Boxing Day Batch Wonton

A traditional boxing day activity for us at home is making a big batch of won ton – some to eat that day whilst all the family are still around, and some for the freezer to munch on another time. They’re a bit of a faff to make if you only doing a few at a time as the pastry wrappers come in packets of about 30 or so. They freeze very well, and most of all my mother takes great pride in packing a box of them in a cool bag for us to take back home after Christmas, to share with other friends or loved ones.

Mum: “Does Tom like my won ton?”
Me: “Yes mum”
Mum: “Does he really like them, or are you just saying?”
Me: “Yes mum, he does like them”
(Mum: Grins)
Mum: “How many does he have?”
Me: “Depends how hungry he is mum”
Mum: “Ah…does he prefer these won ton or the won ton I made last time?”
Me: “I don’t really know mum…he doesn’t talk about your won ton that much”
Mum: “Huhh?…I think he likes these won ton better”
Me: “Ok mum”

Batch Wonton

Won ton batch ready to go…

You can find a recipe for the won ton dumpling mix here.

A couple of tips for freezing them…
– dust a little cornflour on a tray and place each made dumpling on the tray, making sure they are not touching each other too much. Once you have a full complete layer of dumplings, loosely cover with cling film.
– you can then add another layer or two (I’d suggest no more than 3 in total), with a layer of cling film between each one.  Then freeze them overnight – once frozen, you’ll be able to put them in a tuppaware box, or portion 4-6 (depending on how hungry you are!) in sandwich bags, ready for your next meal.
– don’t be tempted to put them all in a tuppaware box or bag straight away and freeze them all in one go as they’ll stick together.  You’ll never be able to separate them and all your hard work will be wasted! (& Tom won’t get his dumplings).
– to cook from frozen, plunge several into boiling broth or stock for 8-10 minutes, depending on size. No need to defrost before cooking. Add some noodles in the last few minutes of cooking if you like as well as some chinese greens and a sprinkling of spring onions to serve.

Batch of Won Ton Dumplings

Dumpling Heaven

Cafe East

Nestled in a concrete jungle, or should I say the Surrey Quays super bowl and bingo car park, you’ll find a place called Cafe Pho – guilty of serving up some of the best Vietnamese food I’ve had in London.

I won’t moan about the odd location or fact that it’s a mission for 99.99% of people to get to, because quite conveniently for me, it’s not. In fact I think part of the reason why Cafe East has managed to remain so true to its roots since relocating from a smaller outfit in Deptford is because it’s tucked away from the masses. The food is so good they can get away with the authentic low-key, no frills approach – no tap water, no reservations, cash only, sans alcohol, “if you don’t like it you can go f@!# yourself!” – you get the idea?  This restaurant is not the kind of place to go to if you want to mess with the menu, or, dare I say it, ask for anything vegetarian – it is what it is, try to amend and things will only get messy!  However stick with the status quo, and you will be immensely rewarded.

The menu is fairly small – show casing 5 or 6 starters, and 15 or so mains which are centred around Pho (of course!), Bun (rice vermicelli noodles) and Com (rice dishes). The portion sizes are generous, especially the starters, so be careful not to go overboard on these (one starter is usually plenty for 2 people).  Do try the bean drinks, they are especially good here.

Cafe East Bahn Cuon

Bahn Cuon

Huge portion of Bahn Cuon, these rice paper rolls are stuffed with pork and mushrooms and then steamed. Topped with vietnamese sausage, fresh bean sprouts and fried shallots and dressed with a slightly spicy fish sauce, these are very morish indeed and I never forget to order them.

Pho Tai Chin

Cafe East Pho Herbs

Pho Herbs & Sprouts

The Pho are delicious – choose from beef (two ways), chicken, prawns or a mixture of all three. Being a creature of habit, I tend to avoid any notions of food envy by going for Pho Tai Chin, which is a mixture of thin slices of lean raw beef that cook in the broth, and slow cooked brisket, richly marbled and tender. The broth is excellent, full of meaty depth and aromatics such as star anise.  A deeply soothing meal if ever there was one. The rice noodles are always well cooked, soft and bouncey, and the accompanying vietnamese herbs and beansprouts generous. There’s nothing worse than being on the receiving end of a few measely scraps of herbs and soggy beansprouts, as these are in my opinion essential to any good Pho and bring the dish to life. I’ve yet to find a better Pho in London, (possibly) surpassed only by Uyen Luu’s Beef Pho which I’ve tried a couple of times at her cookery class and other events.

