Sunday, July 22, 2018

Spaghetti Sofia

This was inspired by a pasta dish I had during a visit to Bulgaria's capital Sofia. It's a wonderfully laid-back place if you haven't been there, and I thoroughly recommend a visit. It's also worth noting the beer is ridiculously cheap too. One of the increasingly decreasing countries in Europe that is still affordable after the pound was floored by Brexit.

Spaghetti, enough for two people
2 shallots or one small onion
2 garlic cloves
Good knob of butter
Salt, pepper
30g fresh basil, chopped
20 baby plum tomatoes
Good handful of grated cheese
Splash or two of fish sauce

Cook the spaghetti in salted water then drain.
Melt the butter in a pan. Add the chopped onion and garlic. Add the tomatoes. Fry for two minutes until the onion is soft and the tomatoes begin to split.
Add the pasta, basil and cheese. Fry for a minute. Stir in the fish sauce then serve.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Cambodian Stir-Fry Vegetables With Pork

I used to eat this dish, and countless variations of it, in cheap, road-side cafes and stalls when I was working in Cambodia’s stifling capital Phnom Penh. The heat meant you were never that hungry, just thirsty, and I drank more melted ice than beer.

But this meal and other stir-fried dishes like it were perfect for kickstarting the appetite without bloating you out, and more importantly they were delicious. They were never over seasoned or spiced, and there was always a plastic tray of condiments on each table so you could tweak the flavour as you wished – fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, lime wedges, ground white and black pepper.

The stir-fried vegetables came in numerous permutations, sometimes with meat or fish, sometimes without, and were often flavoured with oyster sauce. They were cooked fresh in front of you and served in silver bowls, with another silver dish containing sticky rice. And the thing I loved most was you always got a ramekin of thinly sliced chillies on the side, that gave a burst of fire and helped the whole thing down.

Those were wonderful days on the whole, and I miss them dearly. And occasionally when the British weather gets the better of me, and gives me a shot of the low-down blues, I make myself one of these dishes, like this one I made for lunch today – stir-fried vegetables with pork. Which if my very rusty Khmer doesn’t embarrass me too much is known over there as sach chrouk char pale khieu.

Anyway, this is how I made the dish and it turned out pretty well. It goes without saying that you can substitute pretty much any other protein for the pork – popular choices in Cambodia are frog, shrimp, squid, crab, fish, eel, chicken, beef and egg. Or just leave it out and have vegetables, maybe with nuts added.

In fact, one of the most memorable dishes I had was fried cabbage and rice with lots of chilli on the side, cooked as a staff meal at one of the restaurants I was working in. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but they do say the secret of being a good cook, or any other artist for that matter, is knowing when to stop.

Again, for the vegetables, it really doesn’t matter which ones you use. Cambodians cooks are very skilled at making the best of what they’ve got, which for the vast majority of Khmer people is usually very little. I used broccoli, onion, cabbage and carrot, and a few slices of roast pork that were left over from the weekend. The secret is to cut everything small, so it cooks quickly.

Nearly all Cambodian dishes start with fried garlic, so I heated some oil in a pan, sliced two fat cloves of garlic, and fried them, stirring away until they were just turning nutty and brown. Then I added a few thin strips of roast pork. Probably no more than about 50g or so – in keeping with the Cambodian way of making a little meat go a long way.

After all, it’s the flavour that is the main thing – and there is no better way of ruining a stir-fry, aside from burning or over salting it, than drowning it in meat or fish. I fried this for a couple of minutes until the oil was frothing, then added the vegetables, and fried them for a couple of minutes – they generally need very little more than this if they are cut properly.

Just before the end, I added the seasoning – two level tablespoons of oyster sauce, the same of water, then a good sprinkle of fish sauce (about two level teaspoons) and the same of lime juice, and finally half a teaspoon of sugar, and a good grind of white pepper. It went on a plate with rice, and of course thinly sliced chillies, and was demolished quickly, harkening back memories of warmer times.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What’s All The Fuss Over Nando’s Using McCain Frozen Chips – Top Restaurants Are At It As Well

Anyone who has ever eaten at Nando’s will know the chips are the soft, puffy, mulchy sort that bring back unpleasant memories of school dinners. You know that sort of half-baked, oven chip taste. A film of jaundiced, fried potato barely holding in a pillow of tasteless white mush.

