Report: San Carlo Fumo, Birmingham

Picture the scene, you’ve turned a few corners in the maze of Venice’s back streets and find yourself lost. You turn a few more corners and stumble onto a bacaro, a small Venetian restaurant bar. It’s a real find, there’s not a tourist in sight and you sit down and order what the locals are eating, mostly fresh seafood cooked simply but with robust flavours that reflect the centuries of culinary excellence of the great city-state of Venice. There are crispy yet moist bacala croquettes filled with moreish salt cod, and fresh grilled sardines served on crusty bruschetta adorned with sun-ripened tomatoes and punchy capers. You look around and see a gleaming tranche of pearly white fish seared to perfection, it flakes into soft juicy petals when prodded with an eager fork. All the dishes are small, Venetian tapas you could say or dim sum, a little something with which to touch the heart. In Venice the small dishes served in bacaro are called Cicchetti and this is also what is served at Fumo, the sister restaurant of that Birmingham favourite San Carlo.

Let’s snap back to reality, I was in a party of seven recently and ordered what seemed at the time half of Fumo’s lengthy menu. Olives, bread, bacala, octopus stew, octopus salad, crab salad, gnocchi with gorgonzola, porchetta, lamb osso bucco, sardines, halibut, scampi ravioli, sea bass ravioli, tuna tartare, baked ricotta, soft-shell crab, aubergine parmagiana, smoked salmon, buffalo mozarella… and a selection of desserts. Small plates mean more choice and more chance of landing a great dish. The real standout dish for me was the octopus stew, these were soft baby octopodi in a deep tomato based sauce with a good hit of chilli. I could have eaten a big bowl of it with the good bread. Shame it was one of the specials of the day as I would come back just for that dish. In the main though most of the dishes were fairly ordinary. The octopus salad lacked any distinctive vinaigrette and hence flavour. Porchetta tasted good but only two thin processed ham-like slices is pretty mean. Lamb osso bucco was tender and tasty but was the knuckle end, if you’re going to call it osso bucco then please make it the bone with a hole and plenty of marrow. The ravioli were well made, the sheets of pasta thin and delicate but the fillings were underwhelming. A generous portion of gnocchi was smothered with a pungent creamy Gorgonzola sauce but was marred by the Parmesan basket it was served in. I assume it was a basket but by the time it reached us it was as flat as a pancake. It had also been overcooked by a fair degree, the acrid tang of burnt cheese did no favours to the well made gnocchi.

Then there were the less than enjoyable dishes. The bacala came as three thin croquettes, the cod had not been soaked for long enough and it gