Tuesday, 13 August 2013

One Hand on my Pastry Pocket

Travel food is always fun. The engineering that goes behind every snack or meal that can be eaten on the go without the stable support of a table or the use of utensils is pure genius. Steak and stew that I can eat with one hand while walking or travelling on a bumpy train ride? Yes, please. Yes, please very much big time. Welcome to the wonderful world of the pasty. It has many cousins across the globe: curry puffs, empanadas, calzones, turnovers and more. But this is the classic British incarnation of working man grub. Now catering to more commuters than coalminers, thanks to the widespread prevalence of franchises like the West Cornwall Pasty Company, it still provides tasty, filling and transportable treats for the busy traveller. 

At a train station, I couldn’t help but stop and get one of my favourites, a good old fashioned steak and ale – or Steak and Tribute, as the Company calls them. I also wanted to introduce my all-American husband to the flaky delights of these warm savoury pastries. I think he chose a Chicken and Mushroom. I must confess that despite spending many years as a customer, I have yet to pick anything but my beloved steak and ale. I am such a sucker for steak and ale. Typical hypocrite. I usually do make an effort to try new and different things, but I suppose everyone has those things to which they keep going back. The sultry malted tones of the ale just work wonders on the rich meaty bite of the melting steak. All the vegetables are stewed in the velvety juices and have sucked up all the goodness from both of the star players. And the flaky pastry is crisp and golden on the outside but soft and saturated in scrumptious sauce on the inside. It is such a warm and cosy treat that can be so comforting on a tedious journey. I am salivating just remembering its savoury silky scent. 

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Slippery Feels of Jellied Eels

I take so much pleasure in trying new dishes. It’s like a miniature adventure, a microcosmic window into history and culture, feeling and smelling a cool breeze of fresh air after being numb in a stale and stagnant room. Even after spending most of my summers in England, I had yet sample the slippery pleasures of the traditional dish of jellied eels. The eels popped up during a conversation with my brother-in-law at my sister’s house and I was fortunate enough to receive a (rather large) portion for my birthday. 

The chopped eels are stewed with vinegar and spices until a stock forms. The natural proteins and gelatine from the fish are released into the cooking liquid and cause it to set when cool, thus forming the wonderful wobbles of the illustrious English dish. I am quite fond of savoury jellies and if you like terrines or soft cold meat dishes, then jellied eels should be right up your alley. The jelly itself is very flavourful. Imagine a set seafood stock that has been lightly spiced. It had a very clean and refreshing seafood fragrance. The eels themselves were much like any other poached fish with flaky white meat. As this was my first experience with jellied eels, I wasn’t entire sure where this particular recipe sat on the scale of jellied joy. My sister said they were slightly overcooked, which I could understand. I really enjoy eel in other dishes so I could see how the meat in this particular batch had probably been taken a bit too far. But even so, the method of cooking the eel in the rich jiggly stock still produces a very tender fish meat with a texture similar to that of canned tuna or salmon. It went great on crisp buttered toast or just on its own to get the full jellied eel experience.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Pan-fried Pork and Pestiferous Postponing Plumbers

This was another lunch prepared in the little kitchenette of the London apartment I was residing in with my brother this summer. It was the day the apartment management had promised the plumbers would come, plus we had no plans, so it was another ideal opportunity to put the seemingly newly furbished kitchen to be put to proper use. Mind you there were already clear signs of use, or should I say abuse. In addition to those previously listed, the surface of the cabinets above the stove, toaster and electric kettle had shrunk and warped, despite the fact that they were all shiny white and new looking. Also, the walls were reasonably clean except for the confusing faint mystery splatter that stretched from the floor to the ceiling (yes, actually on the ceiling) in a pattern that gave a layman like me no clue as to the directional forces or point of origin that created it. But regardless, these superficial problems did not stop the pursuit of proper pukka nosh. It doesn't matter if your kitchen is big or small, old or new, equipped with hot water or not, if you put the effort in, you can make a decent meal (insert motivational fist pump).

