Thursday, 29 August 2013

Could this be the most beautiful toilet in the world? (Could this be)

My local Thai restaurant, which is called Sukhotthai and based in the affable climes of 'Ornchurch, is a beacon of joy in an otherwise sea of blandness. A little cracker in other words. Saying that, we do have a good Turkish ocakbasi too but in general choices are limited around my neck of the woods. Unless you don't mind eating in a generic chain that is. We don't visit Sukhotthai that often these days, my wife and I. But when we do, it is always a treat, with friendly staff serving up mind blowing food. As such, to report on a startling and somewhat unsettling development seems wrong and disloyal. A dereliction of duty even. But I do feel that I have to report on a recent visit whereupon an explosion of colour assaulted my senses and blew my mind away. And if I didn't make comment on the festoon of artificial foliage that has appeared of the blue in the men's lavatories.... well, that would be remiss of me too.

To sum up the awe and bafflement I felt whilst sitting and thinking in such a room of naff beauty, I have to refer to a conversation I later had online with an old friend, which went something like this.

"You know that scene in Superman II where he flies to a tropical rainforest to collect some rare orchids for Lois for that special meal, you know before he gives up his powers in that chamber? Well it felt just that, being in there. I called for Superman but he never came."

His reply?
"Calling for Superman. In a flowery toilet. In a restaurant called Sukothai. We're one glory hole away from the campest start to a Saturday ever!"

Which of course is quite funny. Not to mention succinct and is worth sharing, as it certainly captured the surreal aspect of the situation. Or the photo that follows.

Like I said, I really do not want to cast aspersions on what really is a lovely little gem but I do have to ask the big question: 

Could this be the most beautiful toilet in the world? (Could this be)

Oh oh oh oh oh oh-oh-oh-oh

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

To fillet or not? That is the question

Fish meet Knife. Knife meet Fish
This post first appeared on Great British Chefs blog.

Watching a fishmonger work with a knife and go about their craft is a simple yet entrancing pleasure. Now, I’ve witnessed many a butcher disassemble a carcass with ease and have always been impressed at the technical knowledge and surgical precision on display. But in terms of elegance and making everything look effortless, the flashing silver of a fishmonger's blade is hard to beat.  Slapped on the counter top, all wet and shiny, a plaice or a trout can be transformed in seconds into fillets or steaks via some carefully drawn lines and delicate maneuvering with a super sharp and sometimes flexible knife. Blink and before you know it, the fish is wrapped up in paper, slung in a plastic carrier bag and an expectant hand is leaning across asking for payment. And this is before you’ve even had a chance to ask for the head and bones.

I know my local monger of fish, though happy to show off his skills, often gets a touch frustrated at the time it takes for me to get my wallet out. This is largely because I am usually still gorping at what I have just seen; face all beatific, like the kid who has just seen the rabbit come out of the top hat. Heavy coughs normally shake me out of my stupor, with the occasional ‘tut’ from behind. And having paid up, off I will bounce into the distance. Satisfied and buoyant, having had my little fix of ‘fishy magic’ for the week.

Every now and then though, I do like to take my fishmonger by surprise by asking for a fish to be kept whole and intact. Better still, I like to meet his raised eyebrows with a defiant stare that sort of says - “You’re not the only one who can fillet fish around here you know.” Because I can. I went to Rick Stein’s Seafood School in Padstow about 8 years ago now and spent two days studying the finer art of fish dissection whilst drinking copious amounts of wine. As well as gaining numerous blue plasters during the course, I did also receive a certificate, which still proudly hangs on my kitchen wall. It pays to keep your oar in, so to speak and so early last week I decided to buy some lemon sole with the intention of recreating a fiery Malaysian themed dish. 

A child enjoying the benefits of a home economics lesson at home
One problem I have these days is that whenever I decide to fillet fish at home, there is the constant barrage of questions from young, inquisitive minds. No sooner do I think that I am going to settle down to some relaxing prep, then up pops a head asking “What are you doing Daddy?” Of course, this is all educational so I do my best to explain what I am up to and the children are actively encouraged to handle the fish wherever possible. The real issues arise however when you discover that your son has run off with some fins that have been snipped off the lemon sole and stuck them on the television screen in the living room. And on Buzz Lightyear’s head. Because Buzz needed a wig. By all accounts.

Another child enjoying instruction on fish filleting

The main drag though is that I really should invest in a new filleting knife. Sadly and inexplicably, the tip of my prized and rather expensive Global snapped off ages ago. Which does make cutting a fine line along the central bone difficult, let alone the long sweeping strokes needed for separating the prized fillets away from the bone. I persevered and got some decent(ish) cuts but I have to say that afterwards, I felt just as flat as the lemon sole. A true craftsman never blames his tools but after sweating and gurning my way through the job, it did occur that if I wasn’t keen on shelling out for a new knife, why didn’t I just let my fishmonger do it in a flash for me? 
Filleted-ed fish
Incidentally, I went back to him for some seafood later in the week and regaled my thoughts and concerns. He smiled and lent in saying that if ever I wanted a refresher course, I could always pop in for the afternoon and spend some time with him. He would even give me the number of a place where he gets his knives, relatively cheap. What a lovely man.

Malaysian Fried Lemon Sole with Roasted Tomato and Chilli Sambal

This is a variation of a dish we covered at Rick Stein’s Seafood School. Some purists might sniff their noses at this recipe regarding its authenticity, especially with the sambal, which is essentially a chilli-based condiment or relish. For a real humdinger of a sambal, you should check out this one by Shu Han.

But it is a very delicious recipe nevertheless. All very hot and spicy yet the lightness of the battered lemon sole still manages to shine through. A great starter.

Malaysian Fish Instramgrummed

Serves 4

3 lemon sole, filleted and skinned

175g corn flour

Sunflower oil for deep-frying

Salt and pepper

For the sambal:

350gms tomatoes cut in half

Variety of chillies (I used 1 birds eye, 2 ‘home grown’ green finger chillies and 2 regular red chillies)

3 shallots, peeled and halved

2 tbs of lime juice

2 tbs of Thai fish sauce

1 tbs of caster sugar

Sambal ingredients Unstigrommed
For the chilli sauce:

6 red finger chillies, roughly chopped

4 garlic gloves, roughly chopped

1 tps tumeric powder

5 cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and roughly chopped.

4 tbs sunflower oil

1 tsp salt

2 tbs rice wine vinegar

6 tbs cold water

Hot chilli sauce

First make the sambal by pre-heating the grill to high. Put the tomatoes, whole chillies and shallots on a tray and grill for 10 minutes, until blackened, turning every now and then. Cool slightly and then roughly chop by hand. Place in a bowl and then mix in the limejuice and fish sauce.

Put all the ingredients for the chilli sauce into a blender or food processor and and blitz until smooth. Transfer to a saucepan and simmer on the hob over a gentle heat for 10 minutes or until the mixture begins to separate.

Put the sunflower oil in a large pan until about a third full. Heat to 190c or until a small piece of bread dropped into the oil browns and rises to the surface. Put the chilli sauce into a shallow dish and the corn flour in another. Season the fish fillets and dip them first into the chilli sauce and then into the corn flour, making sure that the fish is coated evenly. Cook the fillets in the hot oil, only 2 or 3 at a time, otherwise the oil will cool too quickly. Fry for about 2 minutes until crisp and golden. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Serve with the Roasted Tomato and Chilli Sambal.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Foodies Larder and Coca de Escalivada (and Honey)

No one really has a larder anymore do they. Well we do. We have refrigerators and cabinets made from particleboard that hang on the wall. But the actual idea of a larder feels like an old fashioned concept these days. I remember an elderly aunt of mine, a lovely old soul, used to have one. In fact her kitchen came from a different era altogether. From what I recall it was mostly lime green and adorned with chrome and Bakelite, complete with checker board vinyl flooring and a pressure cooker that aways seemed to be on, hissing in the background. In the corner behind a door was the larder, a walk-in cupboard that was forever full to the brim. Filled with jars and tins and cheeses and coveted cakes, peeking out from under a lace doily. Lots of tasty looking paraphernalia basically and to be stood actually inside a room, albeit a very small one, stacked with food from top to bottom, always gave me a bit of a thrill. Whenever we visited it was always a first port of call before I got ushered back to the dinner table for a glass of grapefruit juice and plate of boiled beef and carrots. Oh shit, I sound like Nigel Slater now don't I?

Anyway, Aunty Syb kept a splendid and well organised larder. Or now that I think about it, was it a pantry?  If she took one look at the clutter of my cupboards, she may well utter a disapproving tut or two. Because our 'larder' cupboard or general store is in a terrible state. A disposition for buying random bric-a-brac doesn't help. "My God, I need to have these Bolivian Yak Biscuits! Look! Smoked Azuki Beans from Nepal! Regurgitated Hazelnuts! Passed through ponys and gathered from the New Forest!" Seriously, some of the gear I've got stashed away. Gleefully accepting samples to review isn't very big or clever of me either. I do feel bad whenever I come across a particularly dusty box of organic lapsong souchong or a crumbling packet of dessicated chillies, long forgotten. It often haunts my bones, knowing that damp eyes are still possibly scanning the internet, desperately looking for a link and I should really cut back on the offers. Until I've used half the stuff up and critiqued it that is. Although I must say, a rather tempting proposal of bacon remains unanswered in my inbox and that would be just stupid to refuse.

