Sunday, October 24, 2010

My vegetable romance: the best marinade for grilled vegetables (verdure alla griglia)

ack in my Bangkok days, when I was still veg(etari)an, my staple diet was naturally Asian: mostly Thai and Chinese. Once in a while, I would also take to ransacking other restaurants in search of something I could sink my herbivorous teeth in.

One sultry (there they all are!) evening, I went on a date to one of Bangkok's fanciest Italian restaurants. My date was quite perplexed as per where to take me out to, as my militant vegan stance wouldn't have allowed anything animal-derived into my digestive system. Ah, the extremes of youth!

Italian is the favourite cuisine with a lot of Western vegetarians. A lot of dishes are vegetable-based, it is tasty, colourful and offers a reasonable variety of dishes. France is vegetarians' hell, Italy is their paradise. So, this Italian place was an almost inevitable choice.

It must have been my first encounter with real Italian alta cucina. Ridiculously overpriced, cooked to perfection, immaculately presented food served in a converted city mansion, enjoyed with the capital's swishest crowd. Of all the truly exquisite dishes, I was somehow most impressed with my starter, grilled vegetables. After the intense flavours of Thai food, it was quite a revelation that something so simple and unadorned with hardly any spice or herbs - and no chilies in sight! - could be so delicious. It was such a long while ago that now I don't quite remember how I got hold of the recipe. One thing I know is that this marinade makes vegetables taste exactly like on that memorable date.

So here is the recipe:
  1. A dab of sea salt, a generous dash of aceto balsamico bianco, a lot of freshly grounded black pepper, a nice pinch of powdered garlic, a liberal glug of olive oil. I also use some fish sauce and a drop of liquid smoke, but you don't need to.

  2. Let it all sit in a deep bowl until it all dissolves, then whisk into a homogeneous liquid .

  3. In the meantime, slice zucchini, aubergines, pumpkins, fennel, onions, tomatoes and bell peppers, evenly and equally thick. Add a few pods of haricot beans. I also use shiitake mushrooms. Portobellos come out very nice too.

  4. Marinate the vegetables for 15-20 minutes, not more, otherwise they become soggy.

  5. Heat a ribbed skillet on a very strong fire. A gas stove is essential here as an electric one won't give you a high enough temperature.

  6. Grill the vegetables until they are nicely seared on the outside. They taste best al dente, slightly crunchy inside, so mind not to overcook.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tea leaf eggs, pig's blood cake and candied apple on a stick! - Taiwanese Food Fête, London 2010 - 第十四屆臺灣迎新小吃節 (英國倫敦)

I can't remember much what I ate in Taiwan, it was such a long time ago. I remember stinky tofu (臭豆腐, chou doufu) we bought somewhere in the mountains. It was delightfully flavourful, nothing stinky at all. I also remember the spicy steamboat (火鍋, huǒ guō ) we had in Taoyuan. Precious little, in other words. So it was about time I had refreshed my memories, when this Taiwanese Food Fête cropped up in my scheduler.

A long journey to W2, so away from my hunting grounds. I don't even know what the area is called. Somewhere-in-the-West. The top floor of a council-run community centre looks like a big student canteen, only today there's no bangers and mash on the menu. Instead, I am starting with "tea leaf eggs" (茶葉蛋, cha ye tan): eggs boiled with tea leaves, aniseed, cinnamon, fennel seeds, cloves and Szechuan peppercorns. Sound better than your scrambled eggs? It tastes better too!

It's about 12PM now, just the right time for some gyoza or jiao-zi as they are properly called in Chinese. See, normally it's a lunch kind of food, part of the dim sum family. This particular kind is called 煎餃, jian jiao, stuffed with dog's meat. Not! Just yanking your chain. It's just your common-or-garden fried dumplings with chicken and veg.

You-fan (油飯 ), "oil rice" is a Taiwanese specialty. It is steamed glutinous rice with mushrooms and chicken, flavoured with five-spice and soya soy sauce.

Pig's blood cake (豬血糕, zhu xie gao) sounds gorier than it actually is. From a distance, it resembles a chocolate ice cream on a stick. The main ingredient is glutinous rice, which helps keep its shape. It is coated with crushed peanuts and chopped coriander leaves immediately before consumption.

