Red battered fish and chips

The whole calendar has been hijacked by various causes, some worthier than others. You’ve missed “Farmhouse Breakfast Week” (22-28th January) and already in February there’s been “Safer Internet Day” (wear a condom whilst browsing?). Next week there’s the quite thrilling “Fair Trade Fortnight” which should sort lots of things out no doubt.

Do I care? Not normally – and I also wouldn’t care about National Chip Week, even though I like chips and I encourage them in my own special way, were it not for the fact that my favourite fish and chip venue – the Black Country Living Museum – tweeted rather enigmatically that they were frying “red-battered chips” this week in celebration.

What are red-battered chips and more importantly why haven’t I heard of them until now? Google is no help. But a bit of incidental conversation on Twitter about West Midlands specialties (balti, pork pies, pork scratchings, faggots & peas, groaty pudding, Fenky Jane’s caribbean patties since you ask) also threw up orange battered chips. Sounds very similar. Apparently these are a Black Country specialty, the origins of which are a source of great controversy.

But – what are they? Well they are simply battered chips. Etymologists amongst you will not be surprised to find out that they are orange. Those who have eaten food, or observed teenagers in the Black Country won’t be surprised to find out this is achieved by adding tartrazine to the batter.

So what of the red battered chips? Well, with today’s beautiful spring-like weather I decided to go and find out for myself. Turns out Black Country museum on a weekday in February isn’t very busy, and I was first in line at Hobbs & Son.

“Why are they called red-battered chips not orange?” I enquired, trying to sound like I didn’t really have a middle-class Southern accent. “Because they are red”. Mystery solved. In they went to the fryer with a hunk of cod and I waited outside in the glorious winter-into-spring sun for them to be ready …

They were blimming lovely. Bostin’. Black Country museum fish and chips are already the best ever, cooked to order in beef dripping with quite the best crispy flavourful batter and perfectly steamed fish within. So adding some extra batter to the chips as well as a generous helping of crispies tucked in the bottom of the cone just serves to make the whole experience more decadent.

National Chip week runs until 26th February – in case you give a shit.

Hainan Chicken Rice 海南雞飯


The response was immediate: “Chicken Rice!”, when I asked her indoors what she wanted to eat for Valentine’s Day. Simple poached chicken and chicken flavoured rice. Yet as every good cook knows it’s the care in preparing these simple dishes that really sets them apart from other cooks.

So what sets my Chicken Rice apart? Well, only using the best chicken I can find is a good start and years of refinement also helps. If you make chicken rice with a hormone-fed-2-for-£5-special from T*sco then you’re going to get an insipidly bad result. When poaching a chicken it’s important to start with a good one because you’re not adding any roasting Maillard flavours or marinating it with herbs or spices. I’m a fan of the French Label Rouge chicken, they taste fantastic and have a firm toothsome texture. The French know how to breed chicken for flavour above all else. I would love to make Chicken Rice with a Poulet de Bresse one day – the ultimate French chicken. The other thing about the Label Rouge chicken is that they have a big plug of fat in the cavity. Trust the French to know that this is an essential ingredient, it’s a shame I’ve never found this is any chicken processed in the UK. You see, if you’ve ever tried cooking Chicken Rice at home and was disappointed with the rice, the reason is your stock was weak. It’s only one lightly poached chicken after all, unlike in a specialist shop where they are poaching dozens of chicken and producing deeply flavoured stocks. So it’s the chicken fat that helps the home cook to really bring back the flavour of chicken to the rice. The chicken itself should be moist, the meat just cooked through, the thigh bones still rosy pink. In Hong Kong, they poach their chickens so that the leg bones are still bloody inside. So when they chop the legs you can see the bloody bone-marrow spraying over the pearly white flesh.

Here’s my recipe for Chicken Rice, which a Malaysian friend once proclaimed “Luxury Chicken Rice” because of the way I’ve pimped it!

