Sunday 29 May 2016

A. Wong

Last autumn we went to a cookbook festival. Cookbook Confidential had a bunch of talks, demonstrations and panel discussions, and it was brilliant. Diana Henry and Kay Plunkett-Hogge talked about how to write a cookbook, in such an inspiring way we immediately went home and pre-ordered Kay's book Heat (which has now been released and is wonderful. Diana didn't have a new book out). And Richard Turner, Dan Doherty and Andrew Wong talked about their food heroes.

Paul fell a little bit in love with Andrew Wong. Something about the way he talked about his approach to food really captured Paul's imagination, and he's been keen to get to A. Wong ever since, but somehow dinner in Victoria has never quite been the right thing. But on Friday night we did it.
I started with a Harbin cocktail, which was a take on a margarita - absolutely divine. I ended up having two, because the bottle of Gewurztraminer Paul ordered was so nice he didn't want to share...

We couldn't be bothered with menu reading or decision making, so we ordered the ten course "Tastes of China" menu. Which was, I think, an absolutely brilliant idea.
smoked halibut
Before the ten courses began, we were served a couple of snacks. A little bite of something crisp, with smoked halibut and crunchy jellyfish, and a prawn cracker. It's the first time I've had a prawn cracker that actually tasted of prawn.
Not your average prawn cracker.
Chilli sauces
We were also given a pair of chilli sauces - one made with fermented bean curd, one made with shrimps - but the prawn crackers had so much flavour we only tasted these out of curiosity.

Then the menu proper began. The (completely charming and lovely) waiter introduced each course explaining where the original dish came from and some information about that region of China. Tastiest geography lesson ever.
Dim sum duo.
Dim sum duo
The menu began in Hong Kong, with an incredibly delicate har gau and delicious siu mai. I am not generally a fan of foams, but the light citrus foam on the har gau was a very good friend to the sweet, bouncy prawns. The siu mai was firm and very porky. Neither one bore a lot of resemblance to the dim sum we buy frozen in Asian supermarkets.

The second course was listed as 茶叶蛋 63 degree ‘tea egg’ with shredded filo and satay powder but we were told that Andrew wasn't happy with his eggs and so something else would be served. I'm always absolutely delighted to be told that - even if it is something I am looking forward to, and to be honest, this was the course I had my doubts about because of Paul's known soft egg aversion - it just shows that the chef really cares about the quality of what they are sending out.

Instead, we were served 成都豆腐花 - Chengdu street tofu, soy chilli, peanuts, preserved vegetables. 
Chengdu street tofu
The waiter told us how when he was growing up, little old ladies would travel through the streets with a yoke over their shoulders: fresh soft tofu on one side and a variety of tasty toppings on the other. This was so delicious. This was the dish that tofu naysayers should be offered to cure them of their heresy. The tofu was a light, soft curd, the preserved vegetables gave a toothsome crunch and deep savour, and the peanuts added another level of crunch, fat and flavour. I committed my first crime against table manners for the evening and drank the remaining juice from the little bowl. It was so good I almost wept. I did actually comment to the waitress who cleared our plates that I didn't see how the meal could get any better after a dish like that. It did.

Shanghai steamed dumplings, ginger infused vinegar. 
Shanghai soup dumplings

I have never had a xiao long bao like these. Never made quite as much mess with one either. The "caviar" on top was a spherification of something delicious, I think. Ginger maybe? And in picking mine up I ruptured the silky fine skin and ended up having to drink the broth off my plate. I like to think that the staff viewed it as an appreciation of their skill and not me being a complete pig.

红烧臭鳜鱼, 蝦醬什菜 
Anhui province red braised fermented fish belly with mixed vegetables and dried shrimps
Apparently the thing in Anhui province is fermenting fish for days. Which sounds a bit like Surströmming - so I wasn't at all disappointed when the waiter told us that this was an interpretation of the dish, with the fermented flavour present in the sauce, to be dabbed on the shatteringly crisp fish skin and delicate braised flesh. It was very good, but the best thing about the dish was the accompanying vegetables, cooked with dried shrimp butter. I want to eat those vegetables again and again and again.

