Saturday, February 24, 2007

Asia Recap.

Well, I've finally returned from Asia after an amazing 3 week trip that spanned Singapore, Vietnam & Thailand. I cannot put into words how much I enjoyed this trip, particularly the food. I see that Teddy has already blogged a few of the places we visited in Singapore & Vietnam. So I'm going to give my spin on the dining/food aspects our trip to & then move on to Thailand which I visited with my culinary cohort; Guy. Unlike many blogs which post the newest stuff on top, I'm going to post in chronological order, This might put people off, but I think it's best for the readers of the blog.


We (Teddy, Guy, Anthony & myself) arrived in Ho Chi Minh & checked into our hotel. We went to a local bar & had a few beers & lunch. I opted for the Green Chicken Curry which was excellent & cost a little over $2.

We had breakfast at a tiny eatery the next morning, a so-so omelet & a delicious mango juice drink.

After a hair-raising cyclo tour of the city, we stopped off for lunch, the national dish of Vietnam; Pho. I immediately fell in love with this dish. It's very light, unlike Japanese noodle soups. Adding a little lime & some veggies really brings out the flavor. For $1, you can't go wrong!

We visited a large market soon afterwards & saw some of the freshest foods & amazing street-side cooking.

We headed down to the beach 'town' of Mui Ne & were treated to more culinary delights. One of the most fun meals was had at a restaurant by our hotel. We started with fried calamari & a shrimp cocktail, then Teddy & I had a seafood dish that we grilled ourselves. Delicious!

We hit up a fancy hotel the next day & were treated to some of the best food of our trip.

Where do I begin? Calamari, Barracuda, Slow roasted pork, squid & more. We finished 3 bottles of wine that day, right on the beach... Who could ask for more???

All in all, the culinary experience of Vietnam was worth the 23 hour trip, anything else was a bonus!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Pho - Mach I

I just couldn't wait to spin up some Pho in the kitchen.

I did cheat too. I used 'Superior Touch "Better than Buillion" Beef Base'. It is a fabulous product for us people with small kitchens if used correctly. Not too much. Heavy handedness just won't do it. The broth is important because it's the base for the soup, the backbone if you will. I used 1 tsp beef paste per pint of hot water. I reckoned about 3/4 pint per soup portion, so 1.5 tsp of paste.

To this I added a tablespoon of fish sauce, about half a thumb of thinly sliced ginger, a really good pinch of dried pepper flakes as the local boy had let me down and I couldn't get fresh red chili, five spice powder (in the absence of star anise and cinnamon sticks) and a few black peppercorns. I thinly sliced a bison steak, enough for 2. D'Agostino's didn't have a decent beef fillet and this was an interesting substitute. My first time in fact. I shoved it in the freezer for a bit to firm it up to make thin slicing a cinch. D'Ag's didn't have plain Chinese noodles either (!) so I bought some Top Ramen noodles and threw the sachet away. (1 TR noodle pack pp.) So that's the main ingredients of the soup. Bring the stock to the boil, add aromatics, reduce heat and let it simmer for 20. Strain. I chucked the noodles for the soup into boiling water and let them cook, about 8 mins. I drained and added them to the strained stock.

While that was cooking I got all my garnish together. Beansprouts, fresh basil, coriander, lime wedges, fish sauce, sliced onions and scallions, pepper flakes, radish for colour and I had some leftover cooked bok choi in the fridge.

Now for the assembly. Follow closely. It should only take you 23 seconds. Put the cooked greens if using into the bottom of the bowl. Add noodles. Ladle your simmering stock into the bowl and drop the thinly sliced bison or beef into that. It should cook pretty quickly. Grab some fish sauce and add a few drops, a small handful of sprouts, onion, basil and coriander, radish, a lime wedge and a few pepper flakes on top. And that's it. The Mrs said it was delicious.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Ho Chi Minh - Pho

After the excesses of Singapore, we four were looking forward to Vietnam where we believed we could eat and drink a little less. We were mistaken. Ho Chi Minh is culinarily mature and there seemed to be endless possibilities when it came to food.