For me, the Pho is the stand out dish at Cafe East, but if you’re not a big fan of soup, the Bun are pretty tasty too.

Bun Bo Xao

Bun Bo Xao

These fine vermicelli noodles are topped with pickled vegetables, sprouts and nuts and accompanied by the signature fish sauce dressing. You can choose from a variety of meat toppings, pictured above is Bun Bo Xao which is stir-fried chunks of beef. I can never quite bring myself to order these in place of the Pho (I love my broth too much), but I can imagine this would be a welcome alternative on a really hot summers day.

Now I can’t claim to have tried all the Vietnamese restaurants in London, but I have had my fair share of Kingsland road mishaps, and as a result have almost neglected going there in recent years because it’s always disappointing. If you take note of the other customers in Cafe East at any one time, you’ll notice that the majority are asian. I really like that, a big fat seal of approval to have the restaurant full of Vietnamese and other Pho-craving asians. You know you’re getting the real deal, and the standard of food will not be compromised.

Check out Cafe East’s new website for a glimpse of their menu and prices, or directions should you happen to get lost in the ‘Leisure Park’. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

Dinner by Heston @ Mandarin Oriental Hotel

There has been a lot of hype over ‘Dinner’ since it opened in early 2011, Heston Blumenthal’s latest endeavour in collaboration with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Shooting straight to number 9 as a new entry to the league tables of The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants and praised by the most discerning of food critiques, I was chuffed to bits when my friend made a lucky last minute reservation as a treat for my birthday.

A world away from the alchemy that The Fat Duck brings, Dinner is a much more modest affair. Its ‘USP’ is a menu inspired by British gastronomy of times gone by, elevated to the present era through contemporary cooking techniques. As you browse the menu, the approximate date of each dish is noted, and a brief blurb on the reverse reveals the inspiration behind each one. Little cards were placed on the table with random facts, however these read more like an excerpt from an encyclopaedia and were a bit lost on me…

Located in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and backing onto Hyde Park, the ambience is what you would expect of a high end hotel in prime location London. Decor was subdued, dark wood dining furniture and low hung, slightly medieval looking chandeliers with candle-like lights. The visual stimuli really came from the glass chamber of chefs located to one side of the dining room, and we were delighted to bag a top spot with tranquil views of Hyde Park to one side and the hustle and bustle of the kitchen to the other. We weren’t lucky enough to have Heston on site on the day, but had plenty of opportunity to catch Head Chef Ashley Palmer-Watt as he commanded the service of his rather calm brigadier of chefs.

Suitably seated and pondering which of the lovely cocktails we were about to order, we were greeted by the sommelier who persuaded us to go for the “very, very, very good” champagne instead of the cocktail. The champagne was nice, but on reflection felt as though he was a little pushy in his recommendation, and can only assume he did this as pouring two glasses of champagne is much easier than making two different cocktails. The wine menu was extensive, but expensive! The cheapest bottle of red was about £35 and £40 for white.

So for the starters. Tempted as we were to go for the now legendary Meat Fruit (chicken liver parfait cleverly disguised as a glossy tangerine), we wanted to sample some of the other dishes on offer. My friend chose the Hay Smoked Mackerel c.1730 (with Lemon Salad, Gentlemen’s Relish & Olive Oil) at £14.50. Pretty as a picture, I didn’t try any but was assured that it was light, well balanced and tasted good.

I opted for the Roast Scallops c.1820 (with Cucumber Ketchup and Borage) at £16.50. The scallops were juicy and well cooked, as you’d expect from a Michelin Star restaurant. The cucumber relish was tasty, slightly sweet and acidic. I particularly liked the cooked cucumber chunks, something I’ve never tried before. Overall it was really accomplished, but I think it could’ve done with another variation in texture as everything on the plate was soft and wet.

For main course, my friend chose the Black Foot Pork Chop (with Hispi Cabbage, Lardo, Ham Hock and Robert Sauce) at £30.  So called ‘black foot’ aka ‘pata negra’ from the Iberico Hams typical of the Basque country. The chop was generous is size and the mouthful I tried was juicy and flavoursome. A quick search on Wiki reveals that Robert sauce is one of the oldest compound sauces on record, a version of which is cited in Le Cuisinier Francois (1620) by one of Henry IV cooks. Lucky Henry, the sauce was very good indeed.

I chose the Veal Sweetbreads with Morels and Asparagus (featured image).  This was one of the specials for the day and I didn’t manage to catch the date of origin. Very happy with my choice, the sweetbreads were lightly crumbed and perfectly cooked.

In contrast to the starters and desserts, the mains seemed far less complex.  More along the lines of ‘meat and two veg’ (although by the sounds of the feast that Henry IV had on his Coronation in 1399 it’s no small wonder!). Not that good food needs to be complicated, but after comparing the pictures of the mains with the other courses, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were from different restaurants.

The first dessert was Brown Bread Ice Cream c.1830 (with Salted Butter Caramel & Malted Yeast Syrup) at £9.50. Creamy, sweet, salty and malty with a bit of crunch and refreshing cubes of melon to cut through the richness.

A must for the chocoholics, we also ordered the Chocolate Bar c.1730 (with Passion Fruit Jam & Ginger Ice Cream) at £9.50. The chocolate bar with a layer of very sweet passion fruit jam was insanely rich, a little too rich for me. I loved the ginger ice cream but don’t think it quite stood up to the intensity of the bitter sweet chocolate.

To finish the meal, we were given complimentary Chocolate Ganache.  A nice touch, but had we known this was coming we’d have gone for something other than the Chocolate Bar for dessert. Definitely a case of chocolate overload!

The final verdict? I think those reviewers that have marked Dinner down for a lack of “WOW’ factor and theatrics have missed the point. If you go with expectations of iPods in shells and dry ice you’ll be sorely disappointed.  If you go with expectations of “What you see is what you get” then you should be pleased.  Each dish was a fine example of what it claimed to be – cooked using modern techniques and delivered in a no fuss or frills way.  More typically “British”, you could say.

Pricewise – there’s definitely others out their serving food of a similar standard at a fraction of the price.  The excessively expensive wine menu is also a deterrent. A three course meal for two with wine will leave you little change from £200.

The service was meticulous but pushy at times, I don’t have a problem with my glass being topped up every 5 minutes but I do take note of the sommelier pushing the champagne aperitif.

Would I go again? Hmmm…the jury is out on this one.  The problem is I can almost taste the other dishes already – precisely because what you see is what you get, no hidden tricks or surprises. Might just wait for some of the hype to die down and for a few more of the dishes on the menu to change before I venture back. We were very lucky with the last minute reservation and location of the table, I would book far in advance for this as the experience wouldn’t have been the same in some of the tucked away spots with restricted views.

Discovering Filipino Cuisine with the London Foodie

I recently had the pleasure of spending a rather gluttonous day discovering the essence of Filipino cuisine at a Cooking Club held by Luiz Hara. The concept of the cooking club is simple – Luiz selects a particular type of cuisine or foodie theme, and a bunch of blog readers descend on his beautiful home in north london to cook their selected dish, talk, eat, drink, talk, eat, drink and so on…till some hours later when we leave with a belly full of food and wine and a head full of inspiration.

Each event is co-hosted by an expert in the cuisine, in our case, Tina P, a native Filipino with a wealth of experience in Filipino culture and food. Tina prepared an extensive menu, which was emailed to us beforehand so we could each select a dish to serve on the day. Luiz does make clear that the event is indeed a cooking ‘club’, and not a ‘course’. Whilst an expert is there to offer a helping hand, you are ultimately responsible for preparing the finished dish and so some degree of culinary competence helps!

Kinilaw na Tuna – Vinegar-cured Tuna
Pork Barbecue – Grilled Skewered Pork
Lumpiang Shanghai – Fried Spring Rolls with pineapple sweet and sour sauce
Pancit Molo – Pork Dumpling Soup
Adobong Kangkong – Braised Water Spinach
Lechon Kawali – Deep Fried Pork Belly
Guinataang Sugpo – Prawns in Coconut Milk and Vinegar
Kare Kare – Ox Tail Stewed in Peanut Sauce
Chicken Adobo – Stewed Chicken in Vinegar and Soy Sauce
Turron – Crisp Banana Rolls
Leche Flan – Milk Custard
(and heaps of wine!)

I confess to knowing very little about Filipino food.  As I scanned the menu none of the dishes sounded familiar to me by name. Not wanting to be flustered by cooking on the day, I (rather naively) opted for the Oxtail Kare Kare dish which needed to be cooked in advance.  I had never even heard of the dish before and was a little nervous not knowing what to aim for in terms of taste and texture.  Several days later I discovered that Kare Kare is often the centrepiece at family feasts and special occasions, such as weddings and baptisms.  Gulp…no pressure then!

Alas, I needn’t have worried, as all the dishes turned out just great.  The menu took us through a journey of Filipino food, strongly influenced by flavours and techniques brought over by the Chinese, Malaysians and Spanish (to name but a few). Ingredients such as coconut and vinegar featured heavily on the menu, with all dishes having a more subtle flavour in comparison to the intensity and heat that often comes with neighbouring Vietnamese or Thai food.