Candied fruit (拔丝水果, basi shuiguo) is a traditional Chinese treat sold from street stalls. A pretty healthy snack, unless you are one of the white-sugar-hating brigade.

Now, 'tis time to retreat to my den and digest all these Taiwanese goodness before my kundalini-yoga class starts.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Les cadeaux de Brixton: why I live here

Tis again the time of the year when I get all sentimental about les cadeaux de l'automne, the gifts of the autumn. I love the generous maturity of this season, the contrast of warm colours and cold air, the earthy smells of fallen leaves and seasonal produce. Last year, I went to the market and, at the spur of the moment, bought two bags of autumnal produce: a pumpkin, parsnips, root celery, chestnuts, Brussels sprouts,

This year I choose to rejoice in the grand affordability of Brixton. The whole display on the picture:

  • 6 bell peppers,
  • 8 vine tomatoes,
  • 3 ears of sweet corn,
  • 3 bunches of spinach
  • and a huge bunch of fresh mint
only cost me 6 pounds 59 pence!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Gaeng som cha om kai: something hot in a cold country (แกงส้มชะอมชุบไข่ทอด)

I rarely cook the same dish two times back to back. With all the diversity available to us these days, it would be a shame to get stuck in a culinary rut. Moreover, my penchant for dietary diversity is in line with the little theory that I have recently developed. See, most of us eat the same stuff , week in, week out. It will be mostly what we like, what we know how to cook, or what is available in our local supermarket.

That kind of skewed pattern of food intake deprives our bodies of a multitude of nutrients. Your body, like a house, needs constant maintenance and you need as many various amino acids, polysaccharides and enzymes as possible to make sure that you keep the temple of your soul in the best possible condition.

This week the sunny and crispy cold weather in London has put me in the mood for some spicy food. The contrast between the chilly air outside and the warm, fuzzy glow of chilli peppers and ginger inside is one of the greatest carnal pleasures. I decided to whip up some gaeng som (แกงส้ม, alternative spellings: kang som, kaeng som, gang som) - spicy-and-sour Thai soup normally served with an acacia omelette. I cooked it on Sunday, to give my cold limbs a perk after a nice afternoon hang-out in Regent's Park, and then once again on Wednesday for a dear guest.

Here, in one serving, I had a most cosmopolitan congregation: mussels from New Zealand, rice from India, shrimp from Greenland, eggs from Britain, fish sauce and tamarind from Thailand, tomatoes from Italy and onions from Egypt. To paraphrase Confucius: "有菜自远方来,不亦乐乎?" ("When food comes from afar, is that not delightful?")

So here is the recipe:

Kai cha om (ไข่ทอดชะอม) (acacia omelette)
  1. Take 100 g fresh cha-om (see the picture below) and pinch off the soft leaf parts and the most tender twigs. Discard the branches and stems. Watch out for the thorns!
  2. Tear cha-om in two half-inch pieces and fold 4 fresh free-range eggs and a dab of fish sauce.
  3. Heat a skillet, cover the bottom with a bit of vegetable oil and, when the oil is hot, tip the egg and cha-om mix.
  4. When the omelette is ready on one side, flip it over and wait until the other side gets nicely golden brown.
  5. When ready, remove from the fire and cut into inch-by-inch squares.

Gaeng som (แกงส้ม):
  1. Peel one medium red onion, half a head of garlic, one-inch piece of ginger. Mince it all with 3-4 prik kee noo peppers in a mortar, and mix with juice of one lime, half a glass of tamarind juice, a tablespoonful of kapi (shrimp paste, crucial for the right flavour!) and a nice glug of fish sauce.
  2. Marinate whatever you are planning to put in the soup - shrimp, shellfish or fish - for at least half an hour.
  3. Bring 2 glasses of water to a boil, add a handful of haricot beans and a few garden eggs cut in quarters.
  4. Add the marinating mixture (1) to the soup, simmer gently for a couple of minutes, then add a can of chopped tomatoes and the fish/shellfish.
  5. Gently simmer for a few more minutes.
Serve gaeng som in a bowl topped with a pieces of omelette and freshly steamed rice on side.

