Archive for June 2010

Top tips for great jerk

June 27th, 2010 — 11:12am

The question I get asked the most when shopping on Rye Lane is, “do you actually eat those chilli peppers?!” This usually comes from a man of Caribbean background of a certain age; they’re always amazed that this little White English girl even knows what jerk is, let alone makes it in her own home. Cue smiles, wistful eyes and tales from the tropics. Don’t even think about asking for a recipe though, it’s a short cut to the end of the conversation.

I don’t claim to have the best jerk recipe out there; I still aspire to the heady heights of Smokey Jerkey in New Cross, but I have learned a thing or two about cooking it through repeated mistakes, research and tips that people send to me. Here are those things, in a list. A list! With bullet points and everything.

  • Grind your own allspice berries; makes all the difference. It’s all about freshness with spices; ready-ground have the tendency to taste dusty and lose pungency. Pestle the berries yourself in a mortar, they crush easily and you get to suck up the scent while you pound.

  • Use a lot of sugar in your recipe. This tip I picked up from Josh. It was one of those beautiful moments when you work out what your recipe has been missing. I also add a tablespoon of molasses to mine, which gives a dark, sticky quality. Thanks to Laura for that one.
  • Don’t ever, EVER be tempted to use different chillies in place of scotch bonnets. SB’s are the cornerstone of jerk flavour; no other pepper has the same fruity tingle. Just be careful when preparing them and de-seed if you like (I do) . There are actually quite a few varieties of Caribbean chilli (e.g. Trinidad Scorpion, Billy Goat, Jamaican Gold), but we only seem to get the one variety here.
  • Always marinate overnight.
  • Don’t use too much sauce. It’s tempting to leave a thick layer on when you’re grilling but don’t, it will just burn. If you’ve given it a good marinating overnight then the flavour should have seeped right in and all that’s left to do is cook it properly…

  • Cook on a BBQ. The major problem with cooking jerk at home is the lack of a cooking drum. This is a barrel turned on its side and mounted on legs, basically (see above). The jerk is grilled over coals like a BBQ.
  • This is an absolute blinder of a tip – sent on to me by a reader (cheers Joe). Those tantalising wafts of smoke you get coming from the jerk drums?  They come from spritzing the coals – with BEER. This creates more smoke which you can then seal inside with your meat or fish.
  • Same reader, second awesome pointer: throw some soaked pimento (allspice) berries into the coals so when you spray them with the BEER, they sizzle and flavour the smoke.
  • And finally, I find it best to use the indirect BBQ cooking method because this recipe has a lot of sugar in it and any direct flame with burn the shizzle out of it. Build your coals in a pyramid shape in the centre of the BBQ, then when they are lit, leave until they turn white. At this point you can move them to the sides of the BBQ, put your meat in the centre of the grill and put the lid on. The heat will circulate inside but there will be no fat dripping onto coals and therefore no flaring. You can also cook large joints of meat in this way.

And so ends the summary of my jerk-cooking know-how. Now come on, I know there are some tips tingling on your fingertips right now. I can sense it. Tell me.

You can find my current jerk recipe here and I must remind you that The Food Event of The Year is coming up soon – The Jerk Cookout Festival. If you look at my post about it last year, then you’ll see a comment from Joe, who heard a rumour about it being moved to Brockwell Park this year, having outgrown its usual venue – the gardens of The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. Watch this space. I’m all over it.

26 comments » | Barbecue, Beer, Caribbean Food, Food From The Rye, Main Dishes, Meat, Peckham, Street Food

Ants climbing a tree

June 20th, 2010 — 4:33pm

Where there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity, as someone said to me recently. What a delightful little motto that is. I’m all for the power of positive thinking. I’ll spare you the gruesome tedium of reading about my struggles because everyone has enough of their own and really, it won’t do much for your no-doubt gleeful outlook on life. I will deliver all the information you need to receive in just one word: SKINT. Attractive fodder options for me right now are cheap or ideally, free. Frugal cooking skills are being tested. I’ve stopped thinking of foraging as some kind of romantic middle class pursuit and started approaching it in a more desperate, means of survival kind of way. Which is why I’ve been picking ants off trees and using them as a meat substitute.

Obviously I’m joking. For now. ‘Ants climbing a tree’ is the name of a popular Sichuan dish; no insects required. The crumbs of minced pork are said to look like ants climbing up the lengths of mung bean thread noodles; a typically brilliant Chinese moniker for a bowl of spicy chow.

Hands on hips, I stood and assessed the contents of an over-stuffed cupboard. Foraging starts at home and all that. The noodles were a gift from a mate and therefore free. The seasonings (chilli bean paste, soy, chilli oil, garlic etc.), all in house already and so just like the NHS, free at the point of usage. Chicken stock and pork mince were similarly extricated from the back of the freezer; the only ingredients bought on the day were the (essential) spring onions. Result.

Well, almost. The noodles were not mung bean but in the spirit of frugality I subbed them in; a bit of a mistake as they were super-glutinous with a tendency to clump. Not unpleasant but my ants were more gangs hiding in bushes than climbing up trees. The dish is typically Sichuan: boisterous with hot bean paste; salty and aromatic. I couldn’t resist adding a little funky Tianjin preserved vegetable too.

A soft opening then to a challenge which can only get harder as stocks dwindle. I must not cave to the obvious parsimonious choices: baked spuds or beans for example; even worse – together. I can live on very little money, just as long as I don’t get hit where it really hurts. Food is the most primitive of all comforts, as someone or other once said. There’s a big difference between choosing to eat an omelette every so often and actually having to eat one. This is the cusp of a period of culinary creativity at its most stretching; it’s one thing to dream up a dish when you’ve got any ingredient you wish at your disposal, quite another when options are limited. I won’t be shedding any tears over memories of rib-eye steaks or fine wines though. Like I said, no problem, but an opportunity.

Ants Climbing A Tree (this recipe is from Sunflower’s website, which is really reliable. I only made a couple of adjustments, which were to add some preserved vegetable as I am very fond of it and to omit the celery).

200g mung bean/dried glass noodles
2 tablespoons oil
3 cloves chopped garlic
2 tablespoons chilli bean sauce/paste
300g minced pork
1 tablespoon light soy
1-2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon Tianjin preserved vegetable, rinsed and chopped
1 chilli, chopped
1-2 teaspoons chilli oil
300ml chicken stock (or vegetable)
2 spring onions, for garnish
Extra chopped chilli, for garnish

Soak the noodles in warm water for about 15 minutes, with their strings on. Then drain, remove the strings and cut into shorter lengths.

Heat the oil in a pan then add the garlic, ginger and preserved vegetable if using for about 15 seconds then the chilli bean paste until fragrant. Add the pork mince and cook until brown, breaking it up into small pieces with a spoon as you stir and cook it. Add the soy, sugar and chilli (if using), followed by the noodles and stock. Let cook until the noodles have absorbed all the stock.

Garnish with spring onions, extra chilli and chilli oil.

23 comments » | Meat, Noodles, Sichuan

Mexican Wave

June 14th, 2010 — 10:39pm

Ever since I spent a sunny afternoon in Elephant, jamming dribbly tacos into my tequila hole with no concern for public image, staining my clothes or indeed the basic physical function known as breathing, I’ve had Mexican on my mind. Until that day, I just didn’t find a whole heap to get excited about. Let’s face it, most Mexican restaurants in this country are simply depressing; as if the prospect of ’10 ways with grey, sludgy mystery mince and molten cheese’ wasn’t bad enough, you have to face it in a place called something like ‘El Paso’, perched between two MDF cacti.

There are exceptions (Wahaca, Green and Red), but they are thin on the ground and for me, of course, the most pleasure comes from cooking at home. I’ve recently found myself with a copy of Thomasina Miers’ Mexican Food Made Simple and I want to tell you how much I’m loving it, while also trying my darnedest to stray away from clichéd adjectives like ‘fresh’ and ‘colourful’ but I just can’t because, well, it is those things and sod it, while I’m here I might as well just throw ‘vibrant’ into the mix as well.

Sorry. Anyway, the point is I just can’t stop cooking from it. My flat smells permanently of smoked jalapeños and blistered tomatoes. What was I thinking all this time, making salsa without blackening my toms, chillies and garlic in a dry pan first? Idiot. I couldn’t resist squeezing in some Peckham flavour with a bit of habanero action although TM isn’t shy of them herself. Why the fajita was I always charring my habaneros in the oven when I could have just been scorching them in a hot pan for 10 minutes the whole time? Again – idiot.

Do remember to de-seed your tomatoes…

And then there’s the chipotles en adobo. Wrinkled smoked jalapenos, softened and cooked up with herb, spice, sweet and sour, into a smouldering auburn brew which you want to suck up by the tablespoon-full but seriously, don’t – if it goes the wrong way you’re in for a nasty ten minutes. I’ve added it to sandwiches, salsas, mayo and I’ve plans to smother it all over a hunk of pork, slow-cook it, pull it apart into sexy shreds and then stuff it inside rolls and serve it up at my Big Lunch. I know this is going to be good so I’ll practice it several times in the hope that when the day arrives, there will be a chance I’m able to actually give it away to other people.

Maybe I’m slow on the uptake here, but it seems Mexican is only just really taking off in the UK. How many times have you heard a hungry American moan about the lack of anything ‘proper’? For years we’ve faced the grizzly options of ‘Tex-Mex’ or one of those sad little kits from the supermarket: dusty spice meets sweaty, clotted salsa – a congealed slimy lump from a foil-lined envelope. I don’t know, perhaps you’ve all been perfecting your magnificent mole since 1980; your guacamole may be the stuff of legend and whisper; your carnitas once killed a man with pure pleasure. For me though, this is the very beginning of my Mexican wave.

Roast Scotch Bonnet Salsa (adapted from Mexican Food Made Simple by Thomasina Miers)

6 ripe tomatoes
1 scotch bonnet chilli
1 red onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 handful coriander, roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper

In a dry pan, cook the tomatoes, chilli and garlic until blackened and blistered. The tomatoes will take longer than the chilli and garlic cloves. De-seed the chilli and then smash it with the garlic in a pestle and mortar. De-seed the tomatoes and do the same. Finally, sitr in all the other ingredients. If you think it needs a pinch of sugar, add it. Thomasina points out that you can make a salsa like this one in a blender but you lose the rough texture, which personally, I prefer.

To make tostadas, cut circles from tortillas and toast, then fill with meat or fish, plus salsa, avocado, lettuce and sour cream. Chipotle mayo makes a greta combo with smoked mackerel.

Chipotles en Adobo (from the very same)

200g chipotle chillies
1 large white onion, roughly chopped
1 head of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
3 tablespoons fresh oregano or a few pinches of dried
1/2 tablespoons thyme leaves
2 fresh bay leaves
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed
4 tablespoons olive oil
350ml good quality white wine vinegar
50ml good quality balsamic
3 tablespoons tomato puree
7 tablespoons palm or demerara sugar
2 tablespoons sea salt

Wash the chipotles in cold water and drain. Snip of the very tips at the stalk end so that the water can penetrate them more easily. Cover them with water and simmer for 30-40 minutes until soft. Drain and rinse off any excess seeds. (I saved the cooking water here and used it in the next step). Put the onion, garlic, herbs, 200ml of water and the cumin into a blender and bled to a paste.

Heat the oil in a heavy based pan until smoking. Fry the chilli paste for a few minutes stirring all the time. Add the tomato puree, vinegars, sugar, salt and 100ml water and cook for about 5 mins then add the rest of the chillies and cook for a further 15. Test for seasoning (salt and sugar), cool and then pour into sterilised jars.