We landed in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day 'acclimatising' with a few Saigon beers. We were to tackle the heart of HCM the morning after. We left the hotel early, and stumbled into the heat looking for breakfast. We found a place straight away and a woman carrying a gurgling baby fed us with bread, jam, omelettes with cheese and vegetables and a mango shake. One is never far from somewhere to eat in HCM. Detemined to soak up some of the culture, we headed out into the city on foot, coated in sunscreen. We bumped into some very friendly Vietnamese blokes who wanted to take us around the city for the nxt 2 hours in the front of their tricycles. "Why not?" we said. I was nervous as hell as we weaved in and out of the relentless tide of motorbikes and bicycles. Some mopeds carried up to 4 generations of a family, others huge boxes of fruit and vegetables, and all road users share common philosophies. Just hit the gas, pray, don't bump anybody in front, weave at all times and sound your horn as often as you can. I remember one moment when we pulled into a massive roundabout with no lines on the road, 93 lines of traffic and everybody seemed to be heading for us. Great way to see the city though.

We were dropped off at the market, a good 2 hours later having covered maybe 5 miles and one temple. This market was where the real action was. Food everywhere. Hot streets paved with hot pans, curry, soups, vendors haggling over live fish, greens, intensely coloured fruit. Everybody was selling something you could eat. I bought some coffee that smelled like chocolate. I wanted to buy some crabs too, but good sense prevailed and I held off. I mean, where would I cook them? It was getting close to lunchtime and I was delerious and hungry. We spotted a shop just called Pho and headed straight in for cold beer and some soup.

Pho is Vietnam's national dish. It's a simple noodle soup with meat/fish and fresh garnishes. I wanted some Pho Bo, or beef noodle soup. A well flavoured beef broth is made by stewing beef fillet, oxtails and brisket with aromatics. The beef fillet and brisket are thinly sliced and added to the strained broth with noodles and garnished typically with sliced red chilli, fish sauce, greens, beansprouts, coriander, basil leaves and lime wedges. Fresh and delicious. Mine had some thin slices of tripe in it too, for good measure. I enjoyed every slurp. Pho is eaten at any time of the day, and I was eager to try my own hand at Pho when I got home.

I found a great authentic Pho recipe online. I will cheat though when I finally get around to making it and not make my own fresh stock at home. It's just not practical in my kitchen. I will cook the thinly sliced beef from raw in the hot broth rather than stew it first. I am thinking about some interesting variations too. A surf and turf one with oysters. Perhaps a decadent pho with slivers of foie gras? Scallops and pork belly?

Singapore: Sreuth! The Beaufort

My good buddy Sid has been living in Singapore for the past year or so, and he has been relaying tales of lavish banquets, fresh king crabs and fish-head curry. The stories eventually got the better of my curiosity and before I knew it I was on a plane to Changi Airport, dreaming of seafood, spices, the Orient, equatorial sunshine. Our friend Guy was to turn up in Singapore too, he'd been in NZ for a wedding and he was 'in the area'.

I arrived 14 hours after leaving London (where I had stuffed myself silly with pies, pastries and good British cheeses) and walked out of the terminal into searing heat. It was like climbing into a tumble dryer. My throat was dry and my appetite unabated by the time I arrived in a cab at Sid's place in Clementi, and I was in luck as I had arrived on a Saturday morning. The weekend brunch buffets at Singapore's decent and historic hotels are notorious and I was keen not to be outbrunched by anybody on the island. I had butterflies when we rocked up to The Beaufort Hotel at noon exactly. Lovely place it is too, all tropical green and lush, with mirror marble floors and dead posh waiters in starched cuffs. We were escorted through to the brunch salon, where other early birds like us were hovering around chef's trolleys in anticipation.