What the dish really needed was a bit of bread so we could fare la scarpetta - the sauces were so good and it was sad seeing so much go back to the kitchen. Even a spoon would have helped.

Braised abalone, shitake mushroom, sea cucumber and abalone butter
Braised abalone
I like to think I am a pretty open-minded sort of eater, but  sea cucumber... When I was a child, we had a holiday in the Cook Islands and I am still traumatised by standing on sea cucumbers in the sea around Rarotonga. I was not a bit sure about this dish! But everything else had been so delicious, and the story of how abalone is prized in China for its resemblance to old Chinese gold coins lulled me into taking a bite. And it was very nice. I think the small brown squares were the sea cucumber, but I couldn't really tell. They certainly weren't horrifying. The slices of braised abalone and the slices of shiitake mushroom were very well matched for flavour and texture - tender with a subtle chewiness - the crisp shreds of deep fried greenery added a lovely extra dimension, and the buttery abalone juice was just wonderful. You don't tend to taste much butter in Western Chinese restaurant food, but it's a very nice addition.
Shaanxi pulled lamb ‘burger’ with Xinjiang pomegranate salad
The Muslim population of Shaanxi have contributed lamb dishes, fragrant with cumin, to the cuisine. I've tried it in a couple of different forms: as tender slices of fillet, crusted with cumin; as a murky hotpot with firey sauce and luscious chunks of meat to be sucked from the bones. 

This version - pulled lamb in a rich sauce, with lots of lovely accompaniments, to be stuffed into little buns - was the nicest take on the pulled meat trend that is swamping London restaurants, and a really enticing interpretation of the flavours.
Yunnan seared beef with mint, chilli and lemongrass served with a pulled noodle cracker and truffle
Technology came to the party for this course. Our waiter had an ipad and showed us a short clip of Andrew pulling the noodles for these crackers. Mesmerising. Mine lacked structural integrity (or Paul had a knack that I lacked) and crumbled all over the table and my face, but the flavours and the crunchy noodles topped with soft mushrooms were excellent. If the Yunnan black truffles on top were not augmented with truffle oil, they are the most intensely flavoured truffles I've ever had, I think.
The seared beef with mint, chilli and lemongrass was a tribute to Yunnan's proximity to Vietnam, and the exchange of flavours along that border. It tasted very much like a combination of Chinese and Vietnamese food, with a sweet-ish but not gloopy chilli sauce and the freshness of mint (both raw and fried to crisps) and cucumber.

四川香辣手撕茄子, 宫保雞丁
 Sichuanese aubergine with Gong Bao chicken, roasted peanuts and ‘hot pot’ essence
Gong Bao chicken
I'd lost track of the number of courses we'd had at this point, but as soon as I saw the bowl of rice I knew that this was the last of the savoury dishes. We were instructed to eat the Gong Bao chicken (and told that it was very definitely not Kung Pao or Hong Bao) first, with our fingers, and then the aubergine. Which was most certainly the right way around. The aubergine, perfectly silky and luscious, had so much of the málà numbing fire sensation that I wouldn't have been able to taste the chicken. The plain rice was very welcome as a bit of a palate cleanser before the desserts.

北京 酸奶, 菠蘿
Chilli barbequed pineapple with Beijing street yoghurt

Apparently the reputation that China has for not using dairy products isn't entirely accurate - in Beijing, yoghurt is a very popular street food. This was a very nice one. Tangy but not too sour, a little gingery syrup and a chunk of warm, sweet, spicy pineapple.