36 comments » | Healthy, Main Dishes, Mexican Food, Salsa, Sauces, Condiments and Spreads, The Big Lunch

Cocktail masterclass at Rules

June 10th, 2010 — 11:48am

Brian Silva. What a legend. This guy is what you call a ‘serious’ barman. He is most definitely from the old school. His cool, smooth, easy manner oozes the quiet confidence of experience – 30 years of it. Soft, Anglicised-American tones soothe you into your bar seat as he mixes, muddles, shakes and pours. The man seems part of that bar and it is his own, really; he was coaxed from The Connaught to re-open an historic space – once the favourite hideaway of the Prince of Wales and Lillie Langtry; ’tis the stuff of lore and misty daydreams.

Which all makes me feel even more embarrassed that I said the word “fuck” in front of him. Not intentionally you understand, it just slipped out. I was nervous, you see – jittering together a Margarita ‘the Rules way’ (with a touch of Cointreau) – Brian’s mellifluous instruction guiding me and my foul mouth towards green, salted nirvana.  The alcohol had loosened my tongue – we’d had rather a lot by that point, being two thirds of the way into a three hour class which had started with a straight liquor tasting.

The classes take place on weekday afternoons between 2 and 5pm and cost £135 per person for up to four people. It’s a lot of money. So how much bang do you get for your buck? Well, first Brian shows you around behind the scenes; the bar varnished and twinkling with promise of alcoholic alchemy, framed by dark wood, gilt mirrors and animal horns. He whooshes you through spirits; garnishes; the speed rail; the glasses, tools and potions and curios of his own creation. And then it’s down to consumption. You learn how to make at least four classic cocktails, and finally one or two of your own choosing.

Declan McGurk, supplier of liquor (Speciality Brands) to Rules bar, had started the session with a little spirit tasting. Jensen’s Old Tom Gin, made in Bermondsey, was first to blow me away. Jensen developed the recipe by combing the history books and found that traditionally ‘Old Toms’ were never sweetened with sugar (too expensive); the raucous spirit was instead tempered with extra botanicals, which is just what you get from Jensen’s – a sudden spicy thwack on the nose and lengthy herbal flavour. Grant’s Morella Cherry Brandy was another stunner; a scarlet sweetheart, smelling powerfully of Bakewell tart – all almonds and cherries and sticky summer fêtes.

The ‘classics’ were the best I’ve tasted. There are just 10 on the menu – all Brian’s recipes and all with subtle twists. Of course he can make anything you like, as long as it doesn’t contain any kind of fruit purée, or tacky garnish. In the back room he shows us a plastic bag full of paper umbrellas, which he keeps for the people who hack him off; receiving a drink from Brian topped with such a vulgar appendage could only ever be intended as an insult. Martini’s are always stirred, never shaken and come served in traditional, squat conical glasses. A Blue Moon, made with crystallised violets tastes vaguely of the parma sweetie versions I used to neck as a kid. Brian rolls his eyes when I say this and as well he should – this drink is elegant, mysterious and very grown-up.  These cocktails, from this bar, made by this man, are the antithesis of a jug of ‘sex on the beach’ during happy hour at the student union.

There will never be any throwing of bottles, neon lighting or even music in the Rules cocktail bar. It’s the very definition of understated glamour, an oasis amongst the gaggles of teenage tourists, street performers and gift shops of Covent Garden. If you’ve got the money, this city is your playground and if you can afford this class then I urge you to go. If your budget has more in common with mine, then I recommend you treat yourself to a cocktail every now and then – much more accessible at around the £12 mark.

As we were released back into reality, fuzzy warm and unsteady, eyes blinking through the shock of sunlight, I felt as if I’d emerged from the set of an old movie; the star of the show – Brian Silva.

35 Maiden Lane
Tel: 0207 836 5314

Rules on Urbanspoon

For information about the Rules cocktail master class, contact Brian at and please see his comment below.
Classes costs £135 per person, take place on weekday afternoons  from 2-5pm and you can have up to 4 people in a class.
I was invited to try the masterclass free of charge.

