Thursday, May 31, 2007


hoxton cool/not cool. hoxton's definitely not cool when you're trying to park your car. the islington and hackney parking planners must have had a field day, drawing arbitrary lines in deciding which bits they would trap unsuspecting car owners in paying exorbitant metered rates while as a joke including just across the street, or in some cases on the same street itself, bits where it was free to park. i'm convinced they must have applied principles gleaned from the study of the venus fly trap plant.

having finally found a free parking spot in a council estate almost half a mile from the restaurant and tottered over in my very nice heels only to find that there was an abundance of free parking spaces right in front of bacchus itself, i finally slunk in to grovel my apologies to the understandably miffed LS who had been nursing his pastis cocktail while enduring my tardiness for the greater part of half an hour. the shame. but all was soon forgotten when we ordered two tasting menus and the fun began when they brought out a martini glass with an extremely green pea puree topped with a sliver of dried enoki mushrooms.

nuno mendes, the chef at bacchus, had previously worked at el bulli, and this was reflected in the espuma in the form of a dashi foam which came with our first course, a red snapper tartare, edamame and fake shark's fin. foam is interesting - it disappears almost instantaneously leaving only an aftertaste as the bubbles pop away on your tongue. we both loved the second course which was pork jowl, black radish, a large prawn and leek puree, though admittedly only after our initial scepticism as we poked away at the pansy petals which topped the dish and and demanded assurance of safety from the waiter.

next up was another martini glass, filled with an egg which had been cooked at some ridiculously low temperature which our waiter explained to us ensured that the egg cooked evenly. the egg came with hon shimeji, which gave me the opportunity to tell LS gleefully that hon shimeji contains trace amounts of arsenic. the egg also came with a glass of Riesling which the chef insisted we have to counteract the protein richness. would this breach my no-alcohol-until-i-arbitrarily-decide-so-unless-it's-in-food rule? i quickly decided it wasn't a breach - it was after all a very small but extremely delicious glass of Riesling and the chef was right - we needed it.

i realised with (mock) horror that we were only half way through the meal. our fourth dish was warm cod, black paella paint, tomato hearts, potatoes and a swipe of pea puree. it was an interpretation of fish and mushy peas not to forget. while it was slightly disconcerting to have the fish covered in a black squid-ink coloured goop, it was delicious and smelt divine and i was sorry to have to eat the rather pretty presentation of it all. this was followed by lamb shoulder, kappa, goat's cheese and a hazelnut powder. it was a tad rich but the meat was tender, though the dish as a whole lacked a bit of bite or texture as everything seemed to merge into softness, but it might have been simply that the fact we were now extremely full had resulted in decreasing marginal utility. finally, desert in the form of a black olive financier, roasted pear ice cream and milk poached pine nuts which gave me yet another chance of torturing LS with more useless trivia as i gave him a potted rendition of the history of financiers.

it was altogether a lovely, relaxed, well paced and very affordable meal for what it was and also an interesting experience of molecular gastronomy which will tide me to the day i can finally justify the cost of dining at el bulli or the fat duck, or the next time i go to bacchus. and as long as i'm parking right outside the bacchus the next time i come, i think hoxton's cool afterall.

Monday, May 28, 2007

waiter, there's something in my...

there’s a first time for everything. my first ever foodblogging event. very exciting. been plotting this ever since I read about this event on is my blog burning. cooksister’s hosting this event “waiter, there’s something in my…” and the theme is stuffed vegetables/fruits. nothing like a little time pressure to get me actually doing anything. tomorrow is the final deadline for submission, I am naturally doing this only at midnight the night before.

as this is my first ever foodblogging event, I have decided to follow instructions assiduously, including the one to stuff an eggplant.

stuffed egglplant tempura

one eggplant
20 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ tsp cornflour
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 egg yolk
1 tsp sesame oil
500ml sunflower oil for deepfrying

tempura batter
100g flour
200ml ice-cold water
1 egg yolk

blend the shrimp, cornflour, egg yolk, soy sauce and sesame oil in a food processor till a sticky paste is formed. lightly whisk the flour, ice-cold water and egg yolk for the tempura batter until smooth. keep the shrimp paste and tempura batter refrigerated until needed. it’s imperative that the batter is kept cold till just before frying.

slice the eggplant into ½ inch thick slices, and make a slit within each slice to form a pocket for stuffing the shrimp paste. if this proves too fiddly, an alternative is to slice the eggplant into ¼ inch slices and make to sandwich the shrimp paste between two eggplant slices. sprinkle a little salt onto the surfaces of coat the stuffed eggplant slices in the tempura batter and deep fry till a light golden colour. drain and keep warm till served. sprinkle with sea salt. I used some of the excess stuffing in tiny chillies which were cooked in the same way.

