Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Pea, Ham & Mint Soup

Pea and ham soup, the ultimate winter comforter, isn't just for winter. For a start, the most traditional of the soups uses dried split peas, soaked overnight and cooked for until the peas collapse and release their starch, creating a soup so thick you can stand your spoon up in it. There's a time and a place for these soups; for me, mostly around the festive season, using a stock made from the bone of the Christmas ham. 

In the summer it's just as feasible; a big bag of peas in their pods, painstakingly shelled is how I made mine with some frozen peas to bolster them, but you can also use only frozen peas for ease and to save on time. It's the gammon that needs a little attention. I used a small lump from the butcher - poached gently in water with some aromatics to create a smoky stock, it was then fished out, de-skinned and roasted with a layer of mustard and sugar for crisp and flavoursome fat. Cold or hot, this soup was accompanied with a ham sandwich for dunking in. I don't make soups often, but when I do they have to be textured; there's no danger here of getting bored of every mouthful being the same. 

Pea, Ham & Mint Soup

Serves 6

500gr peas in their pod, podded
300gr frozen petit pois
3 medium sized floury potatoes, peeled and chopped into a small dice.
1 large onion, chopped roughly
400gr gammon joint, with skin
A handful of mint leaves
2 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tbsp brown sugar
2l water
Creme fraiche and bread, to serve
Salt and pepper

In a large saucepan, place the gammon joint in with enough water to cover and bring to the boil on a high heat. Boil for 3 minutes, then take off the heat and throw away the water. Rinse the joint and the pan and fill again with 2 litres of water. Add the onion and half of the pea pods, put the lid on and bring to a gentle simmer for 45 minutes on a gentle heat. 

Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C and line a baking tray with foil. Remove the gammon joint from the broth and leave to cool for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, strain the stock into another saucepan and discard the onion and the pea pods. Add the potato and place on a medium heat. 

De-skin the gammon joint, leaving a thick layer of fat and score it in a criss cross with a knife. Mix the mustard and the sugar together in a small bowl and slather on the gammon thickly. Place in the oven to roast for 15 minutes, then leave to cool. 

By now, the potato should be soft. Add 2/3rds of the peas and all the frozen peas and simmer for 5 minutes, then take off the heat, add the mint leaves and blend using a blender or a stick blender. Add the remaining peas back in and simmer for another 3 minutes, then take off the heat. 

Divide the gammon joint in half and chop half roughly. Taste for seasoning - it may need some salt. Slice the rest of the ham thinly. To serve, ladle into bowls and decorate each bowl with chunks of ham, a blob of creme fraiche and a slice of ham-topped buttered bread on the side. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Wilderness, Oxfordshire

I'm a big fan of festivals. Obviously there are downsides to them; there's the British weather, camping isn't the most comfortable way to live especially when you're rubbish at being a pack horse / putting up tents, and portaloos are definitely not a fun experience, but there is sheer joy in spending a few days bumbling around, listening to good music, usually in a drunken haze with a bunch of friends. It is completely permissible to wear whatever ridiculous outfit you want, and to cover yourself in glitter and generally behave like a big child.

My taste in festival has become more refined, though. You wouldn't catch me dead at Reading, with all the teenagers throwing piss all over each other. The Big Chill was incredible the two years I went; then it was bought by an events company and turned into a big-branded corporate nightmare, before it folded after 2011. I went to Bestival once, in 2008, and it was so horrendous I had to take a two year hiatus; it wasn't Bestival's fault that the severe weather turned it into a mud swamp, but the general air of aggro wasn't my thing. 

Wilderness is fairly new in the festival world - three or four years, maybe? - and music isn't the core focus to it. Food plays a pretty big role here - indeed, on their website the chefs attending and hosting lunches and dinners in the Banqueting Hall are given equal line-up space to the headline acts. This year Angela Hartnett, Simon Rogan, and Russell Norman with Polpo cooked banquets in the enormous marquee. We'd made a last minute decision to go to Wilderness and by then all the banquets were sold out, but we lucked out by wandering past the hall in time for a lunch and a couple of people were selling tickets that their friends or partners were too hungover / didn't want to attend. 