In all my years, I have never seen a spread anything quite like it. Tables creaking under the weight of halved lobsters, clams, scallops, whole and split crabs, little dishes of sliced duck, foie gras, lamb chops, smoky bacon, poached eggs, cured salmon, continental cheeses of all kinds, chocolates and tropical desserts. Every waitress had in her grasp chilled bottles of champagne and they were frantically dashing from table to table topping up crystal flutes. The deal is $50 US dollars for as much as you can keep down. The brunch lasts for 3 hours, 12-3. Champagne, wine and Bloody Maries flow freely for those 3 hours to accompany the food. You can understand why I was so excited. Sid and I made a beeline for the seafood cradle where we loaded gold-rimmed plates with crab, lobster, jumbo shrimp and scallops which we ate messily with lemon wedges and dollops of thousand island dressing.

Purists might suggest that TI dressing is the best way to mask the subtle taste of fresh seafood. I say bollocks to that, and what the hell, if I want it plain I can just go back and get some more, right? Remember, decadence is the key here. I followed this with a mini English muffin layered with smoked ham and chorizo, a perfectly poached egg, spicy sauce and chives. Then a few slices of duck with foie gras and cherry marmalade, a juicy pink lamb chop with pistachio crust.

I switched from champoo to a red Merlot and I was about to assault the cheese table.

I think I had maybe 5 different cheeses with grapes, all French, all marvellous. Another glass of red got me through the next course of Belgian chocolates and cheesecakes. By that time, there was only about an hour of brunch time left, and in the interests of caning it and getting my money's worth I switched back to champoo. It was at this point that Sid announced that he had been to change his shorts as he'd had a small accident while trying to rid himself of some painful gas. His excesses of the night before were taking their toll. After much sniggering about his predicament we had a pair of coffees, a couple of smokes in the sun and one final glass of bubbly.

At 3, Beaufort brunchers are invited to take a dip in their black glass swimming pool to complete a wonderful afternoon. The have a very handy pool bar next to it too, and it was from here that I was able to coax a delicious white Russian from the barman who beamed with delight while he mixed it for me. Clearly, he enjoys his work and I had to applaude him after I'd taken my first sip. "Good work, Son."

Guy joined us for drinks shortly afterward. He'd been been taken ill the night before so he stayed home for the food part as he didn't want to overload his system. A 'dodgy prawn' was blamed. I had been rendered incapable of anything after all that eating and drinking, and it was all a real effort to get my shit together to climb into a cab. We headed for Sid's place, but we took a diversion and ended up in a 'traditional Irish pub' where we played a few frames and had a couple of Guinni. I slept like a baby that night, all stuffed and drunk and happy. Another day of food followed, and then we were off to Vietnam to eat our way around Ho Chi Minh.

Thu Club, London

After a few days in London I drove up to my Mum's place in Cheshire. Besides the obvious, there's a few reasons I love to go back to the place of my birth, and not least to get stuck into some good old fashioned British pies. The local butcher Clewlow's in Nantwich, an old market town, makes some astonishing award-winning pies and I always call in here first before doing anything else. I bought about a dozen - a mixture of simple pork, Shropshire (with beef and tomato), Dabbers, and my favourite, the Hunstman's Pie. This has a layer of pork, topped with a layer of chicken, topped with a layer of sage and onion stuffing. It's cross-section is something else. Hardly any of the pies made it past a visit with my old friend, Organic Dave, who makes furniture and grows his own hops. I went straight from the butcher's to Dave's, clearly a big mistake as I'd turned up at lunchtime and despite my keeping my mouth shut, it was almost like he could sense that there were pies on the back seat of the car. The 2 Huntsman's however, were safely wrapped in brown paper and secreted away in the boot. It was these that I was to cart back to London for a TC before I flew out to Asia.

Matthew and Nana had been breeding some junior Thursday Clubbers, and it was a delight to see Oscar in fine fettle.

Matt wanted to cook mackerel with a sort of salsa verde, Olivier had been home to France and had returned with some beef cheeks his mother had made, and together with my Huntsman's pies, and a Reblochon Oli knicked from his Mum's pantry, we had four courses. Nana joined in the fun on this Thursday night too, and was very keen to make sure our glasses were never empty.