I served my eggplant tempura on a bed of buckwheat soba noodles which had been dressed in soy sauce and dashi and a trickle of sesame oil, but the tempura would also be delicious eaten over a hot bowl of freshly steamed rice with a drizzle of soy sauce.

the shrimp paste can be used to stuff other vegetables and even tofu, and had I not gone the deepfryer route, the shrimp stuffed eggplant (sans tempura batter) could also have been steamed, and then finished panfrying lightly.

tempura must be eaten hot, and there is honestly no shame in standing over the stove, chopsticks and dipping sauce in hand to eat the freshly tempura-ed stuffed eggplant slices as y and i did.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

brownie points

i've learnt this week how important it is to kiss. not so much the lip puckering action, but simply that it’s important to keep-it-simple-stupid. it's a lesson i've learnt after a week of brownie experimenting and subjecting various lovely ladies at slavedrivers inc. and other long suffering friends to a horde of not quite successful brownies, involving at one stage a rather suspicious looking white chocolate and matcha affair that when asked to guess what flavour it was, my boss said the green brownie tasted of seaweed.

so it's back to basics. this basic brownie recipe from Mark Bittman's book “How to Cook Everything” is as simple as baking brownies gets. it produces a lovely moist, dense and gooey brownie - and that’s probably all you should want a brownie to be really.

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
4 ounces butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
½ cup flour
pinch of salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

melt chocolate and butter in a bowl set over boiling water and stir till smooth. mix in sugar and beat eggs in one at a time. fold in flour, salt and vanilla extract. bake in a greased tin which has been lined with foil in a preheated oven at 180C for 20-25 minutes till just barely set in the middle. cool completely before cutting and eating. patience is a virtue because this brownie improves with being chilled overnight in the fridge. mark bittman calls for an 8-inch square pan, but if you’re much too lazy to go scavenging for one as I was, a loaf tin works just as well, and it produced a deeper brownie, which meant an increased brownie surface area in each slice.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

gingerly chicken

gingerly. the oxford english dictionary defines the word gingerly to mean “in a careful or cautious manner”. i wondered, as i made up a dish of ginger chicken, what does carefulness or caution have to do with ginger – the ugly, knobly rhizome used as a spice, flavouring and candy. ginger isn’t a root, it’s a rhizhome, which for the botanically challenged, is the horizontal stem of a plant from which the roots and shoots emerge.

it was one of those dishes that i had made up in my head in between drafting rather dull documents, and was most pleasantly surprised with its result. the ginger paste marinade acted as a tenderiser and the slow, low temperature cooking meant that the chicken took its time in absorbing the flavours as it cooked gently. the chicken was juicy, tender and fell off the bones in a very satisfying manner. eaten with its juices mixed into freshly steamed white rice, it was, if i may say so, the business.

ginger chicken

4 inch sized knob of ginger
the white bits of 4 scallions
glug of sunflower oil pinch of salt

4 chicken legs
salt, pepper, sesame oil

make a paste out of the ginger, white bits of scallion and glug of oil by processing in a blender till fine and resembling pesto. marinate the chicken legs overnight in the paste, seasoning appropriately with salt, pepper and sesame oil. place legs in a dutch oven with a heavy lid and into a pre-heated oven at 150C for 90-120 minutes until juices run clear and meat falls off the bone. eat with the juices from the pan drizzled into a bowl of freshly steamed white rice.

a little more google based research led me to find out that the root of the word gingerly has nothing at all to do with (the non-root) ginger. it comes from the latin gentius which means well-born. the current meaning of the word as we now know it only came about in the 1600s. example of use in sentence: i ate my chicken gingerly so as not to waste any of its scrumptious yumminess.

tom's kitchen

while driving west via the throngs of tourists at westminster on a grey sunday morning, i started wishing i lived in a village - the sort of hypothetical, ideal tourist free village where one could walk over to the neighbours for a cup of tea and a chat at a whim and where the village pub/community centre was a mere horse/tractor ride away and saturday nights involved barn dances with the village farmer hunks. the sort of close-knit community where meeting up with your mates was within walking/tractor-ride proximity. i was particularly hankering after village life, as i mused how life in london sometimes meant you had to diarise lunch with your mates a month in advance, where table reservations on a weekend were quite often impossible with less than a week's notice, and the whole business of traversing town involved battling the tube, traffic and tourists. it was enough to make me give up all social life in favour of staying home with george. i suppose, however, that my hypothetical village would probably not have tom's kitchen. and that cheered me up a little as i continued plodding on westwards.

