Sunday, 4 September 2016

Manhattan In a Weekend

My trips to New York are becoming more and more audacious; everyone I told that I was going just for a weekend responded with incredulity. It's a touch longer than a weekend; we went over the bank holiday, leaving work at 1pm on the Friday, to arrive back in London on Monday evening. Obviously it isn't enough time in My Spiritual Home, but it would have to do.

Our last odyssey had us there at the beginning of January 2015, a frigid time filled with freezing winds, snow and a lot of woollens. This time, it couldn't have been more opposite, the balmy weather hitting the early 30s Celcius. Due to our shortened timescales, we decided to stay at Hotel Chandler, a lovely little hotel right in the middle of K-Town, to allow us good access to Newark Airport - definitely, definitely fly to Newark over JFK. It is dreamy, in comparison.

We dumped our bags and headed straight to Gramercy Tavern, which has been on my list for years. We slung a bucketful of martini down our necks, and were taken aback by the deliciousness of the cornbread with lamb sausage and green tomato. It's not the Deep South cornbread I thought it was going to be; the crisp flatbread was embedded with corn, topped with minced lamb patties, and the green tomatoes were apple-like in crisp sweetness. For days afterwards we still debated if this was the best thing we ate.

A tomato salad with stone fruits and basil was light and summery, refreshing and served to us in individual bowls, divided so we didn't have to fight, as they knew we were sharing. That is service. I don't think I really knew good (casual) service until going to New York.

Grilled corn, shrimp and dumplings in miso was richly flavoured, bursting with sweetness and seafood. We both zoned in on this one the minute we opened our menus, being the Asian-lovers we are, and it was everything I wanted out of a bowl.

Roasted tomatoes, macaroni and cheddar cheese was comforting goodness, without being too rich and sleep-inducing. We had just come off a nearly 8 hour flight and we were wary of cutting our evening short with a carb-hit to end all evenings, but we needn't have worried. Just the right portion size for two, the extra crunch of the breadcrumbs on top ensured each mouthful kept our attention till the end. We forewent dessert, and I regret not trying the wild blueberry pie, but cocktail bars required our attention. Of all the meals of the weekend, it wasn't the cheapest, at $170 total but it was worth each one of our hard-earned Brexit-fucked pennies. I can't talk about the exchange rate right now, it hurts too much.

The next day we bounded out of bed to meet a dear friend at Jack's Wife Freda, a restaurant that has branches in SoHo and the West Village. The latter is larger, so we only had a short wait for a table as my hangover kicked in with ferocity and I was only able to muster the orange blossom and honey pancakes. The green shakshuka and the Madame Freda, made with duck prosciutto were well received by my friends, though a little more care on the egg cooking may have been necessary to be rid of that dreaded egg white flob.

Root & Bone was the venue for lunch, where we met up with Rej of Gastro Geek fame, and reminisce about the good old days of food blogging in London. Well, I imagine we would have done more of that if we weren't so bewitched by her utterly gorgeous two little boys who ran us ragged with their cheekiness and boundless energy. Parenting is hard. Anyway, we bimbled around for a while until our table was ready and dang (to use a localism?) that place was packed, but you can book.

The waitresses were harried, but efficient and soon enough, a half bucket of the crispest fried chicken arrived, along with a watermelon salad dressed with jalapeno buttermilk. Around us, people were having fried chicken with waffles and eggs benedict, brunching hard and enjoying the shaded outdoor seating.

We stopped for a drink at The Frying Pan, a big boat off Chelsea, along with a lot of New York's younger revellers (top picture). I'll freely admit I felt a little old there, but the sun was shining and it's nice being on water. We plotted our course through the afternoon and decided to stop off at Momofuku Nishi in time for Happy Hour (5:30pm). When The Impossible Burger was on the menu, we had to try it.

Made entirely from plants and plant-based products, it's meant to mimic the flavour of a hamburger. It does, and I think it's largely down to the condiments. The burger comes with a McDonald's-esque burger sauce, strong in pickle flavour, and the lettuce, tomato and slappy cheese go along to help that. The bun is squishy and sweet, and there is a hint of a meaty char. It's a decent attempt and I think if I were a vegetarian I might enjoy it more, but it definitely doesn't have the same mouthfeel or satisfaction of a normal cheeseburger.

