Sunday, 29 November 2009

Eating Beijing

While reading Anthony Bourdain's The Nasty Bits, I was intrigued by the piece written on China. Although just a brief chapter in the book, Bourdain tells of a small restaurant called Li Qun's which is hidden away in a hutong in central Beijing. My wife and I had been planning on checking out the city for a while and with the added enthusiasm of my taste buds we booked a week out and jetted off to the far side of Asia. I'd had visions of small kitchens on every alleyway, each cooking up different and individual dishes passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately almost all the eateries I found in the hutongs just sold pork stuffed dumplings of varying quality. The Donghuamen night market was like a theme park and although I succumbed to the intrigue of silk worm cocoons, scorpions and snake among other things, the honest truth is that they all taste incredibly similar due to the very dirty oil everything is cooked in that has been reused for days. The snake had a texture similar to a rare steak and was very tender and moist, probably the best of the street food I tried, shortly followed by the sea urchins whose gooey, orange insides engulfed my mouth with a clean, refreshing ocean flavour. On Wangfujing snack street I tried the deep fried baby seahorse I'd often heard about, let me warn you now, this is absolutely not worth eating at all. I bit down on the cute little ocean critter and almost shattered my teeth.
It was solid, but I had committed now and so had to finish it, I wasn't going to loose face in front of all these Chinese vendors. I battled on through the ordeal best I could, managing to grind its body down to a powder between my teeth before it formed a paste in my mouth which tasted slightly of seawater with an aftertaste of the aforementioned dirty cooking oil. I found a lot of the restaurants in Beijing to be flat and dull with menus the size of encyclopedias and all looking the same. The obligatory cream walls, red lanterns and an abundance of waiting staff.

In Eat My Globe, Simon Majumdar warns that the sound of China is a man spitting. This prepared me a little although I didn't expect it from women. Perhaps that's just the English prude in me but I disinfected my shoes when I got home all the same. Mr Majumdar had also written of an underground food hall he had found beneath a shopping mall called Gourmet Street. When I found the sign above a set of stairs my heart rate quickened and I ran off ahead to see what was below. Gourmet Street was a fantastic place to escape the drab restaurants on the high streets but amidst all the food stands offering dishes from every region of China, I still felt that I was in a fast food market and in all honesty it is just that, but I wasn't here for silver service I was here to eat and so I got on with the job in hand. Forget the snack streets and the dirty oil, put a little effort into finding some of these underground food halls and try a little of everything, the dishes are small and cheap so you can work your way around China in the confines of a basement beneath a mall.

One evening we took the subway (20p a journey) to Ghost Street, a street around a mile long which has thousands upon thousands of red lanterns strewn across the road. There literally must be a restaurant for every lantern, with staff outside each one touting for your business, at one point even pulling me by my arm to try and force me in. I was looking for one dish in particular though, the hotpot, and after about forty minutes we found somewhere. I took a sichuan hotpot and ordered some cuttlefish and fish balls with a Yangjin beer and some erguotou. For those of you who don't know, the hotpot arrives at your table, a pot of spiced bubbling oil and stock. You then order your food which comes raw which you drop your into the boiling broth cooking pieces of food to your liking right at the table. The cuttlefish, although difficult to pick up with chopsticks, was gorgeous. Like a very silky and tender squid with no chewiness. I was sold. We were brought a complimentary dish of dry, spicy cooked prawns which you eat with the shell on. This may sound a bit weird but somehow the way they cook them makes the shells extremely brittle and you don't even notice the texture alongside flakes of chilli and sichuan pepper. The meal was amazing and although the wife found a cooked maggot in her noodles, I ensured her that it was cooked and therefore any harmful bacteria would probably have been killed during the cooking process. She still didn't look too happy about it and after the obligatory photo of said maggot she drank her water and we left. It turns out that by pure coincidence, sitting the other side of the room was an American photographer that I have been in contact with for some time. Oliver had been living in Beijing for six months and it turns out my gut instinct to eat here was a good one as he and his Beijinger girlfriend frequented the place saying it is one of the best in the city. Another great find, perhaps Beijing wasn't as dire on the food front as I had first found. You certainly have to put a bit of effort in to eat well in the city though.