Unlucky for them, as Angela Hartnett's lunch was excellent; all the dishes were served family style to share, and we got chatting to our neighbours, as music played - it felt almost like we were at a wedding party. Crisp, mushroomy arancini, antipasti dishes of cured meats, grilled aubergines, pickled artichokes and basil and spongy foccacia with grassy olive oil started us off. Rigatoni with bolognese and spinach and ricotta tortelli made up the pasta courses, and we were well aware we still had a chicken main to come. Luckily, courses were served in a very relaxed fashion, with a decent amount of time between them for maximum digestion time. I was agog at what a slick operation it was, given we were sat in a field. 

Chicken with slow roasted onions and fried potatoes damn near finished me off. The leaves were dressed with incredibly intense lemon and was essential in balancing the rich sweetness of the onions. Dessert was baked peaches with amaretti biscuits and zabaglione - a very liquid custard - I just about managed a couple of mouthfuls before we declared ourselves defeated, and went for a lie-down with our new friends and a pint in the sunshine. The cost was £45 a head, with an aperitif, red and white wine to share between 6; considering that most of the food on offer hovered between £7 - £10, sitting down in a banquet hall and being served 4 courses with booze seemed a pretty good bargain.

Otherwise, Southern fried chicken tacos from Ambriento were okay, but not as great as they usually are from their regular East Dulwich spot. Pork and beef chuck meatballs from The Bowler were life-giving goodness - nestled on wild rice and swimming in tomato sauce, they were also topped with fried shallots, sour cream and coriander; every bite was full of flavour. Anna Mae's macaroni cheese benefitted from a squirt of Sriracha, and was comforting and filling. Casual food offerings were vast and plentiful, from yoghurt and muesli (hah.) to your more usual, like pizzas, burgers and hot dogs. This is not the crappy stuff you'd be more used to at festivals in the early 2000's though; I regularly hear that Bleeker Burger are one of the best in London and I am only sad that I was too delicate to face a burger while I was there.

Moro, Hix and St. John all had their own tents in which they held feasts and Moro very cleverly set up a takeaway operation too. Charcoal barbecues emanated wafts of lamb cooking and flatbreads charring, enticing you in. For £7, two spiced lamb chops on a bed of chopped salad and flatbreads were great value; the lamb chops were dusted in a variety of spices and they were some of the most juicy and tender I've tried, though they had a slightly heavy hand with the salt. 

Credit too, to Spit & Roast who were selling some incredible fried chicken. After a skinful of wine on the Sunday night we came across their stall and almost ran towards it, tripping over each other in haste. The chicken was properly crisp, with juicy insides and a flavoursome crust. The fruity chilli sauce took no prisoners and was incredibly addictive too. 

Initially I was slightly nervous that Wilderness would be full of hooray Henrys, quaffing wine and rah'ing all over the place but actually (and despite the Mulberry 'craft' tent and Laurent Perrier champagne garden) there was a good mix of debauchery. Small, nondescript tents revealed secret casinos and the like, meaning it was impossible to stay in one place for too long. Deep inside a valley, the Pandemonium stage fired off dry ice and lasers, disco balls lazily spinning while seemingly most of the childless at the festival partied there until the early hours.

On the one day we actually had constant sunshine, going for a swim in the lake was incredibly refreshing. Lifeguards were on hand, mostly bemused by naked streakers running down from the campsite. Although we didn't actually make it to any of them, there were lots of outdoorsy activities available, though you had to book them in advance; yoga, horse riding, archery and foraging were all things that would have been good if I'd got my act together in time. Instead we plonked ourselves down with a healthy view of the bar.

As I get worryingly close to 30, festivals like Wilderness are more my bag; decent food, interesting talks and things to go and see, balanced with DJs to dance like a dickhead to until the thoroughly decent finishing time of 4am. My only gripe was that the festival was a bit too spread out; there was a lot of traversing to get from one group of friends to the other, and we had a tendency to get very lost, all the time. 