I had to convince my friend to order the 'butter noodles - chickpea hozon, black pepper' - "but Lizzie, we were only coming for a snack!". Well, if it isn't the best bloody noodle dish I've had in a while. It's like cacio e pepe, except somehow richer in flavour, and lighter in feeling. It had intense savouriness from the hozon - a term invented by chef / owner Chang for making miso out of non-traditional ingredients (soybeans being the most common). The noodles were cooked to almost too al dente, but only almost. I know I'm a David Chang fan anyway, but seriously. (Also, for $19, I'd hope so too.)

We ate in Korea Town more often than we'd intended to, but that's no bad thing. After going to my friend's incredibly beautiful and fun wedding, we found ourselves hammered and hungry at 4am. K-Town was still up an at it, and we wobbled through the doorway of BCD Tofu House down to the basement for some late-night booze-soaker-upper-supper. It. Was. Rammed. At 4am, packed to the rafters. We were agog; truly, it is the city that never sleeps. They brought us banchan (Korean pickles) of kimchi, marinated beansprouts, pak choi, a strange mayonnaise-y potato salad, a freshly fried salted fish and various other bits before we'd even ordered. I think I had a soondoobu jjigae (spicy seafood and tofu stew) and I'm pretty sure my friend had the pork bulgogi but what I do know is we left stuffed and happy, $30 all told (though we were all boozed out by then, so that's just food). I love you, New York.

On our last night too, we went to Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong (say that after a few) for Korean barbecue; the place is open till 6am EVERY NIGHT. Two floors, and packed at 10pm on a Sunday night. Mental. We feasted on their beef combo of bulgogi, prime rib and other cuts, while omelette poofed and cooked on the right and corn cooked down with gooey cheese on the left. A vast array of pickles and lettuce and sauces accompanied the meal and they also brought us a fiery kimchi stew. A teeth-achingly sweet carafe of yuzu sochu cocktail made us giddy. I was in heaven.

I wanted to try some ramen in New York, so we headed to Ivan Ramen's Slurp Shop in Hell's Kitchen which is housed in a pretty helpful food court. It's a bit Westfield in feeling but as it has tacos, tapas and decent coffee, it would suit the most diverse of cravings amongst a group. The breakfast ramen, with cheesy dashi, ham and omelette (top) was pretty mega; too much for me to handle, but my friend went in with gusto. I opted for the Shio ramen with extra toppings of enoki mushrooms (weirdly plonked on raw), a soft egg and toasted nori. It was a decent bowl of noodles, but we do it better in London. Spicy miso-buttered corn on a stick was a nice touch, though the cabbage salad was uninspiring. It is not the crisp, crunchy sweetness of our very own Bone Daddies.

We walked 17 kilometres around New York on both days, enjoying the sunshine and avoiding the subway - as well as working up our appetites for more food. Harry & Ida's Meat Supply Co. was an oasis of calm, shaded and bedecked in wood, reminiscent of a film set though I'm not sure which. We'd squeezed in some cheeky dumplings from Tasty Dumpling (I wouldn't bother again; they were roughly hewn, and overly doughy) as well as crammed in some tofu and noodles from Xi'an Famous Foods, a must if ever I'm in the city - so this sandwich wasn't one I was hugely enthused about. I was positively lethargic. "Can we get Ida's?" I bleated. Ida's is the 'light' version of the pastrami sandwich. (Something something female stereotypes huff huff something). 

It is wonderful. The bread is light - no roof of the mouth scrapings here - and spongy, and the inside is smeared with wholegrain mustard that has a strong hint of the American about it (you know the type, French's). The meat is warm and fatty - and actually the American 'pastrami' is our salt beef - and full of fatty, juicy flavour. The cucumber pickles are crisp and sweet, though we plucked out some of the over-generous fronds of dill. If I lived in New York I'd buy that pastrami by the pound, which they sell there in bulk, along with smoked eel, bluefish salad, smoked chicken etc. 