Finally I come to my most memorable meals of the week, both at Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant. As I mentioned before this was part of the enthusiasm for our visit. After feeling very lost wandering through the hutongs south of Tiananmen we spotted a duck painted on the grey wall of an alleyway, the tell tale sign we were near. We followed the painted ducks that led us to a small door with Li Qun written above it in red. Upon entering you walk past the wood oven where all the ducks are cooked, the smell instantly wetting my appetite. The atmosphere in this place was phenomenal and filled me with so much excitement. Having spent all week in the shiny false plasticness of Beijing, with government owned and provided eateries I finally felt like we had found something that wasn't tarnished by the red flag. We were seated next to a mother and daughter in the courtyard that has an old glass roof over it like a Victorian greenhouse. I ordered the Roast Duck, the reason for such a pilgrimage and had the chilli duck wings, duck livers and duck feet for appetisers. Let me start with the ducks feet, had I known they were cold and raw, only being marinated in a vat of horseradish then perhaps I would have been better prepared for the assault on my senses that followed. I had thought they were going to be hot and by the time I popped the first deboned and de-cartilaged duck foot into my mouth it was too late. My nose felt like it was going to explode from the horseradish and the texture of the feet were, lets say, new to me. The heels of the feet crunch which is a bit off putting but once you get used to it they aren't all that bad, but I wouldn't order them again. It was time for the duck. They bring the roasted bird to your table side and show you it whole with its fatty skin all shiny and amber. Once given the nod your server slices your duck up in a very precise way leaving nothing but the head and carcass, all within about a minute. I suppose they get plenty of practice. Peking duck in Peking, if i'm going to taste the best roast duck surely it has to be here? In my mind, any food you eat with your fingers is always going to be good and rolling one of these pancakes packed with slow cooked duck straight from the ancient wood ovens, was perfection of the dish. I loved it and have not since had duck pancakes that come close to Li Qun's. Obviously it's not just the duck that made it taste so good, the surroundings, company and service all play their part equally too. I will warn you though that if you have a bit of an upset stomach, that through the twisted corridors the only toilet has a great big mesh over it with a sign that reads in english, "NO SHIT." So make sure you go before, or take plenty of Imodium. We came here twice during our stay as it was so good. Quanjude is another favourite in the city but as it has several sites and is completely government owned, I favoured Li Qun for round two rather than risk being let down by Quanjude, after all I already knew how much I loved Li Qun's. It's hidden away, a bit shabby and understated. A place you go informally with family, friends or on your own. Dare I say, it has that authentic chinese feel that I was craving for. Bourdain had my attention with some wistful writing but Li Qun had my heart with two roast ducks and some nosebleed-inducing ducks feet.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Kitchen Clutter?

What clutters your kitchen? My wife would probably say the ever growing collection of whiskeys, gins, rums and vodkas that engulf the area next to the fridge. Is it your electric whisk, a pressure cooker, Or the colossal bread maker that always seems to be in the way? Are they cluttering your kitchen, or have you grown lazy? If you can't bring yourself to throw it out or give it away then the answer is probably yes, you have grown lazy. Or preoccupied with more pressing matters perhaps. You feel guilty every time you look at it don't you? At the back of many kitchen cupboards across the country, behind the empty jam jars and sauce bottles, there can sometimes be found a pasta machine. I remember pondering on whether or not to buy one and the main argument I wrestled with was that the novelty might wear off. I'd read of people buying them on a whim after watching a Jamie Oliver episode only to run the rollers through once or twice before ebaying it away or banishing it to the cupboard under the stairs. When a friend of mine moved out from home, he turned his mother away when she offered him her pasta machine. I can understand people being put off with the added work compared to turning out a bag of dried fussili into a pan, but making your own pasta isn't necessarily an alternative to packet pasta, it's alternative to cooking altogether. Sometimes I want to be lost in the kitchen for hours on end, making meals and sauces and jams. I enjoy my time in the kitchen, it's therapeutic and a chance for me to zone-out and forget. Too often its all over and done with so quickly. Preparing a meal that is. Sometimes you want to spend more time in the kitchen, be guilted into making meringues with your electric whisk, use your bread maker or prepare some fresh pasta. Sometimes I like to work my way through bottles of whiskeys and rums. In fact only too often. Some people may think it's all too much effort but I smile every time I pull my pasta machine down from the shelf. I find such appliances to give me inspiration, add a new dimension to my capabilities with food. Kitchen clutter? I say versatility.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The Seven Fish, Ringwood