Serves 3-4

For the Chicken
1 Chicken – medium sized about 1.5kg
Ginger – peeled thumb sized lightly bashed
Spring Onion – 3 stalks

In a pan that is just larger than the chicken, boil enough water to submerge it. Add the ginger, spring onion and salt. Taste the water for saltiness as this will eventually be used to cook the rice. Lower the chicken gently into the boiling water, dipping it several times breast side down so the skin tightens and won’t split during cooking. Lay the chicken breast side up in the pan and bring the water back up to a simmer. Simmer gently for 10 mins covered, turn the heat off and let it finish cooking in the residual heat of the stockpot for another 50 mins. To stop the cooking plunge the bird into iced water for 10 mins, hang the bird upside down for at least an hour, preferably more, at room temperature for the flavour to fully develop.

For the rice
40g Chicken Fat
150g Shallot, finely sliced
1 Garlic Clove Large, finely minced
450g Jasmine Rice, rinsed
4 Dried Scallops (conpoy) soaked till soft
2 Pandan Leaves, shredded and tied into a knot
1/2 Sheet Kombu

Whilst the bird is hanging, render the chicken fat and slowly fry the shallots for 15 mins till they are brown, add the garlic and cook briefly before adding the washed rice. Toast the rice in the aromatics before adding the chicken stock and the water used to soak the scallops. Shred the scallops into the rice, add the pandan and kombu and cook the rice in your usual way (I transfer the whole lot to a rice cooker).

Once the rice is cooked serve the chicken neatly chopped up in the Chinese way and devour with the non-optional ginger-scallion oil and the optional sweet chilli sauce as accompaniments.

Ginger-Scallion Oil
70g Ginger, finely grated
35g Spring Onion (Scallions), equal amount of white and green parts finely chopped
15g Coriander, mostly stalks finely minced
1 tsp Salt
75ml Groundnut or Vegetable Oil
Soy Sauce

Combine the ginger, spring onion, coriander and salt in a heat proof bowl. Heat the oil in a small pan till it is smoking. Make little wells with a chopstick in your ginger mixture and pour the smoking oil all over it. It will sizzle, lots, the little wells will ensure the hot oil reaches all the nooks. The mixture should be a runny oily paste consistency. If it isn’t sizzle some more oil into it. Finish with a merest dash of soy sauce to round the flavour off.

Sweet Chilli Sauce
8 Large Red Chillis – medium hot
3 Cloves garlic
30g Sugar
Fish Sauce
Squeeze of Lime

Blitz the chillis and garlic with enough water to make a loose mixture. Pour it into a small pan, add the sugar and simmer gently for 20 mins. Add more water if getting too thick, add more sugar to taste. Take off the heat and add fish sauce and lime to taste. Let it cool, this tastes better the next day.

Pressure-cooked Lancashire Hotpot

I’ve been really enjoying using my pressure cooker of late. Slow cooked dishes which have previously been out of reach of work-night dinners are now in reach. The pressure cooker miraculously transforms tough cuts like brisket, pork and lamb shoulder into melting goodness in a manner of minutes rather than hours. I made a cracking lamb and spinach curry in about twenty minutes the other day. Lap uses his for pork carnitas and beef rendang. I thought I’d use this trick to make one of my favourites – Lancashire hotpot. Often meaty neck bones are suggested for this dish but I find these a bit hard to get hold of, but I can get lamb shoulder which has the requisite properties to render gelatinous goodness into the sauce. So I figured I’d cook down the shoulder in the pressure cooker, shred the meat from the bone and then assemble the hotpot. This brings the total cooking time for this dish down to a realistic two hours. I reckon it’d be double with a conventional braise.

If you are interested in experimenting with pressure cooking, I’d suggest this excellent site – hip pressure cooking which has a useful page on cooking times and some handy tips and tricks.

1/2 lamb shoulder
1 glass red wine
1 onion, sliced
2 carrots, chunked
1 tablespoon flour
400ml good beef stock (I tend to use the Heston stuff from Waitrose)
bay leaf, sprig of rosemary and thyme
floury maincrop potatoes (Maris Piper, King Edwards* see comments) – number will depend on the area of your cooking pot
good slug of anchovy essence

Brown lamb shoulder in a hot pan (my pressure cooker isn’t big enough for a shoulder).