We waddled off to get an ice cream at The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop, and went for the Salty Pimp; soft serve vanilla with salted caramel, dipped in chocolate. Holygod. 

Diet time. 

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Grilled Scallops with Ginger & Garlic Scape Butter

See Woo in Chinatown now has a fishmonger added to their supermarket, as well as a butchery counter. I love that I now have access to fresh seafood, including lobsters and crabs in their tanks, at an hour I can feasibly get there after work; usually I have to wait until the weekend and cycle over to East Dulwich. 

All the usual suspects are there; sea bream, turbot, prawns - but they also have salmon heads, and red grouper, and conger eel. There's also live eels in tanks, but I can't look at them too closely as they're basically sea snakes and that gives me the right wibbles. 

I bought some scallops, live in their shell, and was asked if I wanted them cleaned. I was perfectly willing to do it myself, until I remembered the 8 I was tasked to prise out of their shells , and de-frill at New Year's Eve, and the incredibly weird nightmare I had associated with it, that very night. Yes, yes you can sort them out for me. 

What happened to the roes?! I actually gasped out loud when I opened them at home, only mildly placated that there were 2 left intact. Maybe the man thought I wouldn't want them. That's what I get for being lazy. At £3.80 for 5, I will definitely be eating a lot more of them.

As they were going to be part of a Chinese meal, I wanted them to fit in but damn I wanted that garlic butter bad. So, I used garlic scapes - they are a sturdy thick grassy stem, and it smells pungently of garlic. They're delicious; crunchy, sweet, and without being too over-poweringly garlicky. They're also really great stir-fried with bacon (which is a recipe in Chinatown Kitchen). Ginger is a natural partner to seafood, and these turned out beautifully. We polished off those plump, sweet scallops and drizzled that butter, pooled in the shells, over the rice. Waste not want not and all that. 

Scallops with Ginger and Garlic Scape Butter

Enough for 5 scallops

5 scallops, with shells
2 stems of garlic scape, minced
3cm piece of ginger, peeled and minced
A hefty pinch of salt
A smaller pinch of white pepper 
60gr butter
1 tsp mirin
A dribble of cooking oil

Using fridge cold butter, really work the pepper, garlic scapes, ginger, salt, oil and mirin into it. 

Preheat the oven on high and add the shells to a rack to heat up, for 4 minutes. Add the butter, which should hit with a sizzle, then add the scallops and grill for a few minutes, depending on the size of them. If your scallops are fresh, don't be scared and over-cook them; they are far better, nay desirable, being slightly under-done. 

Turn the scallops over, baste with the butter, and grill until cooked. Serve as part of a feast, with steamed rice. 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Lobster E-Fu Noodles with Sichuan Chilli Oil

Every year, Action Against Hunger hold an auction, to which restaurants, chefs and food people submit prizes for. I've long since been a supporter of theirs; way back in 2011, I helped cooked a dinner for 55 in aid of the charity, so I was only happy to help, and I blithely promised a dinner for 8 cooked in the winner's home. 

When the auction itself started, I realised what I was up against. It's not a competition, but there were some serious prizes going. I made my friends promise me that they'd bid at least twenty quid so it wouldn't be too embarrassing if it went for nothing. I refused to look at the auction until it was all over, lightly sweating at the palms in anticipation. £926 was the final total - an intimidatingly generous amount. I set off writing the menu, and getting in touch with suppliers to help out with ingredients.

Everyone I spoke to was wonderfully accommodating, and generous. Turner & George supplied the meat; a beautiful pork shoulder for the Bo Ssam, that was roasted and served with spring onion and ginger dressing, kimchi, and coriander and jalapeño sauce. This was slow roasted and then absolutely packed with brown sugar for a final blast to create a caramelised, fatty pork crust - hunnggghhh. This is one of my favourite sharing dishes, as you have to use your hands to cup a lettuce leaf, spoon a little rice into it, top with pork and sauce / pickles, and shovel it in. It's communal eating at its best. 