It was a friend of ours birthday last Friday. A group of us were going to go out for a meal and the birthday girl had chosen the Seven Fish in Ringwood. We arrived in the pouring rain at around quarter to eight and although a little early our party of twelve was seated immediately. I made a run for the toilets only to be greeted by naughty framed photos on the wall next to the urinals. I was on the left and had the very french looking moulin-rougesque photo taken through a keyhole of a lady in lingerie perched on the edge of her bed. This took me by surprise considering it didn't go with any theme of the restaurant and definately not with the clean minimalist surroundings of the dining room. Did I mention it came as a pleasant surprise? Unfortunately I didn't get a photo of it to show you because as you can imagine, excusing yourself from the table and wandering in to the toilet with a big SLR camera tends to attract the wrong kind of attention and wanting to avoid any potential lawsuits I resisted the urge and decided to order my food.
I chose a starter of smoked sea bass fillets with a chorizo salsa. Once ordered I did start to wonder whether the saltiness and strength of the chorizo might overpower the fish. I had nothing to worry about though because the dish was really well balanced, the paprika in the chorizo complimented the smokiness of the sea bass flawlessly and at only £7.50 I think this was the best value item on the menu.
For my main course I had ordered the scallops with braised fennel and marmalade sauce and my wife, who had skipped on the starter to save room for the all important dessert, had the poached smoked haddock with peas, mash, spinach and wholegrain mustard sauce. My scallops were really plump and pan fried perfectly, incredibly soft and delicate and not at all rubbery as can sometimes be the case. The fennel lacked that certain aniseed kick and could have done with a little more salt. As a main course I think it needed something to complete the dish, definitely more fennel and maybe some other vegetables?

The wife's meal came a little late, she has that annoying habit of ordering better than me, or maybe thats just me being fickle but I usually find myself eating my meal while staring longingly at her plate until she lets me have some. Not much of a wholegrain sauce but the potatoes were smooth and buttery and the fish tender and moist.

Afterwards I ordered a coffee and a cognac while the wife ordered a chocolate brownie with toffee ice cream and white chocolate shavings, the brownie was unbelievably light and not at all stodgyl. The ice cream melted down the side of the warm brownie and swirled into the rich, thick dark chocolate sauce. It was like a Mills and Boon for the chocoholic. The birthday girl had Eton Mess and as I am, by my own admission a pudding thief, I had to try it. They know how to do good desserts at the Seven Fish, is that because they're open for coffee all day and most of their daytime customers are old ladies having tea and something sweet? I don't know, but they also know how to prepare seafood, just need to work on the accompaniments. The service was a little slow and impersonnal, our table sat filled with empty plates from our starters for a good fifteen to twenty minutes. A few things came late, but not substantially and as we were a table of twelve I thought the kitchen did well. Shame the waiting staff were slow.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Baking Bread

I think baking bread is quite daunting at first glance and I've been meaning to make my own bread for ages now and as I've had a few days off this week I thought I'd step to it. Although it takes a few hours to do, keeps for only a few days and is probably no cheaper than buying a loaf from the shop, I think it is worth baking your own loaf just for the smell it fills your house with. This wasn't my first attempt, but the less said about my first loaf the better, if you imagine something that has all the characteristics of a brick, and could possibly be confiscated as a weapon and your somewhere near. Needless to say it has been nearly a year since that fateful day. So I found a recipe that looked gentle to the novice baker and set about the kitchen. The recipe was a Nigel Slater one that had been bastardised into american weights and measures, the whole cup system is too vague if you ask me, I much prefer grams or pounds. It came together as expected and once the ingredients resembled a sticky dough I tipped it out onto my side and worked the dough until springy, which took a while. Can Bakers get RSI?
I set it in a bowl with a tea towel on top in a warm place to rise for an hour.
When I took the dough out to 'knock-down' and knead again it felt amazing, really fun to push and fold, and if I'm honest I felt like a proper baker boy, "what this? Oh just knocking up some bread, you know."
After letting it rise again for forty five minutes I did start to think it was looking quite big. This is probably the point where I should have decided to split it into two smaller loaves or even three.
I tucked it into a nice long bloomer shape and floured it slightly before sliding my creation into the oven. Now I'm a bit of a nerd in the kitchen and often watch through the glass what's happening step by step in the oven to help learn and avoid problems in the future. "I've created a monster!" It wouldn't stop growing, I thought it was in danger or rising so much that it might touch the roof of the oven and wedge itself in there. Fortunately my bread considered its options and decided to take its chances at freedom rather than be confined to a life in the dark chamber of my oven. I set Frankensteins monster on a wire rack to cool and even though it was enormous and would probably be considered morbidly obese by his peers, I loved him anyway. The bread actually looked really good and as mentioned before, the smell my flat was now filled with was better than any incence you can buy.
Note to self: fresh bread incence, possible business idea, or the ramblings of an idiot?
Once Big Steve had cooled down, as I was now affectionately calling him, I cut into him and smeared some butter over a slice. The bread was good but slightly stodgy, It definitely wasn't as light and fluffy as I would have liked but as a second attempt I was quite pleased with myself. The behemoth bread wasn't actually that big once you cut a few slices off and was really a blessing in disguise. The slices were so big I made a massive sandwich with some extra mature cheddar, some free range, aged iberico chorizo and Tracklements Chilli Jam.

