the chillis and simmer until reduced - around 10 minutes, then place the salmon chunks back in, turning very gently and frequently for about 10 minutes until cooked. Scatter with spring onion, place the lid on and leave to sit for 5 minutes. Taste if you need more fish sauce or sugar, and serve over white rice and steamed greens. Either break the salmon skin in half to garnish, or roughly bash into small pieces to scatter on top of each bowl.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Oriental Culinary Institute, Featuring Ken Hom - and a Recipe for Whole Stuffed Chicken

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to a one-off masterclass with the legendary Ken Hom - KEN HOM! He was at the School of Wok to launch their Oriental Culinary Institute. The School of Wok, under Chef Jeremy Pang, has been offering classes such as how to make sushi, dim sum, Thai cookery and knife skills, and now the Oriental Culinary Institute offers more in-depth courses, ranging from bronze to gold, three to fifteen weeks, culminating in recognised qualifications.

Ken Hom is a bit of a hero of mine (see my excited face?). He brought the wok to the Western world, selling over 7 million world wide and he was pivotal in introducing Chinese cuisine to Britain in the 80s, with a BBC TV show. I was enraptured with 'Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure' from 2012 (and more than a little jealous - my dream trip), especially lesser known regions, like the Silk Road and Kashgar. In real life, he was charming and humble, good-humoured and basically just as he comes across on TV. 

We started off under the watchful eye of Jeremy, peeling and chopping ginger, garlic, spring onions and peppers for the dishes we would prepare later. We were taught chopping techniques and the value of a cleaver, and how to use them safely - I obviously wasn't concentrating as I proceeded to take a V section out of my fingernail. Oops. 

Next, Ken showed us how to de-skin a whole chicken, while keeping the skin intact for the next stage. Careful work and patience were the key points, while he cajoled the chicken out of its skin. The body was put aside for another use - Ken stressed the importance of cutting down on food wastage - and the skin was then stuffed carefully with glutinous rice and a mixture of seasonings, and sewn back up. For us to attempt our own would have taken years, so instead we were given chicken legs to de-skin and stuff. 

The chicken was taken away to be steamed, and then it had to be deep-fried. The video shows Ken carefully spooning hot oil over the chicken (glass of wine to the side, obvs) until it was crisp and golden. 

And then we sat down to eat. There they are, the chicken legs we stuffed. When you cut into them they're bursting with sticky rice, flecked with Chinese sausage and mushroom, scented with the chicken fat. 

Along with a tangy lotus root salad, the whole chicken Ken cooked was also shared out among us. Ken ate with us, drank with us and told us that he was stealing Chef Jeremy away to teach his team at his restaurant in Rio de Janeiro how to make dim sum, returning him in time to kick off the Culinary Institute. I wonder if I can stow away in his suitcase...

Whole Stuffed Chicken Skin by Ken Hom (reproduced with permission)

Serves 6 - 8

1 serving of Savoury Glutinous Rice filling (see below)
1 large free-range chicken (1.8 - 2kg)
1.4 litres of groundnut or vegetable oil

To skin the chicken: 

1. With your fingers, begin loosening the skin starting from the neck end. Work until you have reached the end and gently begin to separate the skin where it is attached to the breast area.
2. Find the joint where the wing is attached to the body and with poultry shears cut it from the body, but leaving the wing intact. Repeat with other wing.
3. With a small, sharp knife starting at the back of the neck, cut the skin, always with your edge towards the bone. Each time gently pull the skin back. 
4. As the skin begins to loosen, pull it gently over the chicken so that it turns inside out. 
5. Continue to cut against the bone and gently pull the skin from the back. 
6. Using poultry shears, remove the tail from the chicken but leaving it attached to the rest of the skin. 
7. Very gently pull the skin over the thighs and the legs, using a small, sharp knife to scrape the fibres attaching the leg to free the skin. 
8. Cut the final end joint of the leg and leave it intact with the skin. Do the same with the other side and leg. 
9. Turn the skin the right side out and you should have an intact complete chicken skin.

