Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Monks and Mussels in a Dark Dungeon of Delicious Delights

Belgo is a well-known chain of Belgian restaurants in London and the one that I have frequented through the years is Belgo Centraal in Covent Garden. Tucked away between the cobblestone streets, this quirky dungeon-like basement bistro is brimming with epicurean delights. They are most famous for their mussels which are prepared in a variety of ways and presented to patrons in polished pots by waiters clad in monk-like robes of the middle ages. 

They don't just serve mouthwatering mollusks. On this occasion, along with a pot of provenÇal moules, I ordered the spaghetti with roast artichokes and vegetables in carrot sauce. The portion was generous and I had to marvel at the massive size of the asparagus spears that perched upon my pasta. I was most curious about the carrot sauce, which is what motivated me to order the meal in the first place. It was light, as advertised, and carried the faint sweetness and orange tint of the tapered root. The roasted vegetables were nice and chunky which always makes me happy as it enables you to experience a range of texture and flavour within the same bite of the same vegetable. You get the softer sweeter epidermis of the cooked ingredient followed by the cleaner milder essential fragrances that are locked away inside, which is particularly prevalent with the multi-layered artichoke pieces. It was both fun (copious culinary components to play with!) and satisfying (nice hefty mound of al dente pasta) to eat and the dish complemented the saucy mussels very nicely. 

Monday, 28 November 2011

Floudering around a Rocking Plaice to Perch your Soles

When someone is asked to name a signature British dish, what do they usually say? Bangers and mash, toad in the hole, bubble and squeak? More often than not, one answer will trump all others: fish and chips. First time tourist, born and bred local or pub crawler, you are bound to have bite of this British classic when you are in merry England. Some are good, some are bad, some are cheap, some attempt to go gourmet. Salt or ketchup or vinegar, whatever your condiment of choice is, most people are open to munching down on this meal, even those that tend not to like seafood. Hurrah for chippies and their perpetual peddling of plumping provisions! 

We walked down to a well-known chippy near Covent Garden that advertises itself as being the oldest existing chippy in London. The quaintly named Rock and Sole Plaice (get it?) is a standard small and simple shop with a few tables that sprawl out on to the sidewalk. They have freshly fried fillets of cod, haddock, plaice and a few others that have faded from my feeble memory and of course, plenty of chips. Chips meaning real chips. Chunky cuts of deep fried potato. None of that anorexic shoestring nonsense.

I ordered haddock and chips. Service is quick there, as it should be in any plaice (get it?) whose primary means of cooking is a deep fryer (ever thought about the irony of that? I'm more likely to be fat and slow if i frequent fried food franchises but cheap chippies and chippy-like chains have to provide my food fast... and often skinny...shoestrings and such). 

The fillet was generous and encased in a golden brown batter that had a real crunch in its bite. Battering through the barrier of batter revealed a thick slab of succulent white fish flesh. The batter was crisp, and although pack a hefty crunch, was still light and did not weigh down and dull the delicate flavour of the fish meat. The chips were similar in terms of internal structure: crisp coating protecting a moist and fluffy core. The house made tartare sauce was scrumptious but they provide a decent array of condiments for diners to choose from including staples like salt and malt vinegar.

In addition to various fish fillets, the shop also has other humble traditional offerings like spotted dick and steak and kidney pie, which we couldn't help but order. The pie was surprisingly satisfying and well made. Of course, the massive platter of fish and chips was more than filling alone, we wanted to sample the savoury pocket size pastries we spotted in the display case. 

The sturdy little bugger was bigger than I expected. Still a single serve portion, it seemed ever so slightly bigger than other little pies. It held its shape beautifully, round and upright like a mighty colosseum, but still cute and relatively petite. The filling was well seasoned and had just the right viscosity and ratios of ingredients to accompany the flaky pastry crust. Kidney and steak... wee-bull... mmm pie... 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Stewing in Throngs of Tumultuous Tourists

It is no secret that I adore food that comforts. I am not referring to spray cheese, triple decker burgers, chips or ice cream. When I use the term comfort food, I refer to flavour, texture, history (not just in the worldly sense, but your history as an individual with personal experiences regardless of how old you are), food that conjures up a sense of tradition (again, how ever long-established that may be for you) and familiarity (in a good way!), taking you to that warm safe cosy place in your subconscious where your senses breathe a welcome sigh of relief and you forget all the troubles of the day for the time being. That is what I feel comfort food is, a private culinary refuge through the doors of your taste buds and olfactory senses. 

For me, nothing can get more comforting than a good hearty stew. The textures of the individual components of each stew can vary from carrots with a smooth bite, soft fluffy chunks of potato, tender juicy meat, soft succulent cabbage to the fluid broth that cradles everything in its warm embrace. But the beauty of a slow cooked stew is that all theses textures meld together in one pot within a single broth so that the once isolated flavours and textures are forever bound together in a harmonious household of gastronomic wonder. They may maintain their unique characteristics but they have joined hands in a united accord to stand together for the greater good of the stew. 