I was over the moon with my bread. I am going to keep experimenting with different flours and flour mixes and try to work the dough that little bit more. If I had eight kids the loaf would have been ample, but as it is just the two of us I will have to reduce the quantities, or start thrusting loaves of bread on my parents every time I see them.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Gun, Docklands

I've been crazy busy this last week and after working nights in Cardiff for a few days fitting carpet tiles in a call center, I came home and drove my wife and sister up to The O2 arena for them to go see Beyonce. Rather than pay £25 for the parking and have nothing to do but pay for overpriced coffees and internet I opted for a drive through the tunnel and into Canary Wharf and to a pub overlooking the Thames called The Gun. The Pub has been there for nearly 250 years and was a local meeting place for Lord Nelson before he died at the battle of Trafalgar. I managed to park right outside on the cobbled streets and for free too, I grabbed my rucksack with my computer hoping to do some work over a pint. The Gun is a very masculine old pub and I don't mean I had to step over fighting men on the way to the toilet but that it just has a rugged and warm feel to the place despite the high winds and chill of Autumn. I got a pint of Pride in and took a table bar-side right next to the log fire. Sadly the internet wasn't working and after lots of attempts the manager came over and told me that she uses a mac too and that she can never seem to get online using the pubs router, was a shame but I was impressed that the manager herself had come by to tell the scruffy, bearded twentysomething in a t-shirt that she apologised for the inconvenience. I wasn't planning on having anything to eat but the menu was stooped in game. I was still full from my lamb and roast potato lunch round mums but I knew I could fit in a cheeky salad, especially if it involved pigeon. I also noted the footnote to the menu which said all game may contain shot, which In my mind only added to the romanticism of this old rugged pub by the docks. I settled for the 'Salad of warm pigeon, spiced pear, parsnip crisps and hazelnuts,'
I asked for it bar-side and the waiter came and laid out my cutlery and brought me a selection of warm breads. My salad arrived and sat on the plate very well. The pigeon breasts were cooked perfectly, just seared but still warm to the middle, It came in a hazelnut oil and red onion dressing and the slices of poached spiced pear complimented the depth of the pigeon successfully. For my salad and a pint of London Pride the bill was only £10.20 plus tip, not even half the price for the O2 car parking. I left and tried to make my way to St. John Bread and Wine for a drink and maybe a starter or something small to eat, however forgetting it was Sunday and St. John having more traditional opening hours it was twenty past ten by the time I arrived and was closing. Next time I guess. After a little cruise around the city I doubled back to the O2 and sat down by the water to read and have some coffee before I drove home with two very excitable girls.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Back from Cornwall

Just got back from a four day trip to Cornwall. Five of us rented out a beach house in Gwithian which is a little place by the beach near St.Ives. We had a really cool wooden house to stay in with an unusually well equipped kitchen. The surf is pretty good at Godrevy, just two hundred yards from the beach house, but due to mother nature and her anger at me for not recycling my Orange Juice carton the week before, it was washed out. We went in on our first day anyway and fought against the strong currents and the whitewash but after getting bored and trying to make my board do flips with my hands, the wind caught it and I got smacked in the face by the rail of my board and my eyes rolled back in my head. Time to get out and get some food in me.
I went armed to the hilt with a box full of store cupboard essentials and a more than a few bottles of wine. Between us we had bought a barrel of Ringwood Brewery's "Huffkin" Autumn Ale, anyone who hasn't tried it yet should put it on their;
"list of things to try before I'm too pissed to notice what I'm drinking." It's definately in my top three real ales.
We didn't eat out and I cooked a mean fish pie one night. One of the best things was climbing all over the rocks and looking in the rockpools when the tide was out, mainly looking for razor clams but sadly to no avail. However on two occasions we came home with a bucket full of fresh cornish mussels and once home, while the others had an afternoon siesta, I simmered them in a simple garlic, butter and white wine sauce, then sat at the Kitchen island with a deep bowl full of the mussels and picked at them while finishing off a nice bottle of white. Banging way to spend an afternoon.
Even though we only went surfing once whilst we were there and the fact the weather and waves suddenly turned the day we left, I wasn't bothered. I was just happy to have had some time to relax and cook a bit. I drank far too much and didn't get to read as muc as I wanted but it was a wicked holiday and can't wait to go back and look for more mussels in the rocks.