Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Padella, London Bridge

It's such a simple concept that it's a wonder no one thought of it already. But in a climate where you can't move for courgetti and people spiralising the shit out of our poor, unsuspecting root vegetables - M&S now sell 'noodles' made from butternut squash. I ask you! - I am glad that common sense has prevailed and the people of London are queuing up to get their forks twirling around some proper carbs. 

Padella is a cute little spot, and comes from the people that started Trullo, an Italian restaurant in Islington that's always really busy, and still turning out some incredible food at prices that won't make your eyes water. Their signature dish was braised beef shin ragu, served with pappardelle, and the popularity of that dish paved the way for a pasta-centric casual restaurant. It's by Borough Market, and you'll know it by the queue that now snakes out of its door.

I went during the press preview for lunch, and I loved the marble-topped tables and the high bar where you can watch the chefs preparing each dish. I found the squid ink tagliarini, dotted with mussels and deep with the flavour of the sea, to be a little gritty, the pici cacio e pepe (that's a hand-rolled noodle-like pasta in cheese sauce) a little too chalkily al dente. But that beef shin ragu with large, flappy pasta folds was good as ever, a delicate shaving of parmesan decorating the plate. Promise shone through.

A few weeks later I went back and after queuing an hour with a friend, happily nattering away, we sat down ravenous and resolved to order pretty much everything. This time we were seated in the cavernous basement, tables lining the walls, another bar overlooking the drinks preparation area. Burrata was served simply dressed with fruity olive oil, and a refreshing radicchio, watercress and rocket salad was bitter and properly peppery, reviving our palates for what was to come. A little salt on the leaves goes a long way. Tagliatelle with nduja, mascarpone and parsley was, as the waitress warned, nose-runningly spicy. Those delicate ribbon-like folds of pasta were a masterpiece. 

This time, the pici cacio e pepe was cooked perfectly, with a strong black pepper flavour coming through. Is anything so simple, so satisfying? Cheese, pepper, butter, pasta. I'm not sure. We waited for our third pasta dish, while the serving staff, obviously harried from the busy dining rooms, rushed past. Our beef shin pappardelle had been forgotten, but no matter, as in catching their attention we were then able to order the other three pasta dishes we'd also had our eye on. 

Tagliatelle with smoked eel and amalfi lemon was generous and rich, though comparatively it became a little one-note in flavour, the smokiness overwhelming.

You know what this is. It's that glorious beef shin pappardelle. It tasted like the beef had been braised in butter, so tender and flavoursome was it. We questioned whether that width was regulation pappardelle size, and then we realised we didn't care, as we gobbled it up.

Pesto will never taste the same again, after a sterling dish of Stracci Genovese. Stracci are sheets of pasta, torn into irregular pieces, wafer-thin and silky. Made properly with potatoes and green beans, the pesto was bright with basil.  

Ravioli of ricotta with sage butter was somewhat lacking in the flavour of sage, but when you're eating dreamy pillows of cloud, little else matters. I'd like more sage flavour though. 

Reader, six pasta dishes between two are possibly too much. One is not enough though, so take my advice and avoid wobbling home like an over-stuffed walrus and stick with two per person. You'll thank me for it. 

Obviously we were far too stuffed to even contemplate dessert, but if the lemon tart from the press preview is anything to go by, they are simple and accomplished and perhaps should not be missed if you are a sweet lover. 

With a bill of £90-ish including a litre of wine which surely would have fed 3, or even 4 petite eaters, Padella is so affordable I'd go every day if it weren't for the queues. I also have a horrifying suspicion I'd soon resemble Queen Victoria in her later years, so people of London, do me a favour and keep that queue up. 

I never thought I'd say that. 

6 Southwark Street

Sunday, 12 June 2016

My Ultimate Fish Pie

Fish pie is my favourite of all the pies. It's a little renegade, with a fluffy mashed potato topping instead of pastry; and sure, it doesn't wrap all the way around the sides. Cheese? Cheese on top? Cheese and fish? What the...? I also complete this unholy triumvirate by having just the lightest splodge of ketchup, because any type of crisp potato, like the one up top here, demands ketchup. 

I draw the line at putting hard-boiled eggs inside it though. That's just too much. Instead, I use a mixture of smoked fish, white fish and salmon, encased in a thick, rich white sauce that absolutely has to be rammed full of fragrant tarragon. If you don't like tarragon (WHY) then this is not the pie for you. 

On the topping, I have experimented far and wide with this too. One particularly fun experiment was to layer very thinly sliced new potatoes, buttered liberally, so that you get a scalloped fan effect. While it looked very impressive, it lacked the comfort of mash, and this pie really is all about the comfort. I've used a mixture of normal potato and sweet potato (don't bother), and finally I tried replacing some of the potatoes with celeriac, just because I really bloody love celeriac. It worked beautifully, but if you don't like celeriac then just go full mash. 

You must serve this with buttered peas, maybe lightly minted. I've deviated before, with steamed tenderstem broccoli, or garlicky spinach, but nothing is ever as good or as appropriate as peas. I don't know the science behind this. 

My Ultimate Fish Pie

Serves 2

1 small onion, sliced
1 bay leaf
5 pink peppercorns, lightly crushed
1/2 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 glass of dry white wine
400gr raw mixed fish; I use a mixture of smoked haddock, hake / pollack, and salmon at a ratio of 30% / 40% / 30% - chopped in chunks
400ml milk
40gr plain flour
60gr butter, + 10gr butter for the mash
A small handful of parsley, finely minced
A handful of tarragon, leaves picked and finely minced, stems reserved
1/2 a lemon, zested and juiced
350gr floury potatoes, peeled and quarted
150gr celeriac, peeled and diced into small cubes
A small handful mixture of cheddar and parmesan

Bring a large saucepan to the boil and add the potatoes and celeriac, cook until tender. Drain, and leave in the colander in the saucepan off the heat with the lid off to steam some of the moisture away, for 10 minutes. Next, mash thoroughly with 10gr of butter and plenty of salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, simmer the white wine with the peppercorns, sliced onion tarragon stems, coriander seen and bay leaf, until the white wine has reduced by half. Leave to one side to cool. 

In a small pan, add the milk and the fish, with a generous seasoning of salt. Bring to the boil, then remove immediately, and lift the fish out carefully with a slotted spoon, and arrange in an appropriate pie dish. 

In a small saucepan, make the roux by melting the butter and the 40gr plain flour on a low heat and stirring with a balloon whisk well. When the mixture turns caramel colour and the flour has cooked out, add the wine mixture through a sieve and whisk for your life, to make sure there are no lumps. Add a ladleful of milk, whisking again, and repeat. By this point, you should have a smooth sauce and be able to add the rest of the milk in without having to whisk any more. If you have got lumps, give it a quick blitz with a handheld blender. 

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Leave the sauce mixture to simmer gently for a few minutes; you want a thick sauce that healthily coats the back of a spoon. You may need to simmer it for up to 10 minutes to achieve this, but keep stirring with that whisk so the bottom doesn't burn. 

Remove from the heat, add the lemon zest and juice, taste for seasoning. Add the tarragon and the parsley, and pour over the fish mixture. Next, using either a piping bag if you can be arsed or a spoon and fork, distribute the mash over the pie mixture; the sauce should be thick enough that the mash doesn't sink. Sprinkle the cheese over the top; at this point the pie can cool down and go in the fridge or freezer to cook later, if you like. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes, until the top is nicely golden and the cheese has melted. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving, and serve with buttered steamed peas and a sploge of ketchup.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Potsticker Soup Dumplings

I long for the day London gets a Din Tai Fung. I'm still convinced we still might, because bloody everywhere else has; Dubai, LA, Hong Kong, Macau, Sydney, Melbourne - even Seattle has TWO branches! Come on! Anyway, if you haven't been to Din Tai Fung, you must; they make some really good siu long bao (soup dumplings). Delicate steamed little dumplings of different flavours, filled with soup to pop in your mouth. It's a real art, getting the skins thin enough so they're not doughy, but robust enough to hold the delicious broth and filling. I haven't found anywhere in London that matches their quality, though I haven't attempted the higher end Park Chinois-type places, admittedly. 

What's a girl to do when the craving hits? Make my own. 

I won't lie. It's not a quick process, and I knew that on the undertaking. The reason for this is that you need to make a stock out of chicken bones and pigs trotters so that it heavily gelatinises, and you can then whip it into the dumpling filling. Have you ever wondered how they get that soup in the dumplings? This is it; when the dumplings are cooking, the meat jelly melts into the soup. Phwoar. Meat jelly. So it's really a 2 day affair where you need to make the stock, solidify it, and then the graft happens. 

I also decided to add the complication of making my own wrappers. This was so that they would be pliable enough for me to pleat them into buns. My bun-pleating went all sorts of horribly wrong - @mayluuluu I am not - so I stuck to what I knew, and decided to turn them into potsticker soup dumplings instead. 