What it all amounts to though is that I have a load of candies and condiments and pickles and packets and sachets and sauces junking up the place. And I often find myself committing the first world crime of opening up the cupboard and staring in and thinking - 'we have got nothing to eat.' This has to stop and I do need to get on with the business of using what we've got and to perhaps share some recipes along the way.

So without further adieu, I would like to introduce you to some goodies that were sent to me from The Foodies Larder and to all you pedants of the world, holding your breath and grimacing at the very word 'foodie'. Stop and take a look at yourselves for a second. It's just a word. Get over it.

Dough mix
The premise behind The Foodies Larder, as always, is a simple one. They are a small company that sources 'tasty nibbles' from artisan producers in Spain and on a monthly basis, send out hampers to subscribers who wish to explore and extend their culinary vocabulary. As ideas go, it's not a particularly unique one. There are a couple of food start ups on the internet offering something similar. But if you have a penchant for Spanish food, as I do, then you can see the appeal of The Foodies Larder. Especially since they have some very good recipes on the website to help you get to grips with the ingredients they send out.

Escalivada in a jar
In the sample box I received there was a bar of organic dark chocolate, some extra virgin olive oil from Southern Spain, a curious packet of pasta flavoured with piquillo peppers, a jar of escalivada, an even neater looking jar of Abella honey and some sea salt from Ibiza. Chocolate has a tendency to vaporise the second it is detected in our house (the twins have super sensitive nostrils) and the pasta was dealt with without much ado too, so I can't really comment on that either. If it's any consolation though, it was eaten just as quickly as the chocolate. The olive oil had a wonderful peppery quality and the sea salt tasted of salt, which is very useful. However because of it's size and texture, I suspect it is meant to be used more as a garnish rather than actual cooking, served up as sprinkles on canapés to get the 'big fish, little fish' going at parties.

Coca de Escalivada (pre-cooked)
So that leaves me to comment at depth upon the nature of the escalivada and the honey. Escalivada is a dish that originates from Catalonia and in essence is mixture of torn strips of roasted peppers, aubergines and onions which can be served as a simple tapas or smoky accompaniment to grilled meats. I know this because Google told me, although I did serve up the very same at a wheelbarrow bbq last year and simply called it 'roasted peppers, aubergines and onions.' Escalivada is also very good to use as toppings on 'cocas', which is a sort of pastry flat bread, which again is something new to me. Finding a definitive recipe for the dough was tricky. According to Rachel McCormack of Catalan Cooking there are countless varieties due to different seasons, different bakeries and different flours but in the end, I plumped for this version by an Expat Chef in Barcelona.

Geometric (sort of)
After baking for 15 minutes, the coca was finished off with few strips of anchovies and some tinned tuna and demolished in front of a Friday night movie with the children, providing an excellent alternative to the usual pizza. Of course, that's pretty much was it is. Still, nevertheless it was quite delicious. Crunchy yet silky, spiky yet fresh and the sourcing of this jar by The Foodies Larder certainly counters the faff of preparing vegetables beforehand.

Wandering hands
Being an indulgent sort of Dad and wanting to try out the honey, I also made dessert for us that evening too and you really can't go wrong with stewed fruit (apple and plum) and cinnamon served up with crème fraîche. This is sort of inspired by a recipe in Moro East where caramel is called for, to be spun in ribbons over the plate. But for ease, the idea of splodging some decadent honey on top was a better one. This particular honey from Gallicia came with the added benefit of Royal Jelly mixed in. For extra vim, vitality and..... vimto. Did it put any lead in my pencil? Erm no. And that is just as well. Getting the horn during Despicable Me would have been bad. Very bad indeed. But the honey was gloriously rich.

Stewed apple, plum and cinnamon with crème fraîche and Abella honey
The best part about this little raid upon the cupboard is that I managed for once to rustle up a decent meal without having to resort to the usual hysterics of dashing to the shops. I have to thank in part The Foodies Larder for that. Would I be happy to pay £30 a month for the privilege for filling up my shelves with random food though? I am not sure. Perhaps £20 would be more in my price range and I would be more interested if they sold items separately, as a result of trying ingredients individually. Which is something that they haven't quite got sorted yet.

