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.)

Monday, 21 March 2016

Hoi An, Vietnam

On the last leg of my 2 week trip across Hong Kong and Vietnam, we stopped in Hoi An, roughly half-way up the country. To get there, we eschewed another plane and instead took an overnight train from Saigon, which had positives and negatives; it's a nice, relaxed way to travel especially if you book yourself into a soft-berth air conditioned carriage. Unless there's four of you you will have to share - we had a young Vietnamese woman and a businessman to share with, and they just went straight to sleep. Downsides were that the toilets were pretty revolting, and absolutely everyone tried to rip us off. We woke up to a train attendant yelling at us if we wanted baguettes for breakfast, which in a sleepy stupor we agreed to, were flung said baguettes, a whole pack of Laughing Cow cheese triangles, and then a huge sum of money was asked of us. It was about £3, but huge in Vietnamese standards. Our Vietnamese bunk bed companion had an out-and-out shouting match with her in our defence, and then implored with us from now on to only order food via a Vietnamese person. Not cool, Vietnamese train people! Not cool. We used these guys to book the tickets and they were great; Vietnam Railway's website doesn't take foreign credit cards.

But, whatever, we got to Hoi An and it was 10 degrees cooler than what we were used to, though the sun soon popped out. We had a beautiful beach villa at Tan Thanh Garden Homestay, which I would absolutely recommend. The people there were really lovely, and while breakfast was a little haphazard (just make sure they have written the time you'd like it served down correctly...) it was incredibly delicious and generous, and all the herbs and vegetables come from their own garden. BEST DOG EVER. It's a little out of town, a good 10 minutes in a cab, but I liked staying out of the hustle and bustle of one of Vietnam's most touristy towns, plus going for a run down the beach is rather refreshing, if you're that way inclined.

Hoi An itself is a large town, and mostly characterised by the Ancient Town, pedestrianised (except the ubiquitous scooters) and preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's intersected with canals, which splits Hoi An up into separate islands connected by bridges. It's an incredibly beautiful place. 

Old Colonial-style buildings frame the waterside, and every alleyway is as pretty as a picture. Back in The Olden Days (history isn't my strong point, guys) it was regarded as an very important fishing port, and the waterways are still lined with boats, though these days they're full of touts offering to take tourists down the waterways.

There are people selling things everywhere; trinkets, souvenirs, clothes, and silk lanterns of which there must be millions. Hoi An is well-known for tailors, and sure enough the number of tailors there was quite outstanding. We were told by our homestay not to bother with the smaller shops, who send all their tailoring to the larger companies to be done anyway. Instead, we took a recommendation and had our clothes made at Kimmy's. It's not as cheap as you might think - ranging around £60 for a custom-made dress depending on the material you pick - but it does mean I have a perfectly fitting jumpsuit which is normally incredibly difficult for a person of my diminutive stature. 

There's also people selling food everywhere, so much so I wondered how we would fit it all into our 5 days there. Day and night the vendors change, so early on the noodle stalls are set up, while towards the afternoon the wafts of meat barbecued roadside permeate the air. The Central Market, to the east of the old town, is packed full of of vendors selling fish and meat, vegetables and noodles. The speciality of Hoi An is 'Cau Lau', a noodle dish made up of thick noodles, specifically made with water from the wells of Hoi An, and coloured with ash from nearby Cham island. This lady sold them dried and fresh; she waved us away to gawp at something else, so she could serve others quicker.

Cau lau is a mixed noodle dish, as opposed to a noodle soup. The thick, chewy noodles are dressed with a thick, flavoursome lard-heavy pork stock, topped with beansprouts, pork and fried pork rinds. Herbs, of course; lettuce, coriander, sometimes mint and the dreaded fish leaf. Chillis on the side to be mashed up with lime juice and to season each mouthful as a par for course.

Mi Quang is another noodle dish popular to the area, but extended out to include the town of Da Nang. Here, we have yellow noodles, with seafood added to the mix, and topped with shredded banana flowers, peanuts, herbs and sesame rice crackers, puffed over an open flame.

At nearly every street corner, and in the market, ladies grilled skewers of marinated pork over charcoal. At 10,000 dong per skewer, you're automatically served a fistful unless you insist otherwise (they become something of a hefty meal once wrapped). Initially perplexed, with a grin one lady gathered up a rice paper sheet, lined it with lettuce and herbs, and then placed the skewer within and pulled the meat off. I dived in and extracted that fish leaf while I could. Neatly, the skewers are split down the middle to accommodate the meat, and deftly tied together at the tip with banana leaf. Dipped in a spicy peanut sauce, this was my absolute favourite snack. Afterwards, she tenderly wiped a sesame seed off my chin. Tourists gaped at us, flummoxed that a pair of white girls would be sat street-side on tiny plastic doll-sized chairs, while I still remain flummoxed with all the tourists too scared to try. A slow, steady finger was raised when they attempted to take a picture of us. 

Bale Well is a restaurant hidden down an alleyway but well sign-posted, and they are menu-less, only serving these skewers with wrappers, but also with spring rolls, and the famous Vietnamese pancake, banh xeo. It's a wrap, roll and dip affair, and their exceptional dip sauce is reportedly made with chicken livers for extra richness.

Not the most photogenic of dumplings, 'white rose' are also something of a speciality in Hoi An. On the street, they wrap shrimp, or egg and the splash of chilli sauce is vital to save them from blandness. We also tried them at Miss Ly's Café, supposedly the best place for it (and we did have a tasty dinner there) and you know, they're nice but they're not going to blow your mind.

What absolutely did blow my mind, though, was this lady. I wouldn't have given it a second look except I spotted a man perched with her, and the number of tiny bowls piled up in front of him was almost comical. What could be worth eating over and over again 10 times? Called Banh Beo, it's a steamed rice cake, topped with a rich pork and crab broth, and deep fried cao lau noodles. Crunchy, creamy, bouncy. The real kicker was white vinegar and green chillis, which the lady initially splashed on cautiously, until under encouragement, more freely. It was incredible.

Also incredible was this 'dau fu fa', which if you've spent any time in Hong Kong, you'll recognise as 'tofu flower dessert'. Here it's scooped warm out of the container, into the bowl with a warm ginger syrup. Soothing, comforting and the perfect afternoon pick-me-up, I also had it garnished with ice on a particularly warm day.

I could hardly go to Vietnam without trying the famous 'banh mi' sandwich. You'll recognise Banh Mi Phuong by the queue of locals and tourists alike outside, waiting patiently for their sandwich. Banh mi actually refers to just bread, and there were 18 or so different options of fillings to choose from. Barbecue pork seemed the most popular; the bread, which looks like a baguette is actually made with rice flour so is a lot lighter than the French baguette you or I might be used to. Smeared with a coarse pork paté, it's loaded with smoky pork, pickled carrot and daikon, and chilli.

Anthony Bourdain has made both Banh Mi Phuong and 'Madam Khanh - Banh Mi Queen' famous, and both are indeed very good, though for my money Banh Mi Phuong pips it. Madam's was stuffed with omelette and herbs and while it was nice, I thought it lacked some punch.

I love being on a bike, and Hoi An is perfect to explore as everyone else is on one. The roads may seem a little busy at first, but everyone drives really slowly so they're super predictable. I cycled myself out to Tra Que Vegetable Village, about half an hour's cycle outside of town, passing rice paddies of farmers in conical hats, water buffalo lazily traversing fields. They're known for farming organic vegetables, using only the algae that grows around Hoi An as fertiliser. You can take tours, but I found it very peaceful just walking around on my own and identifying the different vegetables and herbs.

On my way back into town, I pedalled past a bustling wet market and lots of people sitting to eat. I screeched to a halt, parked up my bike and nosed around. I'm not sure the locals this far out of the old town had much experience with tourists, as I was a real hit - eyes followed me everywhere, but not unpleasantly. More curiosity. I sat down with my pick n' mix lunch, and an old lady gestured towards a giant pile of birds eye chillis, beckoning one. I handed a couple to her, and with a toothy grin she chomped it right in half, chewing the chilli. When she offered me the other chilli, well - who was I to decline her hospitality and say no? I chomped it in half and chewed. Jesus Christ. JESUS CHRIST. She looked so impressed it was almost worth it. My nuanced flavours of caramel pork, egg, deep fried fish cake and rice were obliterated. But I'd made friends.

On our last night, a dinner proper - Morning Glory is well worth booking. They also run Ms Vy's Cooking School, and a selection of courses. I wish I'd done the Advanced Masterclass; the one we did do, with Red Bridge Cooking School, was great and we enjoyed the market tour and the river cruise that took us there, but the cooking itself was dumbed down to the point where I had to tell my 'helper' to please leave me be as I can turn an omelette thank-you-very-much. Anyway, everything we had at Morning Glory was incredibly delicious, from the red curried clams, to the stir-fried bitter melon with egg, as well as the papaya salad, oh and some summer rolls, and a pineapple and tomato sweet and sour fish soup that I will definitely attempt to recreate. Our eyes widened at the bill, and then we laughed at ourselves when we realised it came to £24 for the three of us, and we were stuffed to the brim.

Besides one other dinner where we barbecued our own food, because, fun! We stuck to the streets, sometimes sharing a bowl here or there, or maybe a plate of chicken rice, followed by more snacks, a couple of beers, maybe a snack or two, ooh are they skewers? Another bowl of noodles, ad infinitum. Obviously, I had a very excellent time.