Most Asian meals involve a soup course, and we made Vietnamese meatball and pickled mustard green soup; it's the perfect balance of tart, spicy and slightly sweet. It also includes dill, which a lot of people are surprised about, given its association with Scandinavian food. The recipe is in Chinatown Kitchen

Obviously we had to have dumplings just because I love them and I have become pretty good at folding them, if I say so myself... 

With such a generous donation, I really wanted to have something in the meal that was particularly luxurious (even more so than a really decent piece of meat), something you wouldn't normally cook at home for yourself or for a small dinner party. Lobsters are often a bit daunting, especially as it's best to buy them live for them to be at their freshest. See Woo helped me out with all my Asian ingredients; they were total mega-stars at their Chinatown shop, and furnished me with everything, from dumpling skins to pickled mustard greens, chillis, dried shiitake mushrooms, the lot. Since they had an incredible new live fish counter complete with lobster and crab tanks, I fired off a cheeky request for four live lobsters and held my breath. 

Success! They were MASSIVE. They were pulled from their tanks thrashing, and I hauled them home, people eyeing my bag warily. It happened to be the day my tube line was undergoing works and there were no taxis. I'm not sure how much the lobsters appreciated 2 tubes and a bus. Into the freezer they went. 

In their sleepy state, the lobsters were gradually warmed up in their salty pot bath so they were good and asleep before they died for my cause. Have I mentioned how massive they were? They were so big I had to borrow my neighbour's stock pot, as mine was insufficient. Once just cooked, they were plunged into an ice bath to be ready to be stir-fried the next day, for possibly the best noodles I've ever cooked. 

E-Fu (or yee mein) are a type of noodle that are sold in a round yellow cake. They're 'luxury' noodles, brought out at special occasions, mainly celebrations. They're soft and airy, and their sponginess soaks up whatever sauce they're cooked in. Often its simply ginger and spring onion, but with a pretty killer Sichuan chilli oil recipe I've been honing for a while, I took them up a notch. After all the food that had already been served, I was startled to find the dish came back completely empty, besides the shells. "They're licking their chopsticks!" my friend / waitress whispered to me. It's a bit labour-intensive, but it is worth it.

Lobster E-Fu Noodles 

Serves 8 with other dishes, or 4 as a main with vegetables

4 live lobsters, cooked in salted water until barely cooked
8 spring onions, whites and greens separated 
5 cloves of garlic, minced
3 inches of ginger, peeled and minced
100gr beansprouts, rinsed well
100gr brown shimeji mushrooms, washed and separated
4 tbsp cooking oil
2 rounds of air-dried E Fu noodles

2 tbsp light soy sauce 
1 tsp dark soy sauce 
2 tbsp mirin
2 tbsp sake
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 tbsp cornflour
100ml water or chicken stock
1 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar

For the Sichuan chilli oil:
200ml vegetable oil
1 piece of cassia bark
1 star anise
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 black cardamom 
3 tbsp coarse ground red chillis
2 inch piece of ginger
1 head of garlic, cloves separated but in their skins
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp soft brown sugar

Firstly, make the oil the night before. Add the cassia bark, peppercorns, star anise, coriander seeds, garlic, ginger, cloves, and cardamom to the oil and heat until a fizzing sound. Keep on a low heat and simmer for 1 hour. Add the sugar, soy sauce, and chillis to a large heatproof bowl, and heat the oil up so it's shimmering for just a moment, and then VERY carefully pour over the chilli mixture. Leave to cool, and leave overnight. Strain into a clean jar.

You can prepare the lobster whichever way you prefer, but we found that leaving the tails in the shell was nice for people to see and work on, but extracting the rest of the meat from the claws was the best idea unless you have the right utensils and people like getting messy. So take a good half hour or so to do this, as it can be fiddly. I'm talking like I did this but I made my friend bash those claws out while I, uh, folded dumplings. 

Twist the head off, then the claws. Lay the back out flat and using a sharp knife, cut lengthways through the tail. Any green tomalley or red roes, extract and add to a bowl. Use a hammer to bash the claws in and pick out the meat. Keep the shells; they make a great bisque. Once you have extracted all the meat, place in the fridge. 