I was glad to be one of the first to arrive as I was given the opportunity to get my fill of Luiz’ ridiculously adorable litter of Shih Tzu puppies. If my pockets had been a little larger they would have come home with me!

Once all the guests arrived, Luiz and Tina kicked off proceedings with a little introduction and explanation of the chosen menu.  We then tucked into the appetiser courses, with Tiffany’s Kinilaw na Tuna first up.

‘Kinilaw’ means to cook, or cure in vinegar. I later learnt that this method came about from the need to preserve fish or meat. The raw tuna was marinated in vinegar, coconut milk, shallots, ginger and chilli and served with crunchy slithers of red pepper and spring onion.

BBQ Pork Skewers next up, a mixture or pork belly and shoulder marinated overnight in garlic, sugar, soy, ginger, chilli and Sprite (you heard me, Sprite), skewered and then grilled till charred and yummy.

The last of the appetisers was Lumpiang Shanghai – no prizes for guessing the origins of this dish! Crispy rolls filled with pork, glass noodles and shiitake mushrooms (amongst other things), served with a sweet and sour pineapple dipping sauce.

We then migrated to the gorgeous dining room (major house envy) for the remainder of the day. Inbetween the appetisers, a few of us helped out May (of Malaysian by May) in preparing the wonton dumplings for the Pancit Molo soup – a mixture of pork, onion, garlic, soy, ginger and carrots. Always a fan of a good dumpling!

Luiz then brought forth the triple cooked, Yes, TRIPLE COOKED pork belly. I don’t need to garnish the description any more, you KNOW it tasted good.

With our appetites sufficiently wetted, the main courses ensued. Adobong Kangkong – braised spinach with red onion, soy, vinegar and sugar, was served alongside Guinataang Sugpo – prawns with coconut, ginger, garlic, vinegar and chilli. I adore spinach and have never cooked it with vinegar before, but was surprised at how tasty it was.

Cue drum roll…time for Oxtail Kare Kare. Thankfully Mae (Pepe’s Kitchen) helped me out with serving the finished dish which was served with steamed rice and the all important Bagoong, a paste made from fermented shrimp and salt. The paste really lends a savoury kick to the stew, which by contrast is subtle in flavour. The oxtail is slow cooked with onions, celery and peppercorns, before the addition of ground toasted rice, peanut butter, lime, garlic, onion, baby aubergine, long beans and pak choi.

The last main of the day was Chicken Adobo, thigh meat stewed with coconut, vinegar, soy, chilli, garlic and bay leaves, prepared by Frederico (looking very proud below!).

Adobo is widely regarded as the national Filipino dish, with the word Adobo deriving from marinade or sauce in Spanish. A very fitting way to complete a savoury Filipino banquet!

And finally onto the desserts – we had some very morish Turon, or Crisp Banana Rolls…

And beautiful Leche Flans, with a sugar syrup surface so perfect I could see my own reflection…

I had an amazing time at the Cooking Club. Got to learn heaps about Filipino food, met a really interesting bunch of people and played with puppies to my heart’s content. Not to mention eating a whole lotta food and slurping a whole lotta wine. I forgot to add, unlike a Supper Club, the event is free. You pay your way by bringing a bottle and buying the ingredients needed for your selected dish. Luiz was a most gracious and welcoming host, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday. My eyes will be peeled for future cooking club events for sure.

New addiction alert: Smoked Bacon & Scallop Sandwich

Bacon and Scallops have always been good friends, a tried and tested combination I’m sure many of you have tried before.  Only this time, try it in a sandwich. Salty, smoky, chewy bacon meets sweet, succulent scallop, wedged in doorstep slices of the softest white loaf.  This will make you raise your eyebrows I’m sure – that was my reaction when I first heard of it. But trust me, it’s good.  Better than good.  It’s ‘Up There’ with the All Time Top Weekend Breakfasts.

Don’t mess around with crap bacon for this. It’s got to be good quality and thick cut. I had some of my favourite smoked molasses bacon from Brixton Village Market, and some very fine hand dived scallops from Moxon’s Fishmonger, roe still intact.

The choice of bread is also important – you want a super soft white loaf – cut thick enough to hold everything in place as you munch away.  After frying the bacon, I quickly seared the scallops and roe in the same pan, adding a little butter.  Once cooked I let the scallops rest, and wiped the pan clean with one slice of the sandwich bread before assembling the tastiest sandwich ever. Enough said.