18 comments » | Bars/Pubs, Drinks

My top two London restaurants

June 6th, 2010 — 6:37pm

The Ledbury and Chilli Cool. Couldn’t be more different. I often have a little mental wrestle with myself about which style of food is ultimately more satisfying; is it the exacting refinement of fine dining or is it the generosity and un-fussed comfort of home-style? I find it seriously hard to answer that question.

The Ledbury is Brett Graham’s elegant double-starred restaurant in Notting Hill; Chilli Cool is a cheap, slightly scruffy and oil-slicked (literally, all over the floor – be careful on the stairs) Sichuan joint in King’s Cross. The sleek theatre of the higher-end restaurant is addictive, but there’s something about the less formal meal that feels so nourishing. It zooms in on your comfort zone and harpoons it, right at the heart.

My recent birthday lunch at The Ledbury was exquisite – squid in ravioli sounded weird but was just the right kind of bouncy, like an understated Thai-fish-cake-bouncy. Teeny ribbons of wild garlic peeped through skin thin pasta; crisp baby radishes bobbed in sweet squid consommé. It looked like a plate made for a princess. Duck was just the softest meat I’ve ever eaten, garnished with glassy slices of sweet and sour grape. A honey and gingerbread souffle was, well…just look at it. The most perfect tower of eggy fluff I ever ate; whipped through with nuggets of gingerbread, the honey waiting golden and sticky down below. Thyme ice cream steadily pervaded, perhaps a little too much. This was all the set lunch by the way (£27.50, 3 courses), although you still feel as special as if you’d ordered the tasting menu.

While The Ledbury coddles and cossets your belly to capacity, Chilli Cool hits it running. Crispy fried chilli pig’s intestines anyone? Tubular chunks of pork bomb, plain and simple. The best pieces crunch then yield to a gelatinous chewy interior. Contrast is everything in Sichuan cuisine. A typical table bears the weight of hot and cold dishes. Shredded raw potato is lustrous and slippery; dry fried beans, blistered and hot; chunks of grouper and tofu swim in the oil of a fiery hotpot while cold slivers of pork belly suck up a mashed garlic sauce which will stain absolutely anything indelibly. Fiery and numbing dishes buddy up with cooling cuke salad and wobbly fungus dappled with sesame oil. They do things with aubergines that make me want to shed a little tear of joy. Oh, and I’ve never spent more than £20 in there, including beers.

There’s no hint of pretension or ego, the food has serious complexity and above all it’s a blast. This is what my top two have in common.

Consider The Ledbury’s celeriac baked in ash – ceremoniously cut open at table before plating; an exciting little show. Bacon and onion mini brioche rolls are to die for and have that sugar and swine combination that makes me giggle with delight; think Bompas and Parr’s bacon doughnuts, or candied bacon ice cream. Their strawberry and hibiscus Bellini and doughnut at last year’s Taste of London was the dish that hooked me in; we giggled and chattered over it like a pair of excited monkeys.

So many places disappoint with the mundane. Food may be perfectly cooked and yet duller than the thud of the neighbouring fat cat’s wallet hitting the table. And don’t get me started on atmosphere; I don’t care how life-changing the food is supposed to be, if the place is stuffy, I won’t be visiting. I need it to make me smile. The best restaurants are playful but not gimmicky; confident and slightly cheeky. In the end I suppose I’ve managed to answer my question: it’s not really a case of preferring either style, but one of accessibility and heart and most of all, fun.

Chilli Cool
15 Leigh street
0207 383 3135

Chilli Cool on Urbanspoon

The Ledbury
127 Ledbury Road
0207 792 9191

The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

15 comments » | Restaurant Reviews

A whole lamb (cooked in a pit)

June 3rd, 2010 — 9:35pm

Boys, eh? They just love cooking outdoors. Man make fire blah blah blah. HE always takes charge of the BBQ, apparently. What a load of old twaddle. If I’m having a BBQ, there’s only one person brandishing the tongs and unsurprisingly, that’s me. It’s one of those infuriating and pointless distinctions like the one between ‘man food’ and ‘woman food’. Yes, that’s right dear, you chow down on that juicy hunk of cow flesh while I nibble at a few lettuce leaves and remember to look pretty.