In the open pressure cooker fry the onion and carrots in some oil until giving. Add the herbs and flour. Add wine and reduce by half. Add the stock and anchovy essence, reduce a little. Add the lamb shoulder whole. Cook in pressure cooker for about 35-40 minutes at 15 psi (high pressure) and use the slow release method. Check the lamb is tender, otherwise go again for 10 more minutes. Remove the shoulder from the sauce and leave until it’s cooled enough to handle. Use your hands to rip it into shreds, it should be tender enough (gloves are handy here). Pour the sauce into a bowl and let the fat settle on the top. Skim the fat off but reserve it for later. Season the sauce (careful as the anchovy essence is quite salty). Cut potatoes into thickish slices (about one pound coin thickness) for the base. Add some lamb dripping to a nice oven-proof pot. Then layer the thickly sliced potatoes on the bottom of the pot. Make a couple of layers if you like lots of potatoes in your hotpot. Layer over the shredded lamb shoulder and pour over the sauce so it just covers the meat (removing the herbs at the same time). Cut more potatoes into very thin slices for the top. I use a mandoline. Overlap them neatly in several layers. Add a little more lamb dripping to serve as a glaze. Cook in oven at 200 degrees covered loosely with foil for 1 hour and then remove foil and brown the top until it looks really appetising.

Serve with pickled vegetables. Red cabbage is traditional, but I used turnips and carrots which worked well.

Birmingham Chinatown Roast Meat Battle!

Soul Food is the cooking of the poor American South, the food of slaves, with its roots in Africa and its branches now covering many US regional cuisines. Collard greens, cornbread, gumbo, jambalaya you get the picture. Now when I say Cantonese roast meat is Soul Food I don’t mean it in that respect. What I mean is the other definition; simple food that represents the very heart of your food culture. Food that above all others you keep turning back to because it’s food that you know will satisfy your soul.  三 燒 飯 Triple Roast Rice – a plate of sweet slightly charred char-siu, crispy tender pork belly, a succulent roasted duck leg sitting atop perfectly steamed Jasmine rice. A few greens, a drizzle of sweet gravy, some spiky chilli oil to dip your meat into and a cup of tea – that is the food of my soul. Huh, get down!

Most Cantonese people would never roast their own meat as a) they don’t have ovens and b) it will never be as good as they can buy it. Now I do have an oven and I’ve practised enough that actually yes my roast meat is as nice as they make in Chinatown. But I can only roast one duck at a time so if I want a Triple Roast Rice then I do what every Cantonese person does and visit the specialist roast meat shop to get my fix. For years, I’ve been going to Peach Garden in the little alley behind China Court restaurant. They know me, I know them, their duck is always good, their pork can be temperamental. The place itself is a little cramped and grubby but authentic in that Hong Kong back street way. But I thought it was time to test my loyalty, I was going to be in Chinatown for three lunches in a row. I will ask for a Triple Roast Rice at The Village Café, Peach Garden and New Sum Ye and see who wins my mini Birmingham Chinatown Roast Meat Battle!

The Village Café, 6 Ladywell walk

First up is The Village Café on the main road next to Malaysian Delight.  Years ago these two units used to be one shop, the only roast meat joint in the whole city, run by the rudest, angriest old Chinese lady you would ever likely to meet. So there’s an attachment to this location, a link to a time before the Arcadian centre opposite was built, when Chinatown consisted of just the Chung Ying restaurant and here. In all three cafés I asked for the triple roast rice with a duck leg and was I pleasantly surprised that they didn’t charge extra for the leg here. You see if you don’t specifically ask for a leg or a breast then you may get a very bony portion of duck. As the legs are the most popular cut, most places will charge extra if you ask for it.  In all three places the duck leg is very good, succulent, tender, slipping off the bone easily. The fat fully rendered, the skin thin and melting. The Char Siu (bbq roast pork) is also good here, the balance of sweet and savoury just right with a proper charred glaze covering the moist meat and unusually a little of the glaze was smeared on the meat after chopping. Siu Yuk (crispy belly pork) was sadly very tired and tough, the crackling not at all crispy. The rice I found to be a little claggy and the Chinese leaf hiding under the meat was but a token gesture.  Not enough of the sweet gravy had been poured over the meat..

Char Siu – 4 (out of 5), Siu Yuk – 2.5, Duck – 4.5, Other – 3,

Overall 14 (out of 20)    Cost £6.50 (free tea)

Peach Garden, Unit 3 Wrottesley Street

In the grubby little alley behind the China Court building there is a hairdresser and three cafés. It would be the dankest smelliest alley in the whole city if it wasn’t for the perfume of roasting duck and pork that lingers in the air. Peach Garden hang their wares in the window, like in Amsterdam you can see the flesh before you buy it, glistening carcasses of roasted duck and sides of belly pork dripping their juicy goodness onto trays of offal. It is somewhat of an institution as it’s the only place I know where you can order a whole roasted suckling pig for celebrations. In that respect it’s held dear by the Chinese community in Birmingham. I sit near the front and order my usual triple roast and ask for a duck leg which is an extra £1. They chop up the meat neatly and efficiently, lay it on the rice with a generous amount of Chinese leaf. Then shock, horror, they microwave the whole plate. I wonder why they have done this at lunch when the meat should have been freshly roasted, have they always done this? The duck leg survives this treatment the best, it’s still juicy but the crackling on the belly pork is not crispy at all now. I’ve always found the char siu to be poor here and this portion lived up to expectation. Scrappy pieces of over-dyed meat with not much flavour. Nice sauce and the rice was good. They’ve had another bad pork day though.

Char Siu – 2, Siu Yuk – 2.5, Duck – 4, Other – 4,

Overall 12.5    Cost £7.30 (free tea)

New Sum Ye, B105 Arcadian Centre

The New Sum Ye has had another refurbishment, the signage juts out now in parabolic tribute. The interior has been jiggled, there’s a lot more room and the counter position makes more sense. Like Peach Garden, the burnished duck breasts press against the glass luring you inside. I don’t come here often, maybe once every couple of years, I’ve been pretty faithful to Peach Garden. But everytime I walk past I’ve been tempted, the meat looks delectable. It always looks busy which is a good thing as holding meat at these temperatures dries them out. I order the holy trinity, again the duck leg adds £1 to the price of the dish. This is the most generous portion of the three, each meat has been chopped with great skill and care. They’ve been laid at a jaunty angle across the biggest mound of perfectly cooked rice. Draped across the meat are two small heads of pak choy and everything is well dressed with the sweet savoury gravy. The char siu is wonderfully tender with a great sweetly charred exterior, it’s meaty too, they’ve roasted larger strips of pork neck. The duck leg is in top condition and slips down easily. But above all else it’s the Siu Yuk that is the revelation. It’s perfect, the crackling is so thin and crispy, the meat solid but moist. The chilli oil here is different from the other two places. It has a deeper flavour from the dried shrimp. I wolf this dish down.

Char Siu – 4, Siu Yuk – 5, Duck – 4.5, Other – 4.5,

Overall 18    Cost  £7.30 (tea is £1)


So it’s pretty obvious which one wins my BCRMB – New Sum Ye. I’ve been back half a dozen times, the excellent quality is consistent, the place is clean and spacious. The Peach Garden could tempt me back with their special Pi-Pa roast duck if I’m in the mood but after thinking for so many years that it was the best, I have now seen the light – New Sum Ye has saved my soul.

New Sum Ye on Urbanspoon

Peach Garden on Urbanspoon

Report: The Chef’s Dozen, Alcester, Warwickshire

Where’s the last place you’d expect to find a great restaurant? Obviously anywhere with a spectacular vantage point – almost always a sign that the restaurant will be relying on you being distracted by the view out of the window to notice that you’ve paid £20 for a plate of soggy pasta. And obviously don’t go looking for great eats in a municipal shopping centre (or leisure centre), or a Travelodge, or at motorway services (with the honorable exception of Tebay on J38 of the M6).