雪圓子, 荔枝, 檸檬雪酪
Poached meringue, lychee granite, mango puree and orange sorbet

The final dessert was a cheffy play on the idea that the Chinese finish a banquet with a fruit platter. An orange made from two hemispheres of poached meringue, filled with a blood orange sorbet and coated in a crisp sugar shell. A fresh, perfumed mango mousse, a crunchy lychee granita (definitely to my taste - the aroma of the lychee without the excessive sweetness or slimy eyeball resemblance) and a red envelope of sugared lotus root crisps. We were told that when lotus roots are pulled up they are very long and keep coming and coming, so they are seen as a symbol of longevity. And as oranges are seen as symbolic of wealth, it was a wish for us to be long-lived and prosperous. Which is just about the nicest thing a waiter has ever said to me.
Sugared lotus root crisps
There was one more little treat in store though. A white chocolate mah jong tile, filled with strawberry ice cream. So pretty and just the right touch to end a very memorable meal. 

Friday 20 May 2016

Curtis Stone's asparagus & taleggio omelette

 This week I Heart Cooking Clubs are celebrating "the most important meal of the day" with Curtis Stone recipes. I have to admit that at the moment for me breakfast is most likely to be two very large cups of coffee and possibly a banana, but I do love a really extravagant breakfast or brunch.

On the weekend we generally have two meals a day - a substantial, late breakfast and then an evening meal - and pretty much Paul's favourite thing for the substantial late breakfast is a very cheesy omelette. Curtis Stone's Lazy Asparagus Omelette is just the thing really!

I've written in the past about my favourite frying pan, and how it makes the best omelettes in the world. It really does.

Paul doesn't like a baveuse omelette, so this technique of putting the pan under the grill to finish, which leaves you with something half way between a French omelette and a frittata, is the one I tend to use anyway. My delicious new season British asparagus were really skinny, so  I just sauteed them raw in the butter before adding the eggs. I also reduced the number of eggs, because 12 is too big for that pan and way too much food, really.

The taleggio melted into delicious runny pools, the eggs were just set, and the asparagus brought its wonderful fresh flavour to the party. It's one of those really simple dishes where everything has to be just right, and the combination of butter, eggs, asparagus and cheese was just perfect.

Monday 16 May 2016

Meat-free Monday: Veg platter

This is really just an excuse to show off my new plates. We really wanted something not-white (partly because of over-exposing food pics) and I've been looking for the right thing. These are Mikasa, really cheap on ebay. And very pretty!

I wasn't planning a meat-free meal this evening, but as I walked home the weather was so nice that it seemed like a shame not to light the grill, and my mental inventory of the fridge contained barbecuable veg but not meat. Lovely.

The aubergine I scored, drizzled in the cracks with olive oil and seasoned with salt & pepper, the asparagus I just washed and cut off the woody ends. I made a little tomato salad, with garlic and sherry vinegar, and toasted a few pine nuts. I also mixed a spoonful of fat free Greek yoghurt with some minced garlic and the rind of a preserved lemon.

When the aubergine and asparagus were cooked, a put a splodge of the yoghurt on each plate, put the aubergine on that with the asparagus alongside, and added the tomato salad, some crumbled feta and the toasted pine nuts. Very pretty, very tasty. I really like my new plates!  

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Alphonso Mango Bellinis

Alphonso mangoes
When I saw that Ocado were stocking Alphonso mangoes I bought some, and figured I'd make a decision about what to do with them later. I know people go completely nuts for them when they are in season, but to be honest I've not been that impressed. I've just found them very sweet and very fibrous. Not a patch on the Queensland and Northern Territory mangoes I know best! But there must be a reason they are so popular, so I keep trying to see why.
Gloriously coloured flesh
Since I Heart Cooking Clubs are cooking along with Australian chef Curtis Stone, and mangoes are such a quintessential Australian ingredient, I thought I'd check his recipes and their themes for inspiration. And very conveniently came upon a Mango Bellini, just in time for the Wet Your Whistle round.

Now, a Bellini is usually white peach puree and prosecco, and this version very simply uses fresh mango puree and champagne.

Straining the puree is an important step because the mangoes are so fibrous, so even though my natural inclination is towards laziness I did go to that bit of effort.

Unfortunately I then tried to cut a corner and make the Bellini straight into the glass.

Which makes a heck of a mess and even when the bubbles subside leaves a messy froth of mango pulp around the rim.