To Stuff: 

1. Skewer the neck end and gently stuff the cold rice stuffing through the tail end.
2. Continue to push the stuffing to 're-form' the chicken. Do not over stuff - it should be loose-ish. Skewer the tail carefully and place on a heat proof plate.
3. Set up a steamer of a rack in your wok and fill with 5cm of water. Bring the water to the boil over a high heat. 
4. Place the chicken on the plate in the steamer. Turn the heat to low, cover, and steam for 1 hour gently. Be sure to replenish the water from time to time. 
5. When done, pour off all the fat and liquid. Allow the chicken to cool thoroughly, then refridgerate loosely wrapped in cling film. 

When ready to serve: Heat a large wok with oil until hot. Carefully lower the chicken with a large strainer, breast side up. Baste the chicken with the hot oil until it is very brown and crisp. Remove and drain on kitchen paper, and it is now ready to serve. 

Savoury Glutinous Rice Stuffing 

350gr glutinous rice, soaked overnight inwater
450gr fatty minced pork
2 tbsb groundnut or vegetable oil
50gr rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, minced
4 Chinese pork sausages, coarsely chopped
100gr Parma or English ham, coarsely chopped
75gr barbecued roast pork or cooked ham, coarsely chopped
3 tbsp spring onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 tbsp light soy sauce
400ml chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste

1 tbsp light soy sauce
1.5 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 tbsp spring onions, finely chopped
2 tsp ginger, finely chopped

1. Drain the glutinous rice in a colander. 
2. Combine the pork with the marinade. Let it sit for 20 minutes.
3. Heat the work until it is hot, then add the oil. When it is smoking, stir-fry the pork for 5 minutes, then add the mushrooms, sausages, ham and barbecued pork, spring onions and stir-fry for 10 minutes
4. Add the drained rice, rice wine, soy sauce and stock. Mix well, cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until the rice has absorbed all the liquid and is completely cooked. Allow to cool thoroughly. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Chicken, Kale & Sweetcorn Pie

In the Summer, I was contacted by Shu-Han who works for Wholegood. We met at Plusixfive, a Singaporean supperclub that bore this wonderful beast of a book that I contributed to and Shu-Han art directed. She also writes the excellent Mummy, I Can Cook, featuring photography and food styling I can only aspire to. My crappy iPhone snaps and dodgy lighting is really thrown into focus in comparison. Sorrryyy. 

Anyway, Wholegood are an organic fruit and vegetable supplier. They started off wholesale, but now Ocado stock their boxes and I was asked if I wanted to try one out. I was really impressed with the variety of vegetables and fruit that I received; corn, potatoes, tomatoes, nectarines, onions, pears, apples, napa cabbage, kale, gorgeous rainbow carrots. Bugger knows what to do with the kohlrabi though. I think I diced and stewed it? But they're a pretty colour so I'll let them off their uselessness. Everything was authentically covered in a little bit of soil so if you like your vegetables sterilised and shiny under plastic it's probably not for you. 

I julienned the rainbow carrots to keep their bright vivid colours, and dressed them with sherry vinegar, pomegranate molasses, a touch of honey, chilli, spring onion, oil, salt, pomegranate seeds and mint. I went a bit leftfield and added shredded woodear mushrooms to bolster it some. This worked well with rich fatty meat and fish, such as lamb kebabs, or a grilled salmon fillet.

The corn was shucked from the cob and charred in a wok, then cooked with pork strips and kale in a black bean sauce. Wonderfully sweet and juicy, they worked well against the fermented black beans. A recipe for the black bean sauce is here. The fruit I snacked on, the cabbage I kimchi'd, and I don't think I've eaten healthier at home for a while. 