Tickets for 6th - 9th August 2015 are available at 

(I went to Wilderness on press accreditation, but we paid for my companions' tickets, the food and booze.) 

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Culpeper, Shoreditch

I wasn't sure if I was going to write about The Culpeper, mainly because a friend of mine is a shareholder in the business and I wondered if I would be seen as biased or swayed by this. But then I remembered I can write what I bloody well like because this is my blog and I'm not such a simpleton that I can't form my own opinion. So, The Culpeper. Last year it was called The Princess Alice, and it was a fine old boozer with a foosball table and nothing much more remarkable than that. Oh, they also did a swing class in the sweaty room upstairs that you would have to edge past to get to the bathroom and hope that you don't get kicked in the crotch on the way by the oft-grumpy dancers. 

The entire pub was gutted and refurbished to be transformed into The Culpeper. Gone is the dinginess and the low ceilings; the main room is bright and airy, lit with swinging lightbulbs. Banquettes in bold turquoise line the huge open windows, and a shiny chromed bar is the central focus.

Head Chef Sandy Jarvis, formerly of Terroirs has created a menu that is solid gastro-pub, with flashes of excitement. Nestled within the classics like pie and fish and chips are porkcorn, and anchovy butter. 

Whole globe artichoke with spiced crab butter (£6) was a great example of a perfect starter. Easy to share, a little messy and not too filling, the crab butter was a lovely deviation from the usual vinaigrette. A salad of soft boiled egg with anchovies (£6.50) was well dressed with a tangy, parmesan sauce. The ingredients were obviously of top quality. 

Deep fried pigs head (£6) elicited ooh's of delight from our gaggle of girls; a few golden, crisp spheres of spiced pork was accompanied with leaves dressed with a mustardy emulsion, a sliver of pickled walnut here and there to counteract the richness. Our token vegetarian enjoyed roasted vegetables with Israeli cous cous (£5) - the big type - and a splodge of spiced yoghurt on top. 

Our mains were nothing short of hearty. An enormous pie (£14) with a golden puffed lid was packed full of creamy chicken, mushrooms and leek. I appreciated the dressed finely shaved cabbage and radish salad that came with it - one of my bug bears is a full priced main, but an incomplete meal that forces you to order the vegetable or carb component additionally. My own dish was an enormous pork chop (£15), thick and as big as my face, balanced on top of a lemony fennel salad. New potatoes, boiled and then roasted and tossed in mustard accompanied it, along with a herb-rich chimichurri sauce to pour over the chop. The pork was cooked to a rosy pink, leaving the meat juicy and the flavoursome fat crisp. 

By the time we got to desserts eyelids were starting to droop and the toll of our gluttony was onset. I wished I hadn't finished my friend's pie, when our lone shared dessert of a chocolate brownie with salted caramel, honeycomb and creme fraiche (£6) came out. It was attacked with fervour and it was as good as it sounds. 

For such a busy pub, service was swift and engaging. Our friend wrinkled her nose upon tasting the anchovy butter that comes with the bread (honestly, these vegetarians) and plain butter immediately appeared without prompt. Our waiter (or sommelier?) did well with the red wine drinkers in recommending a cloudy-ish, chilled Gamay which they loved; I had a slight tussle on the white wine front, but eventually talked him down to what was more mass affordable for a bunch of women who'd just been drinking beauty-parlour-house-white. Our ordered porkcorn never arrived - devastating, considering my love of both popcorn and pork - but when it was pointed out on the bill our waiter was so embarrassed he offered us a round of drinks on the house. We declined in favour of last tubes / trains / buses but it's the thought that counts.

I'm a big fan of The Culpeper; it's obviously strongly driven by food - they serve breakfast, lunch and during August you can also picnic on their rooftop, where they grow herbs and vegetables for the chef to use. Often pubs can lose the traditional pub drinkers aspect, but I've been for drinks, perched outside on a window ledge in the afternoon sun with scores of drinkers at the bar too and The Culpeper seemingly get the balance just right. 