This particular encounter came on a day out with my parents in London. We had been walking for a while in central London and were caught in the overflowing throngs of the city's omnipresent tourists. We needed an escape, fast. The next restaurant in our sight was a Garfunkel's. We thought. We dove in. The horror. Every table was packed with cameras, shopping bags, maps, water bottles and foreign multi-accented conversation. Tourists had already invaded the diner. But we weathered the unrelenting xeno-storm and wedged ourselves into a tiny table in front of a till. I needed a way out. One look at the menu and I knew I had one. Irish stew. Overpriced? Yes. Quality? Not that great. But it still did the job. The lamb was tender but lacked the depth of flavour a quality piece of meat carries with it. The pear barley provided the sustenance I required to fight of the flocks of foreigners (I know, I'm not an Anglo-Saxon but I don't consider myself a tourist in the typical sense when I am in the UK). Pearl barley is so fun to eat. Soft and slippery but with an oat-like bite and substantial density like an oversized grain of rice. Also, even though it is great as soaking up other flavours, it never loses its own fragrance of sweet grain. Despite being mass produced from a run of the mill family restaurant chain, the stew was still  a stew, hearty through and through, delivering the smoky delicious depth that one should always encounter when diving into a bowl of satisfying stew.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Ruby Red Rasberries Caught In Suspension

Does jelly have a bad reputation? I'm not sure anymore. I think at one point people seemed to think that gelatin based desserts were a cheap and sugary cop out for a sweet finish to a meal. Perhaps the ridged mountain mould of translucent jiggly red stuff is a bit dated. Truffle terrines, champagne jelly and mango caviar are just some examples of the culinary hydrocolloid at work in our contemporary cuisine. I will still love jelly as a dessert. It is light, soothing, sweet, refreshing whilst retaining that satisfying bite and sensual slippery jiggle that makes it so easy to eat. On a tea break at Marks and Spencer with Mummy dearest, I couldn't help but pick out a petite pot of ruby red raspberry jelly. I think the colour and fruit appeals to people of all ages: if you're a child with no teeth, an adult wanting a treat, if you're a granny with no teeth, it's all good! And who can resist those fat whole red raspberries suspended in their original form in a sea of delicate but supportive and sweet bovine based extracts? Healthy stuff caught in suspension!

Monday, 7 November 2011

Tantalizing Tea Time Tongue Treat

As a child, I never really liked to eat meat. Perhaps my initial encounters with carne were unpleasant and so sparked an extended resentment towards anything meatier than a chicken. Actually it was only quite recently that my taste for flesh has shifted. My carnivorous side seems to have been awakened during my habitation of the land of jellied eels and spotted dick. Honestly, I don't think it was any particular spectacular foogasm over a steak that triggered it, more like a gradual transition from carb-dependency to flesh-friendly feeding. 

This, however, is not what most people would consider the ordinary cut of beef. Even at the Brass Rail, this is kept hidden under the counter until someone asks for it. Ox Tongue. The Brass Rail's main attraction is the salt beef. Salty, soft and beefy. But in my book, there's no way it could stand up against the ox tongue. Don't let the anatomical reference put you off. Ox tongue has all the savoury beef flavours you look for in regular beef but with a lighter cleaner finish. The meat is ridiculously tender you could tuck in to a platter without any teeth. It's also not as salty as the beef, so I find it much easier to shovel down my gullet. Honestly, it's like a softer beef with less sinew or grain to fight through with just as much, if not more, flavour. 

My favourite order is a regular ox tongue on focaccia with mustard and a gherkin on the side. We've been going to the Brass Rail as far back as I can remember, and I was glad to see it still around after they renovated the building a while back. Before my red meat days I would get a plate, a knife and a fork and steal my parents' pickles to munch on whilst everyone else worked on their sandwiches. Now, this sandwich is one of the reasons I am more than happy to return to London every year. That and clotted cream, but that's another story. 

Friday, 4 November 2011

Peter Pan and the Potato Pasta Pie

I love carbs. Did I tell you I love carbs? I love carbs. Always have. I can eat carbs with carbs and have carbs on the side with carbs for dessert. Admittedly, it's probably the primary contributor to my corporeal chub but it has made me happy. I remember reading a children's book that involved a messy little girl who had spaghetti sandwiches for lunch. I was inspired. Since then, almost every time we have spag-bol at home I have to make a spaghetti sammich. Sometimes just a sloppy joe (bread and meat sauce) but a spag-bol-buttie is much more fun. The noodly excitement and saucy goodness with the double whammy comfort punch of starch and starch? Eureka! Tis like magic to my (slightly warped) taste buds! 