The pies were first up. We sliced em thin and we all had a couple of slices each. There is only ONE accompaniment to a good pie, and I had procured a jar of piccalilli, which we dolloped on to our plates and swiped the pie slices through this before dropping them into our mouths. Matt filleted the fish which he grilled with loving attention, and arranged them artfully on plates with the sauce. The mackerel was delicious, the sauce pungent and tasty with capers and olives. A great match up.

Beef cheeks were re-heated (I know we only actually cooked one course, but it was an impromptu affair and I had to up early so minimal fuss was the order of the day) and served with crusty bread. The cheeks are a great cut, low cost and really flavoursome. Madame Leclerc briaed them with carrots, onion, garlic, some herbs and not beef stock but water. She didn't even use salt. How simple could it be. They were super tender with a sheen of sweet fat on them and I was tempted to lick the plate but I remembered I was with company.
The last leg was a Reblochon, a big-gun French cheese with a luscious texture and nutty taste which Olivier presented with Gallic pride. It had been getting up to room temperature on a cutting board, and it had started to slip over the side as all good soft cheeses do.

I loved it, it went very well with a red wine we were drinking which cut through the fat (I can't remember what) but I could only manage two small pieces, it was very rich and I'd just eaten 3 dishes already. I don't know whether it was the cheese, or just that I had eaten and drank too much. I woke up at 6.30am to go to Heathrow with chronic heartburn and there was little I could do to stop the burning. I felt truly rotten. I guess what goes up must come down. Every action has a reaction.

Smith's of Smithfield, London

It had been a while since I'd returned to the Motherland, and I was keen to catch up with the chaps over some old fashioned beer and some good grub. I landed early in the morning, dropped my bags and headed for The French House, a classic London boozer steeped in history. General De Gaulle used this along with the French Resistance as a hideout during WWII. The bar is now a hideout for aspiring actors, writers and film directors, and this is reflected in the prints that hang around the small bar. There was a flicker of recognition from the barmaid who must have remembered us from our heady summer drinking sessions a few years ago. Shane, Alex, Matt and I turned up the heat gently with Kronenbourg 1664 (why can't I get that in the US?) a few large G&Ts and some jolly conversation and liberal back slapping.

From here, we headed out to Smithfield Market, a huge market in London's east end dating back to 1327, where fresh produce is whipped straight from the vendors stalls into the surrounding restaurants. We had booked a table on the 4th floor of Smith's of Smithfield, a dining room specialising in rare meats and fish. Our table wasn't quite ready so we waited at the bar and nursed a martini or two before we were seated. We surveyed the scene - City boys entertaining clients, advertising pros discussing new campaigns. I think we were the worst dressed people in the room, but we weren't there to show off our frocks, we were there to indulge. The menu listed solid British stuff, and we had each chosen very different starters and mains so we could sample morsels from each other's plates. Fresh bread arrived with some fabulous butter and were tore into that like we hadn't been fed for a week. Beef raviolo with parsnips, greens and foie gras sauce, goose liver terrine with Sauternes jelly, cod with mint-pea puree, chips and mayo, fillet of dab (a flat fish found in the channel) and a rare-breed fillet steak featured highly and caused the most fuss at the table. Everything tasted delicious and we concluded that great produce simply cooked and presented with minimal fuss was the way forward. I had a 'special' terrine of rabbit and venison with honey, followed by fillet of dab. It was thick and succulent, wrapped in it's own crispy skin nestled on a bed of greens, with some Thames mussels lying around the plate in a great butter sauce. Matt's beef raviolo in FG sauce was sublime, as was Alex's terrine, although he was convinced that the Sauternes jelly on his plate was not what it should be. I helped him polish that off. I hate waste.

We had a couple of great wines to wash it down too, and by 5pm we were feeling really good. Then the bill arrived. All told we'd spent about 100 quid each with wine and pre-lunch drinks. I thought that was expensive, but after calculating the time we'd spent at the table, about 4 hours, I didn't feel it was OTT.
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