Add the tomalley and roes to the sauce mixture and work well, so there aren't any lumps. Chop the whites into 2 inch pieces, and finely slice the greens and set to one side. 

You may need to do this in two batches, as it's rather a lot to go in one wok. Heat plenty of water into a wok until it is boiling, and add 1 round of the noodles. Stir them so they break apart, and cook until al dente - about three minutes. Fish out into a colander and rinse, meanwhile cook the other round and sieve again. Empty the wok of water. Place the noodles in a big bowl and toss through with 4 tbsp Sichuan chilli oil.

Heat the wok until smoking, add half the oil, and stir fry the beansprouts and mushrooms for 3 minutes, constantly stirring. Remove to a large plate. Add the rest of the oil and add the garlic, spring onion whites and the ginger, and add the lobster meat, stir-frying briskly for a couple of minutes, just so you get the aromatics flavouring the lobster meat. Remove to another plate. Add the beansprouts and mushrooms back in, along with the noodles and the sauce mixture. Heat on a low heat, tossing everything together well, and add the lobster meat back in to warm through. Drizzle with another 3 tbsp Sichuan chilli oil.

Take off the heat, place on a snazzy serving dish, and maybe use a lobster head to garnish. Serve with tongs for people to help themselves. 

(I'm also cycling across Ghana in November for; you can sponsor me here, if you so wish. I'd be forever grateful!) 

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Muffuletta - the Ultimate Picnic Sandwich

Muffuletta. Hur hur. Muffuletta is a round loaf, the lid sliced off, innards removed and layered with ingredients. The whole thing is then squished overnight, so that it's nice and compact to slice into. It's the perfect picnic lunch, as it's easily transported, and leaved nothing behind. 

It's traditionally from Sicily apparently, though they also use sesame bread, and  other such things such as olive salad to season it. I used a combination of cured meats, cheese, herbs and grilled vegetables. The key, really, is to make sure everything is good and dry before you start layering up, otherwise you're going to get a really soggy bread. 

You need a round loaf, with crisp outsides and soft innards. Slice that lid off, and pull out the insides. You can reserve and blitz that for breadcrumbs. 

Smear the inside with pesto, and then layer with sliced cured meat. I used chorizo and salami, you could use ham, serrano ham, etc. 

Add some grilled red peppers; I used the jarred version you can buy in supermarkets. BLOT WITH KITCHEN PAPER FIRST. No sogginess. Add some basil, perhaps.

Carry on with grilled aubergines, sliced mozzarella, sliced salami, perhaps pickled mushrooms or artichokes, until you get to the top. All blotted first. Make sure you can get the lid on. 

Wrap it tightly in cling film, then in foil, and weigh it down with something heavy, placed on a plate to even out the weight. Leave somewhere cool (but not the fridge) overnight.

Slice to serve. This is quite a sandwich; it'll serve 6 easily as a snack / with other bits, but that really depends on the size of your bread. For ease, I sliced it up pre-park outing, wrapped them all in cling film, put it back together again, and re-wrapped in the foil. I didn't want to wander around Victoria Park with a bread knife. You might be a bigger risk taker than me, though. (DON'T). 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

John The Unicorn, Peckham

It's a stupid name. Who is John? And why does he have a unicorn? It has a garish frontage, of large bold type with pink and teal signage, sticking out like a sore thumb on Peckham High Street. It's an Antic-owned pub, and by and large I've been a fan of them as they make a real effort to make each different from the other. This particular one is shabby chic inside, obviously decorated with unicorns, and it's absolutely cavernous. A huge downstairs bar / pub area and a garden is augmented with an upstairs restaurant. 

Despite its flaws (John. The. Unicorn.) the food is really very good. Head Chef Ben Mulock spent several years at The Opera Tavern, so naturally the food has a vaguely Spanish slant. Grilled cubes of light bread, served with a yeasted butter were smoky and airy, the butter giving off that mouth-wateringly savoury flavour that I love Marmite for. Chicken heart skewers were pink and juicy, on a bed of smooth white bean pureé, and ridiculously good value for £4.25.