Now for the soundtrack: Something Hot In A Cold Country by Echobelly

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Culinary espionage: Mrs. Mahmoud's secret couscous recipe

There is this Sudanese lady in my apartment block who exudes motherly kindness as she glides around unhurriedly in resplendent multi-layered robes. A year ago I was sitting at my Nigerian neighbour's place having a nice friendly banter, trying, as usual, to outshout a Nigerian music channel on TV and two simultaneous mobile phone conversations, when she popped by with a big bundle in her hands. No, that was not an illegitimate baby, but a large pan wrapped in towels to keep it warm. Inside was the most aromatic and scrumptious couscous that ever hit my nostrils or touched my taste buds.

Let's be honest with ourselves, couscous may be a hip food these days, but most of times it tastes like wet sand and smells like old clothes. Even when cooked at home, following the instructions on the package blindly: "boil water, add couscous, let it sit on the stove for a while", results in lumpy gunk none more illustrious than the anaemic supermarket variety.

That is why Mrs. Mahmoud's couscous was a revelation. I had to know how she managed to turn something so bland and unexciting into a fiesta of taste buds titillation. However, all my subsequent attempts to elicit the recipe from her were to no avail. Not she was unfriendly or secretive. She was too shy.

I had had it before and I still get it all the time. When I ask my African neighbours for recipes the immediate reaction is: 'Why would a White guy ever want to cook African food?' 'Well, because it tastes so blooming good!
' Any request to teach me a Yoruba phrase or explain the meaning of different ways of tying female headgear are met with the same kind of disbelief and cultural self-denial. The roots of this deeply seated sense of unworthiness are brilliantly explored in Shohat and Stam's brilliant Unthinking Eurocentrism, but I digress.

In short, I had no other option but to try and crack the recipe myself. After a few progressively successful attempts and a lot of spying on African ladies shopping in Brixton market, I have finally managed to get the taste and flavour exactly like that Mrs. Mahmoud's. So here how it goes.

Mrs. Mahmoud's secret couscous recipe:
  1. Peel half a head of garlic and two or three large African onions (or just regular red ones).
  2. Heat a generous amount of vegetable oil in a thick cast-iron skillet. I use olive oil but sunflower oil with a dab of palm oil, just for the flavour, should be very nice too. The amount should be quite liberal, as couscous absorbs it all without a trace greatly improving in taste and texture.
  3. Slice the garlic and onions very thinly and gently fry on a very low fire.
  4. Chop half a Scotch bonnet chili and add to the skillet with half a handful of dried anchovies. Flavour with a nice glug of fish sauce. Remove from fire.
  5. Bring to a boil 3 glasses of water in a cast-iron pot. Reduce the fire to minimum. Tip the fried mix from the skillet into the pot. Add some salt (I use hand-raked Guerande sea salt, as it contains a lot of sea-water micro-elements on top of the plain old sodium chloride).
  6. Chop into small bits whatever vegetables you have of the following: runner beans, haricot beans, bell peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn kernels. Add to the pot with a few whole Chantenay carrots and cook until half-done.
  7. Fold a very generous handful of dried mint and/or oregano into the mix.
  8. Add 500 g (about one pound) of couscous and fold into the mix. Put the lid on and allow to sit on the smallest possible fire for 20-30 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  9. Serve with lamb chops and grilled vegetables.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

When Yanks are in town, it's time to get cracking!

I t has already become a tradition: when Floyd comes to visit me in London, we always have a surf and turf dinner. For those unfamiliar with the American ideas of luxury food, it is steak and lobster served on one plate. On the Stateside, it is usually the most expensive entry on the menu ordered on special occasions, like when you really want to impress your date.

The surf part comes in the shape of a lobster tail, to make eating easy. For the sake of a more picturesque display, I like a whole creature, for which you will need special utensils. Other accompaniments include corns on the cob (classic American!), dill and butter dip, Italian salad and potato wedges.

Now the choice of wine is always a bit of a doozie, as you are having red meat and seafood in one helping. I guess the inventors of surf'n'turf were not from the stock who would have seen that as a problem, so I adopt their easy approach too: I just pick whatever wine I fancy at the moment, never minding the convention. Chilean Sauvignon Blanc from the Coquimbo Valley is well-balanced, as you would expect it from a Chilean, citrusy and utterly quaffable.