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

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.