The Culpeper
40 Commercial Street

(Tables are bookable for 6 or more)

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Blueberry Swirl Cheesecake

Here are a couple of facts about me:

- I rarely make desserts. I can't be bothered. They don't interest me enough. 
- When I do, you can bet money on it that it'll be blueberry-based

So, here's a recipe for blueberry swirl cheesecake. This recipe is seriously rich, and it serves a lot of people when cut into bars. You could halve the recipe if you like, but you could also be nice to your colleagues and take them in. Or eat it all yourself and feel sick for the evening...

Blueberry Swirl Cheesecake

Serves 8 - 12

(Adapted from BBC Good Food)

300gr digestive biscuits, crushed into a fine powder
140gr butter, melted
250gr golden caster sugar + 1 tbsp
150gr blueberries
1 tsp cornflour
900gr full fat cream cheese
4 tbsp plain flour
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
200ml soured cream
Zest of half a lemon

Heat the oven to 200 degrees C. Line a large baking tray (20cm x 30cm) with baking parchment. Mix all the biscuit crumbs with the melted butter and press it firmly and evenly across the bottom of the tray. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove and leave to cool in the tray. 

Add the blueberries to a small saucepan with 1 tbsp sugar. Mix the tsp cornflour to 1 tbsp water and add this to the pan, and heat gently, stirring a few times for the sugar to melt. Increase the heat and bubble for 3 minutes, until some of the blueberries have popped. Leave to one side. 

In a mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese with the sugar and mix well with an electric whisk until combined. Then add the soured cream, plain flour, vanilla extract and the lemon zest. Beat in each egg, one at a time, making sure everything is well incorporated before adding the next. 

Pour half the mixture onto the biscuit base, then drizzle half the blueberry sauce on top. Add the other half of the cheesecake mixture, then splodge the remaining blueberry sauce on top. Use a chopstick to drag through the blueberry sauce on top to create a swirl effect. 

Bake for 10 minutes, still in a 200 degree oven, then turn down to 110 degrees and bake for a further 30 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the cheesecake inside for an hour and a half. Then remove and leave to cool, refrigerate for an hour, and then turn out and slice into bars. 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Ramen Sasuke, Soho

In London, we're lucky that we can get virtually any cuisine under the sun, and with varying degrees of authenticity. Ramen is one of the new trends that I welcome with open arms; sure, I've never been to Japan, but I know what I love and that's a noodle soup. Bone Daddies is probably the furthest from Japan one might get - I seem to remember cheese being a feature on a specials ramen some time ago -  though this is no bad thing. Their premise is based on the traditional ramen, but they pimp it to maximum effect. Though I know many fans of it, I can't take the tonkotsu broth; it's too much for poor little me, too rich for my delicate self. Instead, I usually opt for their kimchi seafood offering, or the spicy tantanmen if I'm feeling really hungry. 

Shoryu Ramen, from the Japan Centre, is closer to its homeland; they've expanded to three sites pretty rapidly and they have a vast range of ramen available. Carnaby Street's yuzu tonkotsu is pleasantly citrus in flavour, but ultimately, over-whelmingly salty. 

Of the lot, Tonkotsu's noodles are king. Bouncy, springy and chewy, they're only let down by slightly unimaginative toppings, and on my last visit, chashu pork that was far chewier than it should have been. But those springy noodles! Every noodle-lover's dream.

My latest discovery is Ramen Sasuke; hidden down a Soho street, it feels even more Japanese than Shoryu does. As you enter the staff greet you in Japanese. Wooden benches and tables are pared back in detail, no fancies or fripperies. The menu is limited to a few ramens, some katsu curry options and on the back page, the lunch deal offers your ramen of choice, a slightly smaller-than-usual side dish for a £1.50 charge, and a free bowl of rice should you want it. It reminded me of Ippudo, where alongside your ramen you get rice with a topping for an additional $3. 

With my order of spicy miso ramen, I was given a surabachi - a traditional Japanese pestle and mortar - in which to grind the toasted sesame seeds to garnish my noodles with. It was a nice touch; some were ground to a fine powder, others I left whole for a little texture contrast. 