For a small niche company, it is a good start though and I am glad that finally, I have started to make a dent on my larder. I have just got to work out what I can make with horse jerky, pickling spices and dulce de leche.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Cucumber Sandwich

Very good
A couple of weeks ago, whilst lounging low in my seat on an early morning train into work, I read with interest an interview in the Metro that featured Plebs star and comedian Tom Rosenthal. Keeping your head down on the 5:41 into London Fenchurch Street is aways a good idea because a lot of my follow commuters use the journey to extend their somnolent bliss just that little bit longer. As such, many (mainly male) passengers have a tendency to flatulate loudly during their slumber and quite frankly, the carriage usually stinks to high heaven. On a clear day, you can sometimes see a yellow cloud hovering around the level of the baggage shelves, amid a chorus of French horns. Anyway, during the Q&A Tom made mention of his experiences in Bulgaria and the fact that the Bulgarians have really nailed cucumbers, which got me thinking about cucumbers in general. As a matter of fact, the article made me sit straight back up to pay attention. At which point, I burnt the hairs in my nostrils.

Normally I don't really give much consideration towards these cumbersome green batons. In salads and as accompaniments, they work fine. Especially with Peking duck and plum sauce in pancakes, serving as crunchy counterpoint to the rich fatty meat and fruity tangy relish. Pile it all up in front of me and I could probably get through a whole bird by myself. Spooning, spreading, picking, delicately rolling, scoffing and then licking fingers thoroughly clean before moving onto the next one. "How was your duck sir?" "It was gorgeous, thank you." "And the cucumber?" "Erm......."

And yes, OK, I do like a pickled cucumber. Or a gherkin rather. In burgers, with a hunk of cheese, on some juicy pulled pork or plonked slap bang in the middle of crumpled bag of fish and chips. Asking for a 'wally' is always a true test of a decent chippie. Sadly, a lot of the glances that get shot my way from younger eyes over the counter suggest that I am the wally for mentioning it these days. But do I have any other strong feelings for cucumbers? Well not really.

However, like I said, Tom's appraisal did pique my interest with the suggestion that cucumbers can actually taste good, particularly since I have been growing them at home this year. Or at least one of them. And I have been watching this one singular cucumber with curiosity and affection for some time now. Leaving cheap knob gags to one side for a minute, I must admit that it has been fascinating watching this fruit swell and engorge over the summer months. The geek in me should have got the tape measure out to record daily progress but I was worried about what my neighbours might think. They probably think I am strange enough as it is. So I simply resolved to heap as much love on it as possible with frequent watering, careful positioning in the sun and regular chats.

The day for plucking the prized snozzcumber from its stem came some time last week. At a slight loss at what to do with it, I went on Twitter as usual for ideas and a barrage came back. "Smash it!" "Gin it!" "Sorbet it!" were just some of the more unusual recommendations. "Shove it up your backside!" was one of the more childish, immature ones.....Luc. In the end, I went out on a limb (because you know, I AM experimental and everything) and made a salad with cucumber, goats cheese, mint and lemon zest. It looked very pretty but I am afraid the heady citrus of the lemon bludgeoned out any flavour that the cucumber may or not have had. So with the few remaining slices I had left, I decided to make a cucumber sandwich, as proposed by A Rather Unusual Chinaman and self-proclaimed 'sanger-wanger' Helen, of Food Stories.

You might blech and recoil at the thought of flinging watery discs betwixt two slices of bread, recalling misshapen lumps wrapped in clingfilm for school lunches. But I'd say that tomatoes were always to blame for that and should be held accountable for the stains at the bottom of your rucksack. Whereas cucumbers have always married up well with baked white dough and I had sort of forgotten all about 'cuke' sandwiches. It's a simple combination of bread, butter, cucumber, salt and whallop, off you go really. The texture of crisp cucumber against soft bread really does feel lovely to eat, perhaps even better than crisps (although not quite). It's no wonder that they are an institution in this country for afternoon tea and er, for afternoon tea!

What of the flavour of my homegrown cucumber though? Well yes, it was fresh, clean and grassy. But did it pack the sort of punch that makes a man want to stand up and endure a sulphurous fug, knowing that at the end of his journey he could clamber into a supermarket and buy a dozen beautiful, delicious cucumbers that would soon take the pain away?

No, not really. I think I might be missing a trick though. I think I might need to go to Bulgaria.

Pretty but overpowering