Nuggets of beef brisket were crispy and atomically hot within, topped with a pickled red onion. The menu changes every so often, and while these aren't available anymore, I imagine their replacement, smoked haddock arancini, are just as good. 

Cured trout with samphire was slightly less successful; it tasted like the fish was ever-so-slightly over-cured, so the texture was hardened. The samphire gave a good seafood flavour, but overall it needed more citrus. We bored of this quickly, though it was pretty.

We were back on track with burrata served with char-grilled tenderstem broccoli, pesto and chilli. I often think burrata is just fine drizzled with a fruity olive oil, but this was a worthwhile addition too. That creamy, dreamy cheese. 

My favourite dish of the evening was the wood-fired cauliflower with pomegranate dressing; I often have cauliflower roasted with houmous and I find the whole thing can get a bit claggy, but this bean pureé was a lot lighter, creamier and all the more balanced. The pomegranate added a sweet tartness, detracting from the fire and smoke flavour. I loved this. 

I didn't love the roasted pork shoulder, the only 'main' we ordered. Served with sliced granny smith apples and roasted, crisp new potatoes, it would have been great had it not been so salty. I couldn't take it, though I did ask for it to be packaged up for me to take home, as reheated with a bland carb (I had it with rice and chilli sauce) diluted the saltiness. All the components of a great dish were there, I just wondered if there was some sort of mistake with the seasoning. 

Desserts were decent; I enjoyed my pannacotta with wild strawberries, but its the cauliflower I'll be going back for. 

John The Unicorn
157 - 159 Rye Lane
SE15 4TL 

Full disclosure; we had our bill comped, but that was very much to our surprise and we didn't know this when we ordered. All opinions are obviously my own and unfettered. 

Monday, 27 June 2016

Banh Banh, Peckham Rye

When I was travelling around the South of Vietnam, I was besotted by the food there. Giant bowls of steaming hot broth came with tangles of noodles, and baskets of fresh glistening herbs to tear into, to season each mouthful. Each street corner was cluttered with ladies hunched over charcoal barbecues, wafting smoke lazily as skewers of meat sizzled away. Every scent was mouth-watering, and I found it almost impossible to go by several hours without a snack. 

Banh Banh has opened recently in Peckham Rye. Great! Near my house. Owned by Peckham-born Vietnamese siblings, the restaurant inside is light and airy, a small number of wooden tables, nearly all booked. The menu is short, concise and keenly priced, ranging across the ubiquitous summer rolls, through to noodle salads and pho. 

Banh khot pancakes (£9) pictured above are their speciality; small, crisp savoury pancakes, their predominant flavour is coconut. A large prawn nestles in the middle, and the idea is to wrap the pancake in lettuce and herbs, dip in a nuoc cham-based dipping sauce, and eat. It's a messy business, and unfortunately I didn't really get on with them. They were just incredibly bland.

Flock and Herd fish sauce wings (£6) were impressive for the meat's good provenance, but were not even comparable to ones better, such as Salvation in Noodles' version, or those of Smoking Goat. They were apologetic in flavour, lacking in a crisp exterior. We lost interest quickly. 

It was a very warm evening, so instead of the pho, we opted for the cold bun noodle salad (£9). This came with barbecued pork patties, a spring roll, julienned lettuce and cucumber, all to be mixed in with fried shallots, noodles and a fish sauce dressing. Once again, I found the flavours to be muted; it was all very mild and felt a bit generic. 

Better was the papaya salad, which had proper acidity and zing. The black sesame cracker was a nice touch, to pile the salad on to.  

Likewise too, the beef in betel leaves drew no complaints with us, and we happily munched away on these, drenching the vermicelli noodles underneath with more nuoc cham sauce. 

All in all, it was all a bit meh for me. I had expected fun and exciting things from a place that billed itself as 'Vietnamese street food', but actually everything felt a little tame. I really wanted to like Banh Banh, but there was just no magic. 

Banh Banh
46 Peckham Rye
London SE15 4JR