tom's kitchen was delightful - it might not have had the sophistication of tom aiken's eponymous restaurant, but it was a lovely place for a chatty sunday lunch. the tables were cosily placed without being claustrophobic or giving us the full disclosure of conversations on the next table and the bright airy room was decorated with an easy manner about it. the canvas prints of farm cows and pigs made for lovely viewing and we were able to watch the bustle of kitchen activity from our table.

we both had milkshakes which were light, foamy and really refreshing. LS's banana shake and my vanilla - tasted respectively of the flavours they were meant to embody and it was definitely a cut above the usual anonymous affairs of melted ice-cream. LS insisted on starting with a pain au raisin and giving me his potted explanation of why it was a perfect starter for sunday brunch which i ignored and declined to sample. perfect starter indeed. rather than arguing or prolonging the ordering process, we both went for braised lamb shoulder which came with a lovely pot of creamy cheesy potato gratin. it was well seasoned, tender and tasty with a nice bite, and the gravy was thick and caramelly without being annoyingly viscous. the potato gratin was a heart attack in a cast iron cocotte involving thin potato slices layered with cream and an abundance of cheese and baked till golden and bubbly. i was at this point actually pleased LS had his ridiculous starter, because he decided to forego part of his gratin which i scoffed greedily. it was altogether a rather comforting lunch as i caught up with the latest goings on in LS's life in the month since we last met up. we were much too full to sample their puds, but i'd spied french toast on their hearty breakfast/brunch menu which i'd happily make a return trip for.

i suppose my village living ambitions dissipated with the abatement of my pre-lunch hunger induced grumpiness. i decided very soberly that i'd probably not be very good at driving a tractor as i surveyed the results my horrendous parking skills. which is just as well, as my hayfever and incessant sneezing at the barn dances probably wouldn't give me very good odds with the hunky farmers.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

the simple life

“don’t eat it with a fancy sauce. yes. simple… olive oil, garlic….perfecto. this pasta is very tasty by itself” warned the italian lady at the la tua pasta stand at borough market this morning as she bagged up my pack of tagliolini al Nero di sepia. simple suits me fine. i had a pack of chorizo and a couple of defrosted prawns begging to be eaten, and this was going to be their day.

it couldn’t be simpler. finely chopped chorizo was fried till crisp in a splash of olive oil which rendered out the spicy chorizo oil in which I sautéed some thinly sliced garlic, flash fried the lightly seasoned prawns and tipped in the cooked squid ink tagliolini. a quick toss and I ate it all with a fork in front of a CSI rerun. i love simple.

Nice is nice

i had been looking forward to lunch at le chantecler since december last year when in a fit of insanity i signed up to do the half-marathon in Nice.

I felt immediately under-dressed as I stepped into the rather plush room which had a portrait of louis xv smirking rather condescendingly at the diners. the other diners in the restaurant were decked out in suits and formal wear which I thought rather odd until I realized they were having a celebratory post-wedding lunch of some sort when the wedding cake was wheeled out. any initial discomfort soon disappeared as the lovely maitre’d brought me to my table and explained the menu to me in perfect English, thus eliminating need for embarrassing myself with my extremely limited french or the use of babelfish which I had saved onto my blingberry.

lunch started with an amuse bouche of a shotglass of cold gazpacho and basil cream, a tiny tapenade topped toast and a pastry straw. I couldn’t help myself as I dunked the pastry straw into the shot glass and was pleasantly surprised to come across meaty chunks of shrimp embedded at the bottom of the shot. the waiters must have thought me mad as I was grinning with pleasure after that lovely shot of refreshment. i started with a trio of farçis – little tomatoes stuffed with tomato mousse, tapanade and basil cream in a tomato sauce, this was followed by braised beef with summer vegetables and a zucchini pissalidiere. for pudding i chose a lovely chocolate fondant with its melty middle and vanilla ice-cream. they brought out a tiered tray of petit fours at the end but I was much too full to eat any of it, which was a real shame. I did think about it, but decided in the interests of not inducing further bemused looks from the waiters against sweeping the petit fours into my handbag. apart from the beef and pissalidiere being a tad too salty, the meal was an absolute pleasure and a lovely way to start my weekend in nice.