The plump pink pork loins looked great in the store and were pretty good value to purchase. They were simply pan fried, again, in the world's largest frying pan using the amazing rotate-the-gargantuan-pan-over-the-tiny-hob-in-the-corner-to-try-and-heat-the-whole-surface technique. The meat was seasoned with salt, black pepper, garlic powder and fresh sage leaves. After browning both cut sides and when the steaks were almost done, I made sure to hold them upright with the fat edge in contact with the bottom of pan to ensure it cooked the luscious white stuff all the way through. The apple confit was made by peeling, coring and dicing apples (with a paring knife as there was no peeler. And yes, the potatoes for the mash in the last post were also peeled by paring knife) then heating them in a saucepan with butter, oil, a splash of water, salt and sugar until they were tender and caramelised. The pork and apples were served with a simple side of boiled green beans and baby carrots, the latter of which I did not bother peeling or trimming as they were so dinky I didn't want them to disappear completely. I was never a fan of fruit and meat in my younger years, but I have grown to really appreciate how the contrast in flavours and textures work together and create delicious magic. The savoury bulk of the rich fatty pork was beautifully balanced out by the sweet gentle softness of the apples and all the flamboyant flavours were refreshed by the clean simplicity of the beans and carrots. Happy home-cooked food to warm the heart (because the boiler had yet to be fixed...).

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Babies, Birds and Broken Kitchenettes

My dear sister and her husband welcomed their first baby boy into the family in June so we were all very happy and excited to be able to spend some quality bonding time with the little bundle this summer. I was in the UK for about a month, dividing my time between London and my sister's house. I've always liked visiting the UK because of particular produce items that are rare or ridiculously overpriced in my hometown. As a result, I can be frequently found foraging the refrigerated shelves of food-filled supermarkets, specifically for dairy products and berries. I adore good dairy and the UK has plenty of it. When I was younger I was allergic to cows milk, but as the years progressed I seem to have shed those ailments (that or I'm just ignoring any discomfort, which is much like how I allow my affinity for four-legged friends to overthrow the fact that I am completely allergic to pretty much all of them. Whatever. Puppies and kittens for all!).

Whilst in London, I was residing in a short-stay apartment with my brother. The cost of eating out for every meal in the city will eat through your wallet so we like to cook ourselves whenever the opportunity arises. On this culinary occasion, we had chicken thighs. It's so much more worth it to get those big packs of bone-in chicken thighs than it is to get those individually packaged filleted breasts, and they pack so much more flavour and moisture, I have no idea why people don't use dark meat more. Plus the stores frequently have offers on chicken legs or thighs and I think when we got our packs they were “buy 1 get 1 free”. The thighs were pan-seared with lemon thyme before being finished in the oven with some cherry tomatoes. This was served with a side of mashed potato and drizzled with pan juices. All this was done in a small apartment kitchen with a dodgy oven door suffering from dislocated joints, a dinky fridge in which every shelf was broken and a flat glass stove top with a raised metallic rim which prevented the largest frying pan in the world (the only pan that was in the apartment) from fitting in a sensible spot over a single stove (in order to cook anything you would have to place it in the corner of the pan that was receiving heat or constantly rotate the pan to try and even it all out). But regardless of the issues, the scrumptious lunch was a success. The chicken was very tasty and tender and went great with the sweet juicy sunshine of the warm tomatoes and garlic-spiked spuds. It even temporarily took our minds off the fact that there was no hot water for three days due to a broken boiler (also the world's largest). Temporarily being the operative word. Washing up was not as nice. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

Setting the Savoury Stage Atop Sizzling Hot Plates

So after frequenting our usual Bangna haunts to death, my brother and I have now begun to gravitate towards one place in town to fulfil our epicurean cravings: Central World. This is one of the largest shopping malls in Asia, but it appeals to us because of the epic amount of food outlets and restaurants housed beneath its sprawling roof. Isetan is of particular interest as it is a Japanese department store catering to locally-based Japanese expats and Nipponophiles, much like ourselves. It has a compact supermarket stocking ingredients you would think could only be found in Japan, a little food court/stall area where you can pick up things to go or have a quick counter-top meal and also, its own range of Japanese restaurants which vary in speciality.

On this occasion we wanted to venture into uncharted restaurant territory. After surveying the field, we chose the Grill Kabuki Honten as our target. This is a restaurant that specialises in Japanese style hamburg steaks (salisbury steaks to our American cousins) served on sizzling hot plates. The menu, although quite specialised, is very generous. Every set meal ordered comes with an all-you-can-eat buffet of salad, soup, rice and the surprise item, Japanese curry! Not just the sauce either, it had diced vegetables and a pot of red pickles to bejewel your plate.

The salad includes your basic choices like lettuce, carrot, tomatoes and cabbage, but it also includes edamame! These are green soy beans that are still in their pods. They are often served as a bar snack but are very healthy and delicious. Even though the buffet looks quite small and reserved, the items really could serve as a hefty meal themselves.
My dish of choice was the rib eye steak and hamburg combo set. My brother had the fried chicken and hamburg combo and we also ordered a yakisoba to share (like we needed more food with all-you-can-eat curry rice o_O). Our main objective was to try as much as possible though, not to greedily over-indulge...no, really.

The hamburg blew my mind. It is ridiculously tender and juicy but was still packed full of flavour. Now, some may prefer a solid meat patty charred with grill marks on an outdoor barbeque, but keep in mind, this is a Japanese restaurant, so naturally expect everything in a Nippon-fashion. It was a similar story with the steak. Stupidly tender and stupidly tasty. It was adorned simply with a garlic butter, but that alone was enough. 

I didn't even think about reaching for the trio of sauces that came with it, although I later did make a conscious effort to taste each on their own. There was a Thai-style spicy dipping sauce, a Japanese ponzu and then the attention-grabbing fuchsia pickle mayonnaise. That, despite the alarming bubblegum colour (which I assume came from the pickles), was very tasty.

For the hamburg steaks we had radish and ponzu sauce and a demi-glace. I preferred the resonant savoury tones of the demiglace but if you want a lighter alternative, I would recommend the citrus-like tang of the ponzu.

The karaage, or fried chicken, was very tender and juicy and the breading was a softer crumbly texture. It went very well with Japanese mayonnaise. As did the yakisoba, which is packed with slices of pork and shredded cabbage and came crowned with an undulating mass of bonito shavings. It was much more generous than most establishments would be willing to provide, in every aspect too. 

Even the prices were extremely reasonable, comparative to local mid-range chains. I think the noodles also came with an entire bottle of Japanese mayonnaise served on the table. And did I mention the complimentary scoop of matcha ice cream? Hell yeah.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Fabulous Flavour of a Furtive Flower and Fire

This is a homemade treat that I have yet try anywhere else. The entire dish is made from scratch, including the curry base which is made from a flamboyance of fresh ingredients including large red chilies, shallots and turmeric. There is one magic ingredient which provides that distinctive non-replicable flavour and it is something that has always been shrouded in mystery. I know that my mother procures it from Malaysia and cannot seem to find it anywhere else, and I know that it is a flower. It looks like a banana flower, but it isn't. It’s like an untrimmed bamboo shoot, but not. And my mother always referred to it simply as 'that flower' so I have unfortunately yet to be initiated into the wonders of the Pineapple Curry Club nor made privy to their savoury secrets.

What I can tell you, though, is that this curry is always a delight to eat. It is so wonderfully light and fresh but packs a payload of flavour with a good hot kick to boot. My mum sometimes crafts this with king prawns instead of poultry. Either way, I have no problem polishing off a plate full of the stuff. The sweet and acidic pineapple chunks provide these explosive bursts of juicy sunshine to wash over the gentle heat of the fresh spice base. The turmeric really gives the whole thing a consistent savoury hum to compliment the piquant of the fresh red chilies. Just take care not to spill any as this luscious sauce will stain anything it comes in contact with. A delicious delicacy to be enjoyed on non-plastic dinnerware while dressed in your less-than Sunday best.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Many Colours in a Nonya Rainbow

Whilst we were in Kuala Lumpur, my Uncle John dropped by with a box of Nonya kuih. These are little chewy snack-like treats that tend to feature glutinous rice, rice flour, coconut and pandan as well as many other local flavourings (most of which I can’t name… ). I had just come downstairs as we had all planned to go to a nice dim sum brunch (that is a whole other story) and was greeted with this adorable rainbow of squidgy goodness.

As a child, I was never fond of your typical kuih. Even now, I tend to be quite picky with anything involving sticky rice. So I opted for one thing I knew I would like and another that piqued my curiosity. The first was kuih ketayap, a green spring roll which consists of a soft and sticky pandan crepe rolled around a toasted sweet coconut filling. The gentle flavour of the skin really helps cut through the sharp sweetness of the smoky brown shreds of coconut flesh.

The second thing I sampled was pulut tekan, the blue glutinous rice square topped with kaya (the brown egg custard jam). That vivid indigo shade comes from the butterfly pea flower, which is a popular flavouring in Southeast Asian cuisine. There is a tea in Thailand that uses these flowers which results in a bright blue or indigo translucent drink; very pretty. But back to the kuih; this little rice square had a rather prominent salty note which worked well against the sweet kaya. You could still see the individual grains of rice on the cake but they were very soft and merged together to form a sticky chewy bite.