Wednesday 25 February 2009

Chinese, crispy, aromatic, pork belly pancakes

Having somehow failed to win last year's pancake competition Cowie and I had a long hard look at ourselves. We realised we'd let ourselves down and our families down. So we went away and put our thinking caps on. The thinking caps worked brilliantly. Inspired by watching Heston's programme about how to make the perfect crispy aromatic duck and our love of pork belly we decided to try something new. Something original. Something no one has ever done before!

Chinese, crispy aromatic pork belly... mmmmm....

So we went to visit Chadwick's in Balham where we were sold a glorious piece of pork belly. Dry to the touch and butchered like a work of art. As soon as I removed it from it's wax paper jacket I knew we were in for a treat.

Pork belly 1

The first step was to salt the skin and wrap the whole joint in kitchen towel before popping in the fridge for a few hours to ensure the skin was primed for top class crackling. Cowie arrived back from the gym with a plethora of spices. We dusted the belly with half a jar of five spice and a sprinkle of salt before roasting the joint on a wire rack at a decent heat. The intense heat browned the outside and filled the house wafts of the east.

After forty minutes we removed the pork belly and bowed down before its golden glory!

Pork belly 2

Looking good. It was now time for phase 2. Remove the pork and rack. Place to one side. Pour a couple of tins of peaches and two more of lyches into the roasting pan. Make sure they have been preserved in syrup as you need the sugar for the sauce later. Then pour in plenty of soy sauce. My bottle had a jammed lid so I was only able to trickle it in, which makes it hard to suggest how much is needed! Then throw in 2 star anise and a stick of cinnamon. Depending on how much heat you like, add some chili. You need it for some background warmth and depth. Sprinkle on more five spice and give it all a stir. Place the pork belly on top of the fruity mixture. You'll also need to add some rice wine vinegar to add some sharpness to offset the sweetness. It will look a bit like this...

Pork belly 3

Tun the oven down to around 150 and place the pan at the base of the oven. There's no need to cover it. Then you need to find something to occupy yourself with for 5 or 6 hours whilst the house fills with incredible smells. We played squash. I smashed my racket.

When you remove the belly from the oven it should look a bit like this.

Pork belly 4

The next thing to do is peel the semi crackled crackling from the top of the belly. Pop it on a wire rack add some salt and turn on the grill. After five or ten minutes have a look and you should be the proud owner of some light, crispy crackling.

This is the ideal time to finish the sauce off. Add half a jar of hoisin sauce to the juice and mix around. It should thicken and take on the glossy feel you get in Chinese restaurants.

Next, remove the pork belly and the fruit and pour off the sauce. Allow it all to cool completely before storing in the fridge.

I marched into work with a thermos flask of my special sauce, a tupperware filled with glorious pork belly and a zipper bag full of crackling. With a stroke of amazing fortune I found myself in Chinatown at lunchtime which allowed me to pick up a pack of Chinese pancakes.

We arrived at the pancake party fully loaded. Cowie started chopping some spring onions and cucumber whilst I made straight for the oven where I reheated the pork belly before shredding it into shards of juicy flesh.

We served the hoisin sauce in Chinese dishes and placed the crunched up crackling on a separate plate and let everyone tuck in as if it was a shared starter in a Chinese restaurant. Without wanting to blow our own trumpet, this is probably one of the best things we have ever cooked. It was salty, crunchy, sweet, juicy, deep and more importantly gorgeous. Take a look for yourself...

Pork pancake no sauce

Our hard work paid off. Our pancake was voted best savoury pancake of the night. So now the pressure is on as defending champions to raise our game and take the pancake innovation up a level. Watch this space.

For other pork belly recipes have a look at:

Brixton Pork Belly
Chinese Pork Belly

Saturday 21 February 2009

Annoated review of Heston's Little Chef

I used only words for my debut review as Shreddie Kruger on the esteemed London Review of Breakfasts. So if you want words go there. If you want pictures stay here.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Miso Skate Risotto

Miso skate risotto

Wow. This is the best thing I have cooked this year. And I owe most of it to a chap called Thom Dinsdale who inspired this recipe by sending me his miso risotto recipe. My initial reaction was that it sounded a bit weird and terribly savoury. But. With the addition of the miso skate, some pak choi and Japanese mushrooms it was superb.