the half-marathon had long ceased to be the focus of my weekend when i realized my general slothful lack of self discipline left me ill-prepared and under-trained. as such, i threw out all basic principles of pre-race nutrition as i went in search of socca for dinner. socca is a provençal pancake dating from 1860 made from chickpea flour cooked over a copper pan. wandering amongst the cobbled streets of vieux nice, i finally settled upon one of the many purveyors, and ate the whole socca made for deux personnes on a wooden bench in place rossetti which admittedly I settled upon because it was where Glacier Fenocchio was situated. it was a hard choice, choosing from the range available which spanned from the more conventional chocolate, to the rather bold beer, tomato and rosemary flavours. i settled in the end for vanilla, poive, rose. i had misread poive for poire and was expecting bits of pear, and so was extremely surprised when the first lick left a peppery aftertaste. the flavours did work, despite my initial skepticism as I realized my error. the bits of pepper adding a subtle sharpness against the softness of vanilla and rose.

I treated myself to a post-race pizza, and after a nap on the pebbled beach, took further advantage of the prevalent italian influences and had a daube of beef with gnocchi for dinner before I reluctantly left the sunshine of Nice and flew back to london.

Nice is nice. I loved wandering amongst the little streets in vieux nice, walking along the promenade, and just sitting on the pebbled beach looking out into the Mediterranean. I met lovely locals went out of their way to give me directions and point me to the right places to go, including a really lovely lady whom I chatted with on the airport express who was so eager to show me where to go that she left her luggage on the bus. my very slow jog gave me the pleasure of running the last couple of miles with two lovely veterans, who, despite my very best efforts and stuttering french, persisted in thinking that singapore was part of china. they were perfect gentlemen, and at the finish line, insisted that I go first. it was all a laugh really, as they kissed me after the race and we looked out into the sea eating post-race bananas and stretching and I gave up arguing as they continued insisting on their flawed geographical views.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

misophobe to misophile

ミソ ラメン were the first words i asked my japanese language tutor teach me in my language lessons before my secondment to tokyo. for the hiragana/katakana illiterate - those five words mean miso ramen and was to prove essential knowledge in our post-partying all nighters as we stumbled into ramen bars, pushing the buttons on the ubiquitous ramen vending machines which eliminated the need to speak any japanese at all.

miso was one of the foods i had an irrational fear of as a child. i have memories of eating meals off an airplane shaped plate at the japanese association in singapore, and staring at the cloud of miso confusion which was served in the lacquered bowl. it seemed to move. and if you're a child, any food which moves is potentially scary. besides, if you think about what miso actually is, it's not that pleasant a thought: miso is a brown paste produced by fermenting soybeans, salt and mould. MOULD. this mould, they claim is good for you. you also get other variants involving fermented rice or barley, and i've seen miso pastes made from fermented chickpeas. This variance is compounded by the myriad of fermenting processes that have developed since japanese monks started making miso in the 7th century.

i suppose i truly got over my miso-phobia while ensconced in tokyo. i was confronted with miso every day and became enamoured with its diverse forms as i ate my way through elaborate keiseki courses in ryokans involving rather intense but intricate tasting miso glazes, Nobu's miso black cod, miso flavoured yakitori skewers in izakayas, chanko nabe in sumo-town, uncountable bowls of miso ramen and miso soup with clams at the sushi bars in tsukiji. it soon also became a comfort food as i made up a dish involving pasta shells, miso paste, eggs and whatever was lurking in the fridge - a dish which convinced my mom when she was visiting to doubt the prospects of ever marrying me off as no man in his right mind would want to eat what i had just cooked.

having worked rather unsociable hours over the bank holiday and the consequence of very little sleep, i was in search of comfort, and i sought the earthy depth of miso. having moved past the pasta shell phase in the year since i left tokyo, i decided to use the chicken legs i had defrosted in the optimistic hope of being able to eat my meals in the comfort of my home rather than at my desk at slavedrivers inc. optimism indeed.

i took the meat off the bone and marinated it in miso paste, sugar and sesame oil before pan frying it, skin side down till crisp. on hindsight, i would probably have been better off broiling the chicken under the grill which would have avoided the splatter that ensued. pan frying though did have its advantages, as i was immediately left with a pan full of chicken juices which i deglazed with a splash of water, stirred in some of the remaining marinade, an extra spoonful of sugar and brought to a bubble till it was caramelly and thick. a handful each of sesame seeds and chopped chives, and a little water was added to finish the sauce. the extra spoonful of sugar added a welcome roundness to the sauce and i must say it was very comforting to eat as i drizzled it over the chicken and a bed of rice noodles.
*if you're wondering what the dark shape at the top left of the picture is, it's curious george.