It's kale season proper now, and this stuff is absolutely stunning. The leaves are deeply green, but the heart of it is candy pink. I am a huge fan of any iron-rich greens, so I looked to incorporate them into anything I could find. With the wet and windy nights we're having at the moment, pie was the only way to go. 

Let's talk a moment about pies. You'll see I merely top my pie dish with pastry. This is ok for me because as much as I like pie I also really like pie filling. I also find it a bit stodgy if you go all the way around. I'm still calling it a pie. 

This recipe is perfect for if you have any leftover roast or poached chicken. I used the leftover chicken from this recipe, but of course, you can cook chicken to order for it, and you can make it in advance, ready to bung in the oven too. The addition of wholegrain mustard and creme fraiche make it luxuriously creamy, but also with a slight tanginess that helps with the richness of the pastry. I served it with mashed potato and these red sprout tops, steamed for 4 minutes and tossed in melted butter. Bring on the fat pants. 

Chicken, Kale & Sweetcorn Pie

Serves 4 

400gr cooked chicken - thigh is best, but breast will also be good
2 large leeks, topped and tailed, trimmed and chopped finely
A small head of kale, washed and chopped roughly
250gr sweetcorn, canned
2 cloves of garlic, minced
A large handful of parsley
2 sprigs of thyme
150ml white wine
500ml chicken stock
4 heaped tbsp creme fraiche
1 scant tbsp wholegrain mustard
1 sheet of puff pastry
1 egg, whisked
20gr butter
20gr plain flour
1 tbsp cooking oil

In a large, deep saucepan heat the cooking oil on a medium heat. Add the leeks and the minced garlic and fry gently for at least 10 minutes. Add the thyme, then the white wine and turn the heat up high and reduce the wine by at least half. Add the kale, then the chicken stock and sweetcorn. Cook for a further 5 minutes until the kale has wilted. Stir in the parsley and the chicken and take off the heat. 

Using a slotted spoon, remove the filling contents into a pie dish suitable for 4 people. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. 

In another saucepan, melt the butter and stir in the flour to make a roux. Cook this for 3 - 4 minutes until it is a golden, nutty brown and then bit by bit, pour in the chicken stock mixture, whisking in between to remove lumps. When it has all been incorporated, simmer until it has thickened to the texture of thick gravy. Take off the heat, stir in the creme fraiche and the wholegrain mustard. Season to taste with pepper and salt, then pour over the pie filling. Give it a good stir to incorporate. 

At this point, you can chill the mixture to cook later on. If you're cooking for now, though - unroll your puff pastry and place it over the pie dish, cutting and crimping the edges down to fit your dish. Glaze with the beaten egg and place in the oven for 25 - 30 minutes. Take the pie out 3 times during this time to glaze with a little more egg for a really burnished, shiny top. Serve with mashed potato and some steamed buttery greens.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Travelling in Indonesia and a Recipe for Soto Ayam (Chicken Soup)

I'm still coming down from the elation of a mammoth two week holiday to Indonesia with some of my favourite people. We started our trip, fresh off a 25 hour journey, by climbing Mount Rinjani in Lombok - the second highest volcano in Indonesia, and an unexpectedly, ridiculously tough climb. 

Our porters and guide did it in flip flops, shouldering an incredible amount of gear; tents, food, water, the lot. We had a proper cooked meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner - at basecamp, around 2,500m, we ate noodles in soup with tomatoes, green beans, potato and a deep fried, crisp hard-boiled egg, soaking up the resultant soup with freshly steamed rice as the sun set in front of us. We then got up at 3am to haul ourselves to the summit at 3726m, scrabbling on our hands and knees for several hours. Sandy rocks and stones slid underneath you, so that for every step you took, you slid down another two. It was mentally as well as physically challenging. I cried more than once. The euphoria when we reached the top was incredible; we clutched each other, gulping back relieved sobs, before we could take in the view. 