Go for a glass of wine after work. Have two or three by mistake and then hot foot it to Waitrose where you know they have all the clever Japanese stuff that this needs. Then realise that they have run out of white/shiro miso paste and hurredly improvise by panic buying sachets of miso soup. Next visit the fish counter and realise that cod is very expensive and opt for skate wings instead. Especially when they are on offer for £1 a wing. Result.

Then pick up some mirin, rice wine, pak choi, spring onions, oriental mushrooms including shitake and those tall skinny ones and zoom home as fast as possible because you've promised your house mate and their friend dinner. And you're already an hour late before setting off!

Burst in. Grab all the saucepans and get cooking. Drink more wine as if it is Lucozade before a big match. Add miso sachets to a pan and add 2/3 of the amount of water that they suggest. Dissolve. Then remove enough liquid to use as a marinade and place in the fridge until cooled having added mirin and some rice wine vinegar. When it is cooled chuck in the skate wings. If you do this when the liquid is hot the fish will get poached.

Add more water to the miso liquid and let it heat up into the stock for the risotto. I added some dried mushrooms to give it more depth as well.

Add oil and butter to a heavy Le Crueset pan and melt. Chop several spring onions and dramtically add to the pan. Imagine you are Keith Floyd at this moment and don't be afraid of miming a voice over. Feel free to spill most of the contents on the floor. And don't worry about setting fire to the tea towel. There are plenty more in the drawer. Add a chopped onion and sweat until soft.

Spring onions frying

Then add risotto rice and let it crackle for a bit. Then pour in half a glass of rice wine or sake. Let this hiss away and then add the miso soup as if it was stock, one ladle full at a time. Stir continously. It will become wonderfully thick and glossy.

Miso risotto

Remove skate wings from marinade and place in a foiled baking tray on top of some spring onions to act as a matress.

Mido marinade

Pour over remaining marinade and add some ginger and a bit of chilli. Bake for 12 minutes in a hot oven until the flesh is cooked and the edge has browned.

Miso skate cooking

Whilst the skate is cooking, do the stir fry by adding the pak choi and mushrooms to a wok with some oil and blasting over a high heat. Douse in a glug of soy towards the end and drizzle with sesame oil.

Mushtoom and pak choi

Amalgamate all the elements and serve. It is so delicious and relatively easy to do. My next evolution of this dish is going to involve using Gastronomy Domine's recipe for miso glazed recipe that includes the shiro miso paste that I couldn't get in Waitrose but adapting it for skate cheeks and skate wing to accompany the risotto. I can't wait to give it a go.

Skate with miso risotto

Monday 16 February 2009

Disappointing Bentley's

I posed the question “Bentley’s or Scott’s?” on Twitter and got a mixed response. Chris was adamant that Scott’s was the right option and others thought Bentley’s was a good choice. Rather liking the idea of having a Valentine’s Eve meal on Swallow Street, I went for Bentley’s.

With a bounce in our step Cowie and I sauntered past Gaucho, where we had enjoyed a clumsily, high handed meal some time ago, and into the romantic reception area at Bentley’s. The sound of the piano welcomed us in like the sirens who destroyed the lives of many ancient sailors. Beguiled by the slightly too loud piano and modern day Melpomene, we asked whether it was possible to have a glass of champagne at the bar before dinner. Given that we were early and that they stood to make more money out of us, we were shocked that we were denied. Apparently, tables needed turning! Rather taken aback I became more forceful changing the question to a statement of fact.

We enjoyed our champagne enormously – probably because it was illicit. Its peachy tones and almost creamy fizz restored our optimism and set the tone for the meal ahead.

Having finished our champagne we were led to an excellent table by our fabulous waiter (whose name I tried to remember but have forgotten). The dining room upstairs is well proportioned and decorated with padded fabric which takes all the aggression out of peoples’ voices and delivers a wonderful buzz. It allows you to hear your companion perfectly whilst hinting at the presence – the aural equivalent of spotlights. Paintings of various fish adorn the padding in a way that distinguishes this from an asylum.

Deciding what to eat was more tricky than normal. So to ease the task we ordered half a dozen Maldon natives and a bottle of Muscadet in what was to be an ongoing homage to my Grandfather.

I’ve had many good oysters in the last few years at Wrights, in Whitstable, at the Royal Well Tavern and in France but there is no doubt that these were the best I have ever eaten. Their flesh was textured almost like raw fillet of beef and their flavour was like someone had distilled the essence of the sea. The attention to detail was immaculate. The shells had been scrubbed to ensure no grit gets in the way of the textural nirvana. And they were shucked to perfection. A dash of shallot vinegar completed the perfect way to start our Valentine’s Eve.