So for the second round I followed the recipe properly and mixed it in a jug before pouring it into the glass. But whether messy or tidy, it was absolutely delicious. The dry champagne cuts through the sweetness of the mango, letting the fragrance show through. Just lovely.

Sunday 1 May 2016

Project Brisket

Paul's had a bee in his bonnet lately. For over a month now, any time you walk into our study you will find him glued to youtube watching (mostly) big, (mostly) white, (mostly) men talking about pecan, mesquite, Kansas-style, Texas-style, Carolina-style. He's become obsessed with American barbecue. Specifically barbecued brisket.

We've barbecued a brisket years ago, not at all successfully. With our little Weber we weren't able to control the temperature and it ran too hot, too fast leaving dry, tough meat. Then we tried a hybrid approach, smoking the meat in the barbecue for flavour and finishing with a long slow cook in the oven. That worked very well, but it's been two years and we haven't repeated it.

But I think you've probably noticed that Paul takes his role as Chief Wielder of Fire and Knives quite seriously, and his ability to cook anything on a fire is one of the cornerstones of his identity. Without my even noticing, the brisket had become his white whale.

We ordered a whole packer cut brisket and he took a day off work (although the day off work was mostly planned because of the late finish of the Captain America marathon).
Whole brisket
Brisket point
Brisket flat
Now, a 6kg brisket is actually too big for the hot air to circulate properly in our Weber, and vastly too much food for two people, so Paul trimmed it and cut it in half. As delicious as beef dripping chips are, we're trying not to eat very much of that sort of thing at the moment, so most of the lovely clean white fat is going to go out for the birds. The brisket point is in the freezer and we just cooked the flat.

Since Paul was so invested in his research, I figured I should probably be a useful and supportive partner and do a bit myself. Which consisted of opening Hog and reading the page on live-fire cooking. That gave the inspiration for moderating the heat with pans of water for the indirect cooking. Paul's been worshipping at the altar of Aaron Franklin, where he got the tip that keeping the humidity up is important, and the pans of water helped with that too.
Indirect cooking set-up
A pan of water under the meat, and more directly over the coals (we didn't have a smaller foil pan, so an empty artichoke heart can got washed out and put into service).

A good bit of seasoning rubbed on the meat (although as it turned out, not enough and not massaged in enough)  and away we went.

We'd realised that a really important part of moderating your temperature to keep it low and slow is to actually know what the temperature is. So a thermometer went in as well. And despite all the talk about hickory, pecan and mesquite, we decided that excellent British meat cooked in Britain needed a typically British smoking wood, so we used cherry.

Of course, being a British barbecue we also had to deal with some challenging climatic conditions. Pretty much as soon as we got the lid on the heavens opened, with rain and hail. Still, it was better than Tuesday, when it snowed.  And one of the things that seldom gets mentioned when talking about barbecue is how much impact the ambient temperature has. We can and do barbecue in mid winter, but when it's really cold outside it'd hard to keep the temperature up for the fire to cook anything bigger than a steak. But when you want a long slow cook, a bit of colder air around the kettle isn't a bad thing, and helped us keep the fire between 120C - 150C for the duration of the cook.

After a few hours, when the internal temperature of the meat was 78C, just through the plateau, we wrapped it in foil and kept cooking for another couple of hours. Then it rested until we couldn't bear it any more.
Not bad
Pretty good really

It's actually a tribute to Paul's knife sharpening skills that he was able to cut it into tidy slices, because it was soft as jelly and could have been cut up with the side of a saucer.
Pretty pink smoke ring
We had it with spicy chipotle slaw, pickles, and a chunk of bread for mopping the plate. Absolutely gorgeous (but slightly underseasoned - more salt during the cooking next time).
As tempting as it was to just nibble at the leftovers every time we walked by the fridge, I did something a bit more substantial with them. An old-school Stroganoff, with paprika, brandy, vermouth, lots of mushrooms and a little bit of crème fraiche.    

Brisket Stroganoff


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