Getting more to the point, I was at Hong Kong Disneyland some time ago and just after the parade we went into a bakery on Main Street to sample some of their old time wares. I love nice display cases and Disneyland has yet to disappoint. Cakes, pies, puddings and sandwiches lined the shelves that were bathed in a cosy golden glow. One thing immediately caught my greedy eye. The traditional treat with a quirky twist. The Pasta Bolognese Pie. I had to get it.

After purchasing the potato topped pie we adjourned to an alfresco table to bask in the fairy tale fanfare of the bustling fantasy boulevard. On the surface, the pastry appeared to be nothing more than a petite personal cottage pie. Cute and comforting, I dove into the creamy mash crust. Suddenly there was a burst of texture! Soft, but noodly, the al dente strands sent tempting vibrations up through my plastic spork. The spark of red meaty sauce glistened through the sea of smushed spuds. A golden crust encased all the carb rich calories from beneath. I wanted to eat it. Seasoned mildly, the contrast of silky smooth mash, slippery saucy spaghetti and flaky pastry crust melded together into a celestial carb concoction I still crave for today. It's probably not for everyone, especially since it's the antichrist for Atkins, but for those who dwell in the devilish delights of carbohydrates, indulge in the hot carb-on-carb action! 

The Milky Madness of Street Side Beach Buns

Going to the beach has always been an integral part of our family recreational habits. Whether on a short stay to scout new seaside sites or on a lazy long weekend for lounging around the littoral with the lobsters and limpets... “Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail, “There's a porpoise close behind us and he's treading on my tail!” See how easily the lobsters and the turtles all advance. They are waiting on the shingle, will you come and join the dance? ... :D 

Anyway, we were in Hua Hin in the Gulf of Thailand a while back and after a spicy seafood smorgasbord on the sand we heard the familiar chimes of an ice cream vendor slowly sauntering by. Like Pavlov's dogs we start salivating for our sweet treats. This particular vendor was selling a street stall staple of Thai hawker food. It's basically homemade ice cream (milk or coconut in flavour) with different toppings like corn, peanuts, nata de coco, jellies, condensed milk, evaporated milk, taro, yellow peas, red bean etc and the list goes on. You can choose to have your cold collation served in a plastic cup or, as I thoroughly enjoy being a carbohydrate devotee, in a hotdog bun. The soft fluffy nature of the bread is perfect for soaking up all the sweet goodness of your melting ice cream and makes a great insulator between your fingers and the frozen frostiness it radiates. Results? Your delicious dessert stays contained within itself, your fingers don't freeze, the milky meltwaters are sucked up by the spongy bread thus keeping you dry and you can eat the whole darn thing! And it's DELICIOUS! 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Spicy Stingray: Stand By For Action!

Back to the streets of KL with this delectable delight for any connoisseurs of colloquial cuisine, particularly those with a preference for pelagic provender or in other words foodies fond of fish. Cod, salmon, tuna, sardine – these are all names that we encounter far too often on supermarket shelves and in restaurant menus of every caliber. Aside from problems with overfishing and sustainability, these poor fishes could really use a break from the fisherman's spotlight just as our taste buds should be given a fresh zephyr of seafaring flavours. 

Whether freshwater or oceanic, we all want a taste of sunshine and fresh flowing water when we dine on fish and other aquatic animals. Stingray provides just that. So it may not share the same visual appearance as a stereotypical snapper on a dinner plate, in fact, its broad flat physique may perplex people as to how one could possibly enjoy eating any part of its discus like form. Let me enlighten those who have yet to experience the delicate wonders of the snow white flesh of the stingray. The spines of cartilage that spread through the fish lay flat and are partially fused forming a stiff ridged platform with full steaks of solid supple without any bony interruptions. Just get whatever your eating utensil is (fork, spoon, chopsticks, fingers) and nudge the flesh from one edge and watch as it slides off like a giant tectonic slab of juicy protein goodness. 

This particular piece has been smothered in spicy chili paste and grilled in a banana leaf. It is then served with sliced okra and a cut calamansi for you to squeeze over everything. The chili paste is crammed with intense flavour. You'll get sucker-punched with salt, your sinuses slapped with scorching heat and a smokey savoriness will scintillate your senses and leave you salivating for more. That little calamansi adds much more than its petite size gives it credit for. The tart sour with a hint of sweet and fresh citrus cuts right through the richness of the chili without breaking a sweat. And let's not forget about the star of the show, the stingray! Don't let the pale opaque flakes of succulent flesh fool you into thinking it is meek and flavourless. It stands up to the seemingly overpowering chaos of the chili. The calm gentle cool compliments the fiery madness perfectly. I really do love my grilled stingray :) Stingray! Stingray! Anything can happen in the next half hour!!