The spicy miso ramen came in a deep bowl, piled incredibly high. Beansprouts, marinated bamboo shoots, spring onion and sweetcorn come as standard along with a slice of incredibly tender pork. For an extra £1, I added the option of a sheet of nori and half a marinated egg, nitamago. The soup was sweet with miso, rich and flavoursome - I thought it could have been a little spicier, but easily solved by the chilli oil on the table. 

Crucially, the soup wasn't too rich and it didn't become a struggle, as I've experienced with other overly piggy broths. The noodles were in abundance; thick, yellow and appropriately springy. I didn't manage to finish them, much to my own astonishment. My friend's shoyu ramen (opening picture) was more demure, a clear broth sitting lightly on the stomach.

My side of gyoza, reduced down to 3 dumplings for the £1.50 charge, were good value. Crisp bottoms and delicate pastry up top, the filling could have done with more seasoning. 

My friend's chicken karaage was a great example of it. The batter was crisp, bubbled and light, encasing juicy chicken. The mayonnaise it was served with proved superfluous, though I enjoyed the wedge of lemon squeezed over it. 

I really loved Ramen Sasuke; it's a calm, peaceful place and on our visit was populated by only a couple of Japanese men in suits, slurping quietly away. They don't have the flamboyance of Bone Daddies, nor the variety of menu of Shoryu, but what they do have is a really good quality bowl of noodles, for a great price; all that with a drink set me back £15. 

Ramen Sasuke

32 Great Windmill Street
London W1D 7LR

Closed Mondays, no reservations

Sasuke on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Chiltern Firehouse, Marylebone

Somewhat uncharacteristically for me, this post only contains one photo, but happily it was a photo of the best thing we ate at The Chiltern Firehouse. Have you heard of it? It's AndrĂ© Balaz's new place; he of Chateau Marmont, The Standard, The Mercer, all heavy hitters State-side. It's his first venture outside of the US, and it's an instant hit. It's the new hangout for stars like Rita Ora, Kate Moss and Cara Delevigne and it is very difficult to get a table. When I emailed to ask when I could have a dinner reservation I was told 'weekdays, 5pm'. That is not dinner time. It is also an hour before I'm contractually supposed to finish work. I am told they are now in 'reservation lockdown' until September. 

So, I gave up and moved on with my life, and a few weeks later I was invited to a work lunch there. Set behind a gate, a lovely umbrella'd garden was verdant and inviting, despite the dripping rain. Inside, the six of us were seated at a round table near the back, slightly raised, enabling us to observe the action. Previously a fire station, our table was punctuated with a fireman's pole running down the centre. Lightbulbs hang from black cords, casting a soft yellow light across the crowded dining room. Towards the back, an open kitchen is the place to sit by to observe the action that's always interested me more than star-spotting: the chefs at work. Nuno Mendes, formerly of Viajante, heads up the kitchen here; I know well his calibre, having been to Viajante and his first restaurant, Bacchus, way back in the mists of time. 

All the reports you may have read about the serving staff are true. Model-esque in looks, some looking impossibly young for their roles. But we were assigned a waiter who had clearly lost his humour that day. The oft-talked about - perhaps signature? - dish of crab doughnuts were sold out, even by lunchtime, and we joked and pleaded with him to ask the kitchen to rustle us some up. Our pleas fell on deaf, stony ears. We get it. They've run out. But the merest mention of them in jest was met with a glowering grimace. 

We ordered all the starters available to us to share, and of these the steak tartare with 'Firehouse hot sauce', to apply yourself, was smoky and sweet, lacking in chilli heat but adding a fruitiness otherwise. Burrata with tomatoes was as you might expect, though enlivened with a parmesan crisp. Green and white asparagus, sourced from France, was draped with a cured ham and overshadowed by a nutty, mayonnaise-like sauce. Star of the show, though was cured sea trout in yellow mole (top picture) - traditionally a Mexican sauce made from guajillo chillis and tomatillos - which was garnished with roe and cucumber, a faint flavour of coriander coming through. The fish was firm and meaty, tart and spicy, tiny cubes of pineapple lifting the flavour of the seafood. Two lots of bread, charged at £4 per portion, arrived although we didn't order it. When mentioned, another waiter told us to have it anyway as a gift. It appeared later on the bill. 