Until today I’d also have said don’t try and eat at one of those weird little converted barn shopping villages. These strange little places usually house a selection of unrelated and mainly unneeded shops – bridal ware, a pet clothes shop, a children’s photographer, maybe a weird little arts and crafts shop specialising in art deco ceramic sun-dials. These are not natural bed-fellows for haute cuisine.

So how did we find ourselves at Longbarn Village, near the pretty historic town of Alcester to eat lunch at The Chefs’ Dozen today, despite the threat of 10cm of snow this afternoon? Well, as with most tips these days, I heard about this place from Twitter. Richard, the chef-owner’s Twitter profile describes himself as ‘chef and general food geek’, a promising biog. The menu on their website read very nicely. Chef has an interesting pedigree, most recently working at The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, one of the 50 restaurants in that rather silly but nevertheless prestigious San Pellegrino list. He’d also spent a bit of time at the Kingham Plough, the local gastro-boozer for “massive food knob-end” Alex James (quote courtesy me) featuring ex-Fat Duck chef Emily Watkins (although not everyone who works at the Fat Duck necessarily does much cooking, I refer you to the brilliant Down and Out in London and Padstow).

The Chef’s dozen refers to the menu – 12 dishes of roughly similar sizes and not explicitly designated as a main, starter or dessert. During the week you can order as few as two courses for £15, at weekends it’s either four (£28) or six (£40). So in theory you could order a starter and three puddings (good idea!).

It’s a curious concept and I suspect most people will naturally break it down into a traditional four-course meal format, but I like the flexibility although I bet it confuses the hell out of those coming to buy a sun-dial, a dog jumper and a wedding dress and who have popped in for a spot of lunch. These aren’t sharing plates though, or tasting plates – they are still pretty substantial. As there were three of us, we decided to make life easy and order one of everything on the menu. And I’m glad we did, because we weren’t served a single duff morsel. An amuse of silky smooth chicken liver with damson (particularly appreciated by my pregnant partner who hasn’t been allowed liver for 8 months) and crushed ginger biscuits preceded the appearance of very good bread, which came with a little pot of whipped pork dripping mixed with something green, as well as butter. Pork dripping!!

Then came the starters which aren’t starters, if you see what I mean. I got given the beetroot dish – golden beetroot with a goat’s cheese beignet and goat’s curd and Solanche (co-owner) must have seen my micro-expression because she asked if I wanted to swap my plate for a rather meatier looking one that had been given to Sarah. Actually perhaps it wasn’t a micro-expression because she said it looked like I was going to cry. Plates swapped and I was most relieved to get the lion’s share of the brawn dish – a very fine (in both senses of the word) terrine, which worked perfectly with a prettily pale yellow piccalilli mousse, subtle and refined. There was also a small mackerel fillet which was superfluous but not unwelcome.

The next wave of dishes brought me an ox heart tartare with a smoked egg yolk, not unlike the dish at Roganic served with salt beef. There was a little bit of bone marrow tucked in there too. A proper man’s dish. Butternut squash came with a cute and very delicious little cheese souffle.

The mains were stand-out – the Cotswold pheasant breast was wonderful and soft, but even better was a little cottage pie of pheasant leg confit, topped with soft mash served in an attractive Mr Whippee-like formation. Sarah loved the combination of a nicely flaking and chunky cod fillet with a lick of lemon curd, which worked much better than the description suggests.

My dessert (could be starter remember!) of warm pear with Oxford blue cheese was wonderfully creamy, salty and melty. The chocolate dish – a melting centred choc sponge sitting on a peanut swoosh, a cube of rich dense chocolate accompanied by a banana mousse of heavenly texture – was excellent as was the super smooth egg-custard tart, which was the highlight of a plate described as rhubarb and custard.

Even the petit fours were imaginative and fresh – a departure from the usual blobs of over-rich sweetness – pineapple cubes served as dumplings (think miniature pineapple fritters), acetone rich and juicy, quince jellies, light-as-clouds peach marshmallow and tiny chocolate brownie cubes.

A lovely, leisurely lunch served by people obviously passionate about what they are doing and who love cooking and eating food – and incredible value.

What a find. We will return ASAP.

Chef's Dozen on Urbanspoon