It worked damn well, but you definitely need a really good non-stick pan for this, lest anything sticks and you burst your precious dumplings and thus rid them of their juice. Disaster. If all goes to plan, you should be rewarded with these beauties, ready to be dressed with soy sauce, a touch of vinegar and chilli oil. Crunchy bottomed, steamed top and bulging with soup. Pretty exciting stuff. 

Potsticker Soup Dumplings

Makes around 30

For the broth, and the day before: 

1 pig trotter
400gr chicken wings
3 slices of ginger, lightly bashed
The whites of 4 spring onions, chopped roughly
A few white peppercorns

Put the pigs trotter and wings in a large saucepan and cover with water. Add a hefty pinch or three of salt, and bring the water to the boil. Boil for 5 minutes and discard the water. Now clean everything really thoroughly under cold running water; this helps keep the broth scum-free. 

Put everything back into the pan, cover again with water, add the ginger, spring onion and peppercorns, and simmer on a low heat with the lid on for at least 3 hours. You should have at least a litre of broth by the end of this, as you're keeping the lid on. Remove from the heat, leave to cool, and fish out the trotter and chicken wings. Strain through a sieve into a large bowl, then line the sieve with muslin or kitchen towels and strain again. Then simmer gently for half an hour without the lid to reduce down by about a third. Remove, and taste - you'll need to add around a teaspoon of salt at this stage, but add it incrementally and keep tasting, in case it gets too salty. My neighbour's cat very much enjoyed the chicken wing meat stripped from the bones. Waste not want not. 

Place the broth in the fridge overnight. 

For the filling:

300gr fatty minced pork
2 inches of ginger, grated into a bowl, with 1tbsp water in it
The greens of 4 spring onions, minced
A large pinch of white pepper
1 tbsp oyster sauce 
2 tsp light soy
A large pinch of salt
A few leaves of Napa cabbage
Cooking oil

Dipping sauce & garnish: 

Slivered ginger
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
1 tsp chilli oi
Snipped chives

In a large bowl, add the pork, salt, oyster sauce, light soy, white pepper and spring onions. Squeeze the ginger pulp and add the ginger water to the pork via a sieve. Mix the pork in one direction continuously with chopsticks until it starts to become a sticky lump. You'll need to do this for at least a few minutes. 

Take the meat jelly out of the fridge, and you'll only need half. You can freeze the other half. Chop into cubes, and mix again into the pork, stirring one direction continuously, and eventually whipping the pork up with the jelly until everything is amalgamated and no jelly lumps remain. 

You can make your own wrappers (double the quantities in that recipe) which is a bit of a pain and it takes a long time, or use ready bought, the meat-receiving side wettened. Fold them like so (YES IT'S ME being all awkward and that, sorry). Do make sure the folds and top are well sealed. 

Place the dumplings on the cabbage leaves (the leaves are so that they don't stick to the plate) while you make the rest. 

Either freeze them now, or cover them and place in the fridge (maximum a day, really) or cook them. To do so, add a tablespoon of oil to a non-stick pan on a medium heat and add the dumplings, flat side down. Fry for 3 minutes until golden, and then add around 5 tbsp cold water, plus the saucepan lid so that they steam. Let them steam for 5 minutes, then remove the lid, evaporate the water off, and let the bottoms fry again for another minute, at which point they should be bronzed.

To serve, garnish with snipped chives, mix the dipping sauce together, and for god's sake - let them cool for 5 minutes, unless you want boiling hot soup squirting straight down your gullet.

As an aside...

If you live in London and can't be arsed to make these, I can make them for you! 30 of them! But wait. What's that? Yes, I DO want something in return. SPONSOR ME!  

In November I'm cycling 500km across Ghana with Child.org over 6 days and I'm fundraising for them. All proceeds go to the charity and its projects; my trip will be entirely funded by myself. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

Pappardelle with Lamb & Olive Ragu

I will readily admit I am a terrific pasta fiend. It makes up a lot of my diet; it's just so easy, and satisfying. I'm a pretty active person so I don't buy into any of this 'pasta makes you fat' carb-avoidance, so don't get my started on courgetti. A lot of the sauces I make to go with my pasta binges are quick versions, that take as long as it takes for the pasta to cook, but once in a while, I'll go all out with a long, slow-cooked sauce, richly reduced over time, to dress those glossy noodles. 

I favour the noodle-shape. I won't eat penne. I don't know why, but there's something about that shape I just don't like. Rigatoni is great. Penne? No. 