I’ve come across this idiotic stereotypical bullshit in relation to the book (Gastronaut by Stefan Gates) that inspired Danny a.k.a The Food Urchin to cook a whole lamb in a pit in the ground. The book is a bible for the adventurous cook; you’ll find methods for making your own biltong, instructions for fashioning a smoker from a biscuit tin and of course how to cook salmon in your bathtub. It’s the kind of book that some men like to think women won’t get involved with.

Danny, by the way, is not guilty of making any such ridiculous assumptions, he’s a bloody nice bloke and I’m not just saying that because he invited me and about 30 other people round to share the lamb, all because we once cooked for him as part of this project.  Myfanwy was her name and eating her was our tasty game.

The ‘pit’, called an ‘Imu’, is apparently popular in Polynesia, where people traditionally filled the pit with hot volcanic rocks which stored the heat nicely. Stefan recommends using bits of iron as a replacement but Danny used some of the bricks you find inside storage heaters – a stroke of genius I think you’ll agree. She cooked for 9 hours in that pit; not a peep from her. Not a teasing waft of smoke or indeed any heat – apparently the ideal situation. And when it was finally time, the raising up was quite a spectacle; not unlike raising a corpse I thought to myself, before realising that was exactly what was happening. Myfanwy, God rest her soul, nestled firmly into the shell of a shopping trolley, was shovelled, huffed and lifted out by five capable and excitable men. Us women just stood by and looked pretty.

What emerged was the most incredibly fragrant and tender meat. Nine hours hunkered down in close quarters with a gang of root vegetables and a bushel of rosemary gave Myfanwy the sweet perfume she deserved and the totally confined cooking method rendered the meat the texture of pulled pork. We fought the cats for falling scraps.

My contribution to the meal was some baba ganoush, which went down really rather well hence me deciding to share the recipe. The key to a gorgeous baba is to blacken those aubergines as much as possible; you want them collapsed, wheezing,  juicing and charred all over. The best way to achieve this, I think, is to stick them directly onto the gas flame on a cooker; it’s much quicker than grilling and never fails to achieve the desired effect. It makes a right mess of course but you’re rewarded with a super smoky baba. Priorities, priorities.

If you want to cook your own lamb in a pit, or indeed a goat, pig or deer, then I suggest you contact Danny. He’s the man who’s done it after all and he can warn you about any pitfalls (sorry). Gastronaut is also one for the wish list. Don’t be daunted, you can start with the small challenges and work your way up to your own Welsh beauty; why not consider a spot of home made cheese making? A bash at creating some biltong? Or perhaps you’d like to fashion a smoker from a biscuit tin.

Hats off to Danny though, he is now, in my eyes, the Bear Grylls of the culinary world. I’ll have to delve into that book sharpish and redress the balance for the sisterhood. The bit where Stefan travels around the human body though, giving pointers on the best way to ingest the fluids and scrapings from almost every orifice, is strictly the territory of the man folk. I mean, seriously ladies, some things really are a man’s job.

Baba Ganoush

6 large aubergines
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 lemons
1 handful mint leaves, chopped
1 handful parsley leaves, chopped
4 tablespoons yoghurt (or more to taste)
6 tablespoons tahini (I like a good whack but you may want less)
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
Salt and pepper
A slug of olive oil

Pierce the aubergines with a fork and place directly on the gas rings of a hob (1 per ring), or put them under a grill, turning occasionally until blackened all over and collapsed. Remove to a plate and let cool slightly, then scrape the flesh from inside, leaving any bits of blackened skin and liquid on the plate behind. Blend with all the other ingredients and season and adjust as necessary. You may want to add more lemon, yoghurt or salt for example.

Allow to sit for a few hours before serving with hot flat breads or pittas and ideally, a pit-roasted lamb.

19 comments » | Barbecue, Meat, Sauces, Condiments and Spreads, Vegetables

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