So, it is perhaps no surprise that the chicken chain has admitted using McCain frozen chips in its restaurants. It came after a student working at Nando’s grassed them up to the Leicester Mercury newspaper, and other media outlets lifted, I mean followed up, the story.

Nando’s was quick to point out that these were not the sort of McCain chips you might bung in the oven at home. But instead were a “specific recipe” exclusively made for the chain – which does make you wonder just how much effort went into making the chips as unpleasant as they are.

It hardly needs to be said that the outrage over this damning indictment caused much merriment and vitriol on Twitter and other social media dungeons, perhaps more so than usual because the snow meant more people than normal were sitting in their underpants, firing off tweets that no-one would ever read, rather than braving two inches of snow and struggling into work.

I haven’t the fortitude of character to bother checking whether there is now a chipgate hashtag in circulation, as I suspect there probably is. Just a handful of quoted tweets, for what now passes as journalism on the BBC website, was enough to put me off, with one moronic tweeter going as far as describing it as the “revelation of the year”.

KFC staff caught gobbing into chicken buckets or McDonald’s workers filling salt sachets with ricin might be worthy contenders for revelations, perhaps even of the year. But buying in chips from McCain is hardly a hanging offence, and Nando’s could help itself much more by simply training its kitchen staff to cook the chips properly.

To say the story is overdone is an understatement. What I find interesting is the attention these reports about what goes on in the kitchens of budget restaurants get. You can sense a definite snobbery and delight in middle-class foodie circles (i.e. foodie circles), presumably from people who would never lower themselves to eat in Nando’s or KFC, or at least would never admit to doing so. The schadenfreude at such ‘revelations’ is palpable among those who dine in far more expensive restaurants.

What I have never understood is how this level of outraged, puritan scrutiny rarely targets the top restaurants. Perhaps these places are just far better at concealing their tracks? Surely it is far more of a crime to pay ten times more than you would at Nando’s and then be served bought-in food.

At Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant, the chips arrived in sealed plastic bags ready to be fried – or at least they did when I worked there. They are not from McCain. Instead they are made at an industrial estate on the outskirts of Padstow, by Stein’s staff who also churn out all the Cornish pasties and chutneys that have made him one of the richest men in Cornwall - upsetting the locals no end (and not for just using the wrong type of pastry).

He can hardly be criticised for that. The explanation when I asked was that it was a space-saving ploy and there was not enough room in the seafood restaurant’s large, airy kitchen to peel potatoes and hand cut chips. Same as much of the other veg.

However, what did slightly irk was seeing other food come directly out of a jar or packet. As I say, you’d forgive this in a cafĂ© selling £6 or £7 lunches, but not in a restaurant that charges Michelin star prices, without actually having one.

When I did my brief stint in the kitchen there (admittedly a long time ago, but I’d be surprised if much has changed), if you ordered the potted shrimp, all the chef had to do was open a bought-in pot and put the contents on a plate with (home-made) toast. You could have saved yourself a small fortune just by going to Asda. The seafood pasta dish was almost as easy. But for that price you might think Stein’s staff were making the pasta themselves. Instead, they just boiled up packets of dried De Cecco linguine, which is a very good one, but you take my point.

I have heard countless tales from chefs working in many of the top restaurants in Britain, who can tell similar stories. Even the three-star Fat Duck was no stranger to the practice. The bread arrived each morning, supplied by a boutique baker, which is forgivable given the size of Heston Blumenthal’s coffin-sized kitchen. And Waitrose helped out with the sardine on toast sorbet. The pastry chefs could never have been accused of shouting it from the rooftops, and you got the feeling that any bought-in food would have been kept under lock and key away from prying eyes, as the great and the good were sometime given tours of the kitchens.

It was only when the pastry cooks on ice cream duty said they had run out of tinned sardines one day, that a hapless chef was sent off to the nearby Waitrose in Maidenhead for a few tins of own-brand fish, that it became obvious.