If you're into pasta as much as I am, there's no doubt you'll have tried all the brands, from supermarket's own, to De Cecco and more. My new favourite is La Pasta di Aldo (bought here), an air-dried egg pasta. It takes a shorter time to cook, around 7 minutes, but it has the bite of dried pasta, and the flavour of fresh. It's not cheap - £3.99 for 250gr - but it's really worth it for the superior texture. 

I don't recommend that you put away 150gr pappardelle in one sitting. It was the night before Tough Mudder, a half marathon slog through obstacle courses and freezing water so I needed the energy. 100gr is much more civilised, though I don't regret that portion for a second. Lamb shoulder is cooked with alliums in a tomato sauce until it reduces, the lamb falls apart into soft chunks, and the whole lot is finished off with sliced olives and spinach. Vitamins. A hearty grate of pecorino finishes it, and the promise of a slump on the couch afterwards.

Lamb & Olive Ragu

Serves 4 normal people

300gr lamb shoulder, shank or braising cut on the bone
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced 
2 ribs of celery, peeled and diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 sprigs of thyme
2 tins of the best canned tomatoes you can find
2 tbsp tomato puree
1 tsp sugar 
1 tsp sherry vinegar
1/2 tsp salt, + to taste
Black pepper
A large handful of green olives, pitted and sliced
2 large handfuls of fresh spinach
400gr dried pappardelle
A small handful of basil leaves
Pecorino, to serve
1 tbsp cooking oil

In a large saucepan, add the cooking oil on a medium heat and brown the piece of lamb all over, slowly, until deep bronze. Remove and place to one side. Add the carrots, onion, celery, a few twists of black pepper and garlic and cook over a low to medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, puree, sugar, sherry vinegar, salt, and refill a tin with water and add that too. Bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and blitz with a stick blender. If it's very thick, add a little more water. 

Plonk the lamb back in with the thyme, place the lid on and simmer very gently on a low heat for 2.5 hours. 

Remove the lamb, leave to cool for 15 minutes while the sauce reduces further without the lid. Remove the meat from the bone and chop roughly, and add back to the sauce. Add the olives. Continue to cook on a low heat without the lid. It should be making a plop plop sound, and make you regret wearing a white shirt nearby. 

Meanwhile, cook the pappardelle in heavily salted water, until al dente. Reserve a mugful of the pasta water, add the spinach leaves to the pasta, give it a good stir so they wilt, and drain. 

Add the pasta back to the saucepan on a very low heat and add the lamb ragu in ladlefuls incrementally, tossing the pasta as you go, adding a dribble or two of the cooking water. You want it to come together in a glossy, rich sauce. Keep adding the lamb ragu and tossing the pasta until the pasta is just coated, but not swimming. You may have some sauce left. Yay!

Dish into warmed bowls or plates, top with grated pecorino and a few scattered basil leaves, and serve. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Bigbe Chicken, Chinatown

I get pretty excited about new arrivals in Chinatown; often restaurants are changing their names for whatever reason and not much else changes, but on a wet and windy trudge through Soho I saw a shining yellow beacon; Bigbe Chicken, a specialist Taiwanese fried chicken shop. 

I popped in one evening, late, around 9:30pm to see what was up. Obviously still very new, it's a really simple set up; fried chicken, fried squid, sweet potato fries, and soft drinks. That's it. Don't come here looking for a salad. 

I asked the nice chap behind the counter lots of questions; they're new, the chef is from Taiwan, and they serve really good fried chicken. The powders are for you to select to have shaken on your chicken. I asked so many questions, in fact, that the chef offered me up some of their off-menu chicken skin, freshly fried, and for the other customers waiting too. He raised his eyebrows - "are you sure?" - surprised that I hoovered it up (I think a lot of Chinese are still surprised by white people enjoying the 'undesirable' bits. They also never notice the Chinese bit of me.)

The man is obviously incredibly talented at the fryer, for that was one tasty chicken-pop. I was talked into a behemoth chicken breast, battered out flat and bigger than my head (£5.50). Once out of the frier, I asked for a mixture of plum powder (sweet and tangy) and chilli (not spicy enough, but a good tingle). 

The chicken is well marinated, crisp and juicy. I burnt my tongue and scraped the roof of my mouth scoffing it down. Sweet potato fries, which they very sweetly insisted I have after I'd paid for just the chicken, were great; crisp, salty and with soft insides, and also garnished with flavourings. Next time - curry powder.

Afterwards, I died of salty thirst. It's probably not going to win any health awards, but it was so filthy-good. Shame the sign printer managed to print off all their wall art with 'deep fired chicken'. 

I'll be back, undoubtedly. 

Bigbe Chicken
10 Little Newport St, 
London WC2H 7JJ

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.