After a 6 hour downhill trudge, we stumbled onto Gili Trawangan, transported by horse and cart to the most wonderful villa we could have asked for and proceeded to thoroughly relax. Any kind of movement for the next 3 days produced gasps and whimpers. 

We carefully avoided the abundance of pizza and burgers, and opted instead for Indonesian food as much as we could find it, usually on quite a limited menu. Our staple diets became nasi goreng (fried rice, and considered Indonesia's national dish) or mee goreng (fried noodles). Made's Warung, on the northern tip of the island and virtually next door to our villa, served up the best iterations we had of these. Otherwise, the daily night market was our best bet, nestled amongst the bars on the main strip, flaring grills and eye-watering smoke mingling amongst the plastic tables and tables. 

Here, we flitted between stalls pointing at whatever we liked to be cooked to order. As there were 6 of us we managed to try a decent variety; freshly barbecued fish was butterflied and flipped on the grill frequently, brushed with a slick of spicy sambal. We picked various curries and vegetables to be piled onto a plate, while the vendor totted up the spend, which rarely came to more than £2 or £3. Sate sticks of calamari, beef, chicken and fish were smoky and meaty, plated with some rice, peanut sauce, and a choice of three sides. All the other Westerners were rejecting the sambal, and it was a fiesty number that made us sweat and reach for the tissues. But it was addictive. 

A chicken soup (Soto Ayam) was produced in seconds, a case of assembling and garnishing. The soup was rich and sweet, bobbing with crunchy cabbage and soft chicken. It was spicy but with a deep roasted flavour, rather than the brightness of fresh chilli. The stall holders were slightly bemused by our scattergun approach, and it was only when we promised them we'd return the crockery from where they came from did their brows unfurrow. Bintang, the local beer, was abundant. 

This kicked off a slight Soto Ayam obsession for me - chicken soup? Just chicken soup? But it was so much more than that. I ordered it again at a posh beachside restaurant, and something completely different turned up. The broth was clear but stained yellow, strong with lemongrass. Seemingly everyone has their own take on it. 

We moved on to Gili Air, to stay in basic beach shacks complete with swinging hammocks for a simpler life. Here, beach barbecues dominated; the best we had was at Chill Out Bar, where we were able to select our own fish for the grill. We feasted on a huge jackfish and giant prawns while our toes sank in the sand. Otherwise, it wasn't immediately easy to find cheaper, more casual food. Unlike Thai islands, the Gilis aren't brimming with street vendors, but scratch the surface a little and you'll uncover the warungs.

We ventured inland to Warung Muslim on the recommendation of our diving instructor. It's nothing but a basic structure, with a rickety wooden table and plastic chairs. Flies are abundant, and a more paranoid person would keep on walking but we persevered. Nasi campur, or 'mixed rice' came with the choice of either fish or chicken curry. The fish was sardines, cooked in a spiced tomato sauce and central to the plate is a scoop of rice, while vegetables, roasted peanuts, tempeh and ground toasted coconut line the sides. It was so good I went back the next day for the chicken version (pictured). It cost me £1.25 each time. 

One night, I gathered my friends and marched everyone down to a place I'd spied that day. On the main strip but without any snazzy lighting, staff to call you in, barbecues or fish out on display was another warung. After poking around the wares, we ordered nasi campur, this time with fried chicken, stir-fried snake gourd and stewed aubergines. I also discovered another of Indonesia's staple dishes - bakso mee, which is meatball noodle soup. The meatballs are made much like the Chinese fishballs - the meat (beef, I believe in this case) is pounded and worked until it becomes smooth and sticky, so that they're bouncy and springy when cooked. Simple and satisfying, the clear soup is unchallenging, though livened up with - yep - incendiary sambal. Otherwise, our beach huts, Gili Air Santay served delicious Indonesian and Thai food we were happy with eating most days. (On a side note, they were really lovely hosts.) 

We headed off to the Balinese mountains, to stay at Sarinbuana Eco Lodge for the last nights of our trip. A 3 hour car ride was completely worth it, as when we arrived the tranquility and beauty of it soothed our sweaty and travel-weary selves. Located at 700m at the foot of Mount Batukaru, the days were still hot while the nights were substantially cooler - it was a joy to sleep under a blanket. 

We stayed in the Treehouse, which was completely gorgeous - we had an open verandas to the jungle, as well as the bedroom. They're very supportive of the local community; staffed by locals, they also run various workshops like learning the Balinese flute, or wood carving, if you're into that kind of thing. As it's quite a remote location, I imagine if you'd stayed there for a length of time it would be appealing. In between watching the sunrise, doing a spot of yoga, reflexology massages and swimming in the natural water holes, we did a temple walk; our guide was incredibly helpful, and pointed out all the edible plants and fruits on the way. 

They grow all their vegetables on site, and as everything is prepared to order, we had to order breakfast, lunch and dinner during the mealtime before that. Balinese chicken curry was lightly spiced and fragrant, delicate and packed full of vegetables and potatoes. 

Ikan pepes was fish made into a paste, spiced and grilled in banana leaves. The accompanying sambal was made with lemongrass and green chillis - it was insanely delicious, and I'm glad I questioned them thoroughly for the list of ingredients to recreate at home (standby...). Breakfast was similarly refined and well presented - a fruit platter of pineapple, papaya, watermelon, banana and mango preceded some excellent pancakes, drizzled with palm sugar syrup. I thought I'd struggle as there were no savoury options, but I got by just fine. 

Soto Ayam was also on the menu, so it obviously had to be ordered. This was again different; still tinged yellow, but with beansprouts, some slivered kale, and tomatoes. Celery leaf gave it a herbal tone, and the soup was light and clear. The rice it was served with was total over-kill, but I am greedy so it was dipped in often too. 

On my return, it took just a week before I missed Soto Ayam, and I set out to make up my own. I enjoyed the lemongrass aspect of the ones I'd tried so that had to go in, though being SO packed the eco lodge's version was difficult to taste the soothing simplicity of the broth so I pared mine down a touch. I imagine during chillier months, a little more spice and perhaps coconut milk would be good variations.

Soto Ayam 

Serves 4

1 free-range, cornfed chicken, around 1.5kg
2 sticks of lemongrass, chopped roughly
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 carrot, chopped roughly
2 sticks of celery, leaves reserved and the stems chopped roughly
1 tbsp peppercorns
2 shallots, peeled and minced
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped finely
1 tsp ground coriander
200gr packet of rice vermicelli, soaked in hot water until soft
A large handful of beansprouts
2 tomatoes, quartered
3 sprout tops leaves, julienned and blanched (optional - kale or cabbage is also good)
2 hard-boiled eggs
A couple sprigs of coriander
1 tsp salt
Kecap manis and Sambal Asli (or another chilli sauce), to serve
1 tbsp cooking oil

Place the chicken in a large stockpot with the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, carrot and celery sticks. Cover with water and bring to the boil on the highest heat. Turn the heat down to low, so it is on a bare simmer, and skim the surface for scum. Place the lid on and cook for 40 minutes. 

Take the pot off the heat and leave to cool for half an hour. Take the chicken out and place on a plate.

Put the shallots, garlic and ginger in a pestle and mortar and pound with the tsp of salt until it turns into a paste. Add the turmeric and ground coriander and pound some more. Add the peppercorns and keep pounding until they're lightly crushed.

In a large saucepan, heat the cooking oil until shimmering on a medium heat. Add the paste and fry for 2 - 3 minutes, stirring continuously. Add all the chicken stock, strained through a sieve, and simmer for 20 minutes without the lid on.

While this is happening, assemble your bowls. Drain and divide the noodles equally. Take the chicken meat off the thighs and legs (discarding the skin) and break the meat up into bitesize chunks. The breast meat can be reserved for sandwiches or salads. Divide the beansprouts equally, and the tomatoes. Garnish with half a boiled egg, sprout tops, coriander and celery leaves. 