All the instagram photos from my trip are viewable HERE.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Le Poulet du Dimanche, Hélène Darroze at The Connaught

There are some invitations you get when you just think, yes. Yes I WOULD like to come to The Connaught and try out the new 6 course ultimate Sunday roast menu, at Hélène Darroze's eponymous 2 Michelin starred restaurant. They have just launched a celebration of the chicken, inspired by Hélène's memories of France. Each course comes with a fantastic back-story of why that particular dish is on the menu, and how it links into Hélène's life.

I'm not going to exhaust you with a blow-by-blow account of the meal, as that'll only spoil the surprise for you. What I will say is that for £95 for two, this is a steal for a meal at such quality. We had little courses around the menu too, like this fennel, green apple and bergamot tea, to cleanse the palate after snacks of aioli croquettes and thinly shaved jamon (sliced table-side) with house-baked bread.

Given I spent 7 years - 7 whole years - studying French at school, you might have thought the opening course's French title might have solicited a giggle from me, but no, I stared at it blankly until our lovely menu introducer told us "directiment sorti du cul de la poule" meant "straight from the chicken's arse". It's not really, it's more to denote the freshest and best of the eggs, such as the one served here, sourced from Clarence Court (though sadly not sold in that colour). Still now I can barely ask where the swimming pool is. 7 years!

Anyway, this is one of the most glorious eggs to ever have passed my lips. It's gorgeous; the egg yolk cooked confit, and topped with crisp chicken skin bits, smoked bacon, chives and a Parmesan emulsion. It is liquid gold. When Hélène came out from the kitchens to say hello, I could only stare agog in awe at her obvious talent. She's very lovely, and has the most brilliant Fronnnch accent.  

Tiny little raviolis of Bigorre ham came next, nestled in a deep egg-like bowl. Scattered amongst, some beautifully turned and melon-balled vegetables, and a consommé was poured over. This is chicken soup for the soul, but not as you nor I know it. Once our bowls were cleared, leaving behind enough consommé, joy! Armagnac was dribbled in to mingle with it, altering the flavour profile ever so slightly, creating an altogether more warming drink that we were encourged to sip directly from the bowl. This is inspired from an old Southern French tradition called 'lou chabrol', where people added red wine to their duck and bean soup, before drinking it from the bowl. It reminded me of The Clove Club's duck broth with Madeira, surely one of my best mouthfuls of 2014. 

Liver "Royale" was a puck of shiny, gold-flecked smooth as silk paté, served with a skewered chicken oyster with cockscomb, which I can only imagine was the incredibly crisp skin surrounding it. A langoustine, perfectly poached, provided its flavour to the jus that also decorated the dish, and hints of earthiness came from perfect discs of alternating snow-white celeriac, and jet-black truffle from Périgord. 

The main event! A chicken itself, stuffed to its very... ahem with flowers and herbs. We ooh'ed, we ahh'd, we took a million pictures and it was removed to be portioned. When we got it back, a sizeable piece of breast with the most fragrant foie gras and wild garlic mixture stuffed under the skin, along with a 'boudin blanc' slice of sausage wrapped with cooked leek, and a perfect cube of fried potato. This was not just any old roast chicken. 

When I first saw the menu I thought - that's odd, there's a taco in there. But it was one of my favourite courses; named "Retour d'Asie" (Return from Asia - thanks Google Translate...) it had everything going on. The chicken leg meat was garnished with mint, coriander, spring onion, cucumber, and an incredible maize flavour from the freshly pressed tortilla. Darroze's two adopted daughters are from Vietnam, and you can see the influence there in the most refined way imaginable. That fingerbowl! My fingers smelled of mint and lavender. Gorgeous. 

Desserts were no afterthought, carrying through the eggy theme with the most sensationally eggy crème caramel I've ever tried. Dear god, it was rich delicious heaven and apparently her mother's recipe. Îles flottantes (made using egg white) bathed in a pool of velvet custard, dribbled with caramel. With these we were served an incredible Chinese (!) ice wine which is definitely worth checking out. Madeleines, made with olive oil, came warm and fresh from the oven, and were perfect with a coffee. 

There are a limited number of chickens per service and you absolutely have to book in advance. I recommend you do so immediately, as £47.50 / head (£95 per pair) for the level of cooking and just the sheer luxury of it is fantastic value. You might blow the budget on booze, mind. 

I dined as a guest of the restaurant, but all opinions are obviously my own. 

My full set of pictures from the meal is here

Carlos Pl, London W1K 2AL

The Le Poulet du Dimanche menu is available every Saturday from 12pm-2pm and Sunday from 12-3pm and 6.30-9pm and is priced at £95 per couple. Places are limited, for reservations please call on +44 (0)20 3147 7200