My main course of char-grilled Iberico pork with raw and roasted turnips arrived on a cast iron plate, nestled within a wooden board. It was a mess of turnips halves, turnip slivers and green sauce, and I had to do some digging to find the meat. The thin slivers of pork, though tender and cooked to pink, were so over-whelmingly smoky it tasted like I was eating bacon. It seemed a shame to treat the usually flavoursome Iberico breed in such a way. For £26, and an additional £5 for necessary sides of either fries, green beans or lettuce hearts, it seemed a little steep. 

Things recovered at dessert stage. My frozen apple panna cotta was not a panna cotta, but rather a torched golf ball of meringue, with ice cream within. It sat on a sponge base, surrounded by apple jelly and a very fine granita of vividly dark green apple and basil. Refreshing and light, it swiped the lingering and slightly acrid taste of smoke from my mouth. 

So I left The Chiltern Firehouse, having had a lovely time with the people I was with but pretty certain I won't be returning. I wouldn't be able to get a table, for a start. Other than that, sure, it's a beautiful room. It's glitzy, glamorous and lit well, to show you off in their best light. But the inventiveness and prettiness of dishes that I had associated with Mendes (see, for example, roasted broad beans in their pod, or textures of beetroot with crab) weren't there; instead, safer dishes like steak with onion rings that you can get better elsewhere. You might spot a celebrity or two (I didn't) but unless the food is up to scratch, it's not my bag. Haphazard and, at times, actually quite rude service cemented this feeling. 

Chiltern Firehouse

1 Chiltern Street 
London W1U 7PA
020 7073 7676

Chiltern Firehouse on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Stir-Fried Pork with Black Fungus & Celery

Black fungus comes in two forms at the Chinese supermarket; sold dried, either in large pieces, or shredded finely. Cloud ear fungus are more delicate in flavour, whereas wood ear fungus are larger and thicker. Both need to be soaked in hot water for about 15 minutes to rehydrate them, and they almost double in size once done so. When used in large pieces, they're a little jelly-like in texture, but with an unmistakable crunch. 

This recipe was inspired by a dish served by my favourite Chinese restaurant, Silk Road. They cook slices of pork together with cabbage and black fungus, strongly tinged with the flavour of vinegar, in a cornstarch-thickened sauce. I played around with the vegetable combinations, settling on celery as it is robust enough to stand up to the high heat of the wok, while still retaining texture. The pork is seared until bronzed and caramelised and the marinade keeps it tender. I opted for a drier dressing rather than a sauce, to keep the components bright and perky. 

Stir-Fried Pork with Black Fungus & Celery

Serves 2 with a vegetable side dish

150gr pork loin, sliced thinly
2 stalks of celery, peeled with a vegetable peeler and sliced diagonally
3 pieces of black fungus, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes and chopped roughly
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, skin scraped off and minced 
1 tsp dark soy sauce
2 tbsp light soy sauce 
2 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp cornflour
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of white pepper
50m water
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 stalk of spring onion, whites and greens separated - greens julienned and whites chopped roughly

In a bowl, mix together the rice wine, cornflour, 1 tbsp of light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, white pepper and the pork. Mix together well and set to one side to marinade while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. 

Heat 1 tbsp of the oil in the wok on a high heat until it is smoking. Add the pork and spread around the wok so that the slices get well seared on one side, then turn over and do the same. Remove to a plate - they don't need to be cooked through, as they'll be cooked again. 

Wipe the wok clean and heat the remaining tbsp of oil on a high heat. When it starts smoking, turn down to a medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic and whites of the spring onion and stir-fry briskly for a minute. Turn the heat up high and add the celery and black fungus. Stir fry for 30 seconds, then add a splash of water and stir fry until it is dry. Add another splash of water to repeat. Then, add the pork back in with the remaining tbsp light soy, 50ml water, the pinch of sugar and finally the black vinegar. Stir fry until glossy, about 30 seconds, then remove to a bowl and garnish with the julienned spring onion greens.