Heat the stock so that it is bubbling furiously for a moment and carefully ladle the stock into the bowls, through a sieve. Serve with traditional Indonesian condiments that we found on every table - kecap manis (which is soy sauce with a lot of sugar in it) and Sambal Asli, which bizarrely we couldn't find in any shops out there, but I found in Wing Tai in Peckham. Huh. Any chilli sauce will be good here. Serve immediately. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Chu-Hou Braised Beef Noodle Soup

I've experimented with braising beef loads of times, and I now have different recipes depending on mood and season. When the weather turns cooler, I look for something bold, that wallops you in the face, spicy and warming, like the classic Sichuan red-braising. Other times, I want the broth to be clear, light and as cleansing as beef can be and so aromatic spices only are used, like here.  

This recipe straddles the two. The sauce is thick and luscious, and the flavours simple and unchallenging. It uses Chu Hou sauce, which you can buy at Chinese supermarkets (or online here); it's made using soybeans, sesame oil, ginger, garlic and spring onion - it's basically a flavour bomb. You do need to augment it with fresh, though. This sauce is used for braising and stewing meat, and it gives an incredible umami flavour to whatever you're making. You can serve the beef with noodles or on rice. 

Chu-Hou Braised Beef Noodle Soup

Serves 4

1kg beef brisket, chopped into large bite-sized chunks (I often use half beef tendon instead)
1 medium daikon, peeled and roll-cut
2 star anise
3 slices of peeled ginger
3 spring onions - chop 2 roughly, and 1 finely into rings
3 tbsp Chu Hou paste
2 litres of water
2 tsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp cornflour slaked with 1 tbsp water
A small piece of yellow rock sugar
1 tbsp cooking oil
Blanched pak choi or choi sum, to serve
Ho fun noodles or rice, to serve

Place the beef in a pot of boiling water and simmer for 3 minutes, then drain.

In a wok, heat up the oil on a medium heat and add the ginger, roughly chopped spring onions and stir-fry until aromatic. Add the paste, then add the beef chunks in and stir well. Add the 2 litres of water, the oyster sauce and the yellow rock sugar and simmer very gently for 2 hours. Add the daikon in and simmer for a further 40 minutes. 

Add the light soy and the cornflour and simmer for a further 2 minutes, then take off the heat. Add the noodles to a deep serving bowl per person and place blanched leaves around the edges. Avoiding the star anise, ladle the beef and daikon into the bowls, then ladle enough sauce in so that the noodles are bobbing, but not drowning. Garnish with spring onion rings. 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Catford Constitutional Club

I'm a fan of Antic pubs. The Royal Albert was my stalwart local during my four years in New Cross, and I could while away hours in there with friends, sipping on pints and playing Shithead. I frequent the East Dulwich Tavern often, and I've thrown myself around the dance floor at The Effra Social several times. I've also had quiet pints in the sunshine out the front, as traffic roars past the busy road. The less said about The Job Centre in Deptford, the better though. That one is a bit weird. 

I recently went to the Catford Constitutional Club, and if you've been to The Effra Social you'll be familiar with the style. Old-style bunting, mismatched old chairs and sofas have been carefully curated to give the place a feeling of comfort, like you're at your batty old aunt's place. I don't know if you've ever been to Catford, but it's not that easy to find a good pub that sells beer in clean glasses and might actually feed you too. The place was pleasantly busy, the clientele mixed, with mainly older couples and friends. They do a big range of bottled craft-y beers if that's your thing, but also the standard lagers and some interesting ales.

The food was pretty good, too. We waited a while for it, and when it came it all came at once but the deep-fried calamari were crisp and hot, perfect snacking food with an appropriately garlicky mayo. My own pork chop was served with wholegrain mustard mash and a baked half apple, and the crisp sage leaves added another dimension. The pork chop was obviously of good source - you can tell by the delicious, creamy fat, and a little less time in the pan would have made for a more tender chop. 

My friend's smoked haddock with kale, a poached egg and a hollandaise-like sauce didn't skimp on the new potatoes and I assume it was good, as it was finished off in no time. They do that annoying thing where they charge around £2.50 for sides, which always makes me feel like I have an incomplete meal when I don't bother with them but we were happily full without them, if a bit vegetable-deficient. I imagine it's a welcome addition to the residents of Catford and the surrounds; we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening there. 

(If you're in Catford do check out FLK Groceries - it's a great little Chinese shop. The owner is really lovely, and on hand to impart advice.) 

Catford Constitutional Club
Catford Broadway
London SE6 4SP 
020 8613 7188

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Lake Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia

When I found out that I was going to Ljubljana with work, besides its initially unpronounceable name, I didn't give it much else thought. Ignorantly, I'd put it down to be a grey Eastern Bloc kind of city, a bit drab and dreary. I imagined meaty stews and dumplings.

I couldn't have been further from the truth. After our 2 hour plane journey, I was taken aback by how picturesque Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, is. The city is split by a canal running through the middle of it and cobbled streets are lined with cafes and pretty peach facades of churches, topped with turquoise-green domes. Dragon Bridge, crossing the river is one of Europe's earliest reinforced bridges, decorated by four dragons on plinths (top picture); the legend is that Jason and the Argonauts founded the town, and they killed a dragon here. 

It's not a large place; we did most of our exploring by foot, and we could traverse the town in around 15 to 20 minutes. The city is divided into old and new towns, the old radiating out from the castle perched atop a steep hill, dating back to the eleventh century. A slog up a gravel path rewards you with an impressive view of the city; higgledy piggledy architecture of sandwich-shaped buildings, an abundance of churches, and strange grey blocks on top of buildings, telling the time. We discovered the funicular to descend in. 

I was, for the most part, wrong about the food too. What with its proximity to Italy, many menus featured pastas and risottos, and there was a lot of pizza around. At the time of our visit (October), what was most prevalent was the abundance of truffles. Truffles topped steaks, dressed pastas and were grated over fish. We were given a jar of truffle paste in our welcome bags from our hosts. I've eaten more truffle in my week there than combined, in my lifetime. 

Restaurant Julija presented our first truffle-laden meal. Their signature dish, the Steak Julija was a fillet, smothered in a creamy truffled sauce and accompanied by a chargrilled half-endive. Seven out of our party of eight ordered this, and each were cooked perfectly. It was no trifling portion - which was something we'd soon learn about Ljubljana - especially with hefty sides.

Less popular with the group were the cheese dumplings, a speciality of Ljubljana, called 'sirovi knedeljni'. Actually, I was the only person that liked them. They were very thin, papery crepes rolled up and interspersed with a curd-like cheese, mild in flavour. Seemingly boiled or steamed, they're soft and yielding to the fork. They reminded me very much of the Turkish borek, and later I found that 'burek' are indeed a popular fast food snack there. 

Horse was also common on the menus of the more traditional restaurants. Restaurant Spajza was firmly ensconsed in the old town, down a pretty street. The restaurant is split off into several sections, each holding one or two tables, candlelight struggling to brighten the wooden-panelled rooms. The menu was, as far as I could tell, as traditional as one might get - deer tartare, young horse carpaccio and smoked goose breast with truffles all appealed on the starters. We were given amuses of shredded horse meat topped with parmesan - smoked and dried, the flavour was much like beef. 

Having had a rather meaty time so far, I opted for the '┼żlikrofi' with shrimp tails and morels. ┼żlikrofi are delicate dumplings filled with potato, and in this instance they were dressed with a light cream sauce, the earthy morels dominating the flavour. I had thought they were a type of stuffed pasta, an influence from nearby-Italy, but actually these are so traditionally Slovenian that in 2010 they were awarded with protected geographical status. 

The Mediterranean-style octopus main course came in a huge cast iron pan in a puttanesca-style sauce, and the spicy tomato held chunks of new potatoes, olives, courgettes and capers; it was only a shame that I had to stuff it all in, having waited an hour for our mains and being pretty late for a meeting. I put that down to the sudden influx of diners, all suspiciously male, probably because of a certain US model dining at the table next to us. Otherwise, I'd strongly recommend Spajza - the food was well prepared, the menu was captivating and the waiting staff knowledgeable. 

Karst is a region in Slovenia well known for its caves and underground lakes - seemingly for their sausages too, as this dish was billed. The snappy skin of a frankfurter was evident here, and it was served with a smear of mustard that had the flavour, if not the colour, of French's. This one in particular from Zlata Ribica, a pretty canal-side cafe under sun umbrellas, came with the added bonus of palette-awakening grated horseradish on top, although the triangles of baked polenta were a touch dry. I'd seen it at other restaurants, also served in pairs, served with potatoes and a cabbage and apple slaw. 

We tried out a little of the high end, too. Restaurant Strelec, in the castle grounds, had sheepskin chairs for the outdoor tables and a view of the city. When we stopped by for lunch we were the only people in the restaurant - Ljubljana, it seems, is not particularly busy - and the 'poor man's bread' was probably the most impressive starter. A potato cylinder was cut open to reveal liquid egg yolk, pouring out to mingle with the potato foam covered with grated truffle (of course). We were told that back in the olden days, potatoes were cheaper than bread, hence the name. While our meal was well put together, it lacked a little passion; it was pretty and flavoursome food on stark white plates, made up of butter-laden creamy potato and rich, reduced jus. We could have been anywhere in Europe.

I can't be that long away without rice, and a trip to Sushimama made me wonder what Slovenian sushi would be like. It was very good. We eschewed the a la carte section of sushi and nigiri (some with truffle, obvs) for an easier sushi and sashimi section, all nicely made and well plated. Wagyu beef was served on a platter, raw, with a scorching hot stone to sear our own meat on, and a ponzu dip for swooshing in. My favourite was the eel (unagi), brushed with a smoky glaze. I'm never unhappy with this dish, it's just got the best combination of firm fish, savoury depth and sweet sauce, all soaking into rice. it wasn't the cheapest meal we had at around £45 / head but Japanese food rarely is. 

We headed to Bled. In the north west of the country, it's around a a 40 minute drive from the capital, passing white-topped mountains and lush green forestry. Lake Bled is a tourist spot; pictures of 'cremeschnitte' decorate the sides of buildings, and boats full of tourists are lazily rowed around the lake. Another castle on top of a hill, this from the 17th Century, was another breath-taking 15 minute hike - not recommended after a couple of beers. Amidst the tourists wielding DLSRs and waving iPhones around, it was a breath-taking view, and quite a peaceful one too. 

The cremeschnitte ('cream slice') itself is not to be missed - I don't think you could if you tried. It's a speciality of Bled, and it consists of flaky pastry, and a surprisingly light cream and custard mousse-like centres. 

We didn't eat in many restaurants in Bled since we weren't there for long, but the 'eco-lodge' feel of Garden Village was certainly impressive. The restaurant was made up of light wood with grassy squares and herb boxes built into the centre of the tables. They were kind enough to open up for our large group especially, and while a broccoli soup hit the spot, the buckwheat roulade with cream cheese that accompanied our mains was quite... weird. This was no cheese dumpling. Still, the unusual surroundings of the glass-sided building made for a sun-soaked early autumn setting. That evening, a cream of mushroom soup followed by the Autumn risotto with chestnuts, beef fillet and truffles at the Best Western was pretty damn tasty, much to my surprise (as I usually cynically am about hotel chains). A week of expectations smashed to smithereens.