Our minds were made up for us by our waiter. Cowie asked for his advice, and unusually, took it, by ordering a Singapore crab and mussel soup followed by steamed sole with langoustines and courgettes which I can remember seeing on Great British Menu. I went for the squid stuffed with chorizo followed by a Dover sole.

Cowie’s soup was full of freshness and vitality. But was shockingly almost empty of crab and mussels. A meagre three small mussel shells emerged from the half eaten bowl. And there was no physical trace of any crab at all. After such an incredible start with the oysters this was a major let down.

My baby squid stuffed with chorizo and feta came with a beautifully naughty butter, garlic and parsley sauce and brought a sizeable smile to my face. The stuffing was gorgeous. Full of flavour and colour. My only concern was the slightly chewy nature of the squid. At this level you expect silky softness and near zero resistance. It was a hint of what was to come.

The hit and miss saga continued with our main courses except in reverse. Cowie’s steamed sole fillets, arrived looking like an extra from London fashion week, with courgette strips giving the torpedo structural support. A scattering of langoustines finished the dish. It was light, sympathetically cooked, subtle and in short, masterful. I half expected to look up and see Cowie transformed into Jenny Bond!

My Grandfather is a huge fan of seafood and always orders Dover sole whenever he has the chance. I’ve inherited his love of what he describes as the Queen of fish and have a similar knee jerk reaction to it when I see it on a menu. Except that I normally can’t afford it! He always asks for it to be left on the bone and takes great pride in performing the laparotomy himself.

When my sole arrived I winced and sent it back saying that I had asked for it to be left on the bone. It arrived back moments later with the waiter pointing out, very politely, that I was either blind or an idiot. It was still on the bone. It lay lifeless on my large white plate, tinged with a buttery brown glow. For £33.50 it looked mean. As if the other half was still in the kitchen. My mood was darkened when I started operating. The flesh, which should have yielded, resisted. Rather than being moist and juicy parts of it were dry. I mumbled my way through it and checked I was right with Cowie that I hadn’t all of a sudden become useless.

I’ve had many great Dover sole experiences hanging onto my Grandfather’s coat-tails but this one was a grave disappointment and sullied the whole meal. When our waiter asked what we thought of our main courses I told him that the chef had overcooked the most expensive fish on the menu and I was very disappointed. He emerged 5 minutes later to tell me that chef hadn’t overcooked the fish! Well maybe he hadn’t and it had been the hot lamps on the pass that had ruined it. Either way, it was seriously below standard for one of London’s top fish restaurants.

Stumped by this we eschewed dessert and contemplated our meal over a coffee instead, remarking that their chocolate truffles were too cold! Looking around the restaurant we saw numerous empty tables which made us feel even more irritated that the maître d' had tried to force us to our table early.

On our ride back to Balham we tried to tease our experience apart. At £170 it was the most expensive meal we have indulged in together in London. And it most certainly wasn’t the best. It was littered with flaws that all were the result of a lack of attention to detail in just the same way that Gaucho had next door. Poor front of house, stingy starter for Cowie, overcooked sole/steak for my main course. Maybe this is a quirk of expensive West End restaurants. Or more specifically it is almost as if Richard Corrigan has taken his eye of Bentley’s whilst he is focussing on getting Corrigan’s off the ground. Surely if his attention had been on Bentley’s our experience would have been the highlight of the year we had been hoping for.

As it happens, our Valentine’s Day breakfast at Heston’s Little Chef the next morning more than made up for Bentley’s clumsiness. As Chris has pointed out since, I should have taken his advice!

Bentley's on Urbanspoon

Monday 2 February 2009

Chinese New Year at Leong's Legends

Saturday was full of serendipity. Three of us converged on Chinatown to continue our search for London’s best sandwich. Given that it is Chinese New Year, the theme for February’s sandwich is Chinese. It’s been quite a struggle to find somewhere that sells Chinese sandwiches, but yet again Chowhound has come up trumps by suggesting a pork belly filling in a steamed bun. My concerns that this isn’t a legitimate sandwich were dispelled when I read Su-Lin's review on Tamarind and Thyme.

I emerged at Leicester Square station and was amazed by the sight of a full on parade that brought back memories of the street carnivals in the Roger Moore James Bond films. I had been worried that Chinese New Year had been and gone. But this was insane!

Chinese lanterns

Boy in China Town

Chinatown chefs

Chinatown red crackers

Chinatown Dragon

Chinese New Year

Leong's Legends sign

Cowie and I met up at Leong’s Legends, Taiwanese restaurant, on Macclesfield Street having battled through the excitable crowd. As predicted by World Foodie Guide, the maitre d’, tried to bully us into settling for a substandard table, tucked away out of the action. But we stood firm and commandeered an excellent table with full view of the festivities outside and the buzz of the kitchen. His waspish behavior punctuated the experience, in a way that developed all the way from irritation to hilarity!

Leongs Legends indoors

Cowie and I played it safe with some wonderfully fresh dim sum.

Duck and chestnut puffs were brilliant. Sweet, sticky and flaky with a slight note of nutty sesame. Luckily Cowie wasn’t interested in this one so I scoffed all three!

Duck and chestnut buns

Cowie was far more interested in the dinky little steamed prawn dumplings which were gorgeous. The dumplings didn’t stick to the steamer and were utterly devoid of that claggy, dense feel you get from Ping Pong’s ersatz dumplings.

Prawn dumpling

Some cheung fun arrived which was a bit disappointing. Whilst it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t up to the standard of the other dishes. It tasted a bit flat but was lifted by the sweetened soy sauce. Royal China’s are far better.

Roast pork cheung fun

Some Beijing pork and chive dumplings were as delicious as they were un-photogenic and were served with a lively soy and black vinegar dip.

We devoured our sticky rice with shredded pork which had a deep gamey flavour and hint of wild mushrooms.

Sticky rice with shredded pork

As we were tucking into the shredded pork a pantomine lion from the parade outside attacked our restaurant much to the joy of the staff. He slashed through a lettuce that was strung up the restaurant's door. Apparently this brings luck to the restaurant and money to the lion dancers. It brought the whole restaurant to life and a look of glee to most of the sraff. (Thank you Su Lin for filling me in). I’ll leave the pictures to do the talking.

Leongs Legends chef

Leong's Legends smiling waitress

Leongs Legends steamy waitress

Just as Cowie and I were struggling with some slightly too dense siu mai dumplings when "Hollow Legs" Lizzie arrived fresh from sorting out her new flat to raise the stakes!

Cowie and I were uprooted from our comfort zone where we were happy learning to cycle with our stabilisers and launched into the exciting world of grown up Chinese food.

Century eggs with tofu arrived first looking stunning. I’ve wanted to try century eggs for some time, so this was a great opportunity. They tasted like super charged eggs. But it was their appearance that really amazed me. The dusting of chilli and spring onion set the tofu up brilliantly. I am not a big tofu fan but enjoyed several spoonfuls at well spaced intervals! That red sauce you can see lurking at the bottom of the bowl should come with a government health warning!

Tofu with century eggs

Slithers of beef and tripe in a incredibly spicy sauce arrived next. Again I’ve never had tripe before so this was pretty exciting. If it wasn’t for Lizzie I’d still be a tripe virgin! And you know what. It was really good. I doubt I will ever dream of eating tripe or order it that often. But I can now appreciate what it’s all about. The texture added an almost shitake mushroom feel to the dish and the aggressive chilli gave it an addictive warmth.

Spicy beef and tripe

A steamer full of exquisite xiao long baos, AKA soup filled dumplings, took us back towards our comfort zone with a burst of scalding hot soup! This set us up perfectly for the reason we had come; their soon to be famous pork sandwich which confusingly appears on the menu as Taiwanese Kebab Bun.

Sandwich long range


It was a delicious sandwich and well worth the trip. It really couldn’t have been a better fit for Chinese New Year. Arguably the best themed sandwich so far. But to find out more you’ll have to read about it on the Londonist’s Sandwichist column.

Leong’s Legends was huge fun. It was an extremely fortunate treat that our visit coincided with the Chinese New Year parade. And Lizzie’s “out there” suggestions of century eggs and tripe have expanded our repertoire beyond the world of prawn and pork dumplings. It has cured us of the shock we had at Peninsula where we had a cultural collision with a pork hock and jellyfish dish! Leong’s was pretty good value and was buzzing with atmosphere. We will definitely return soon.

Leong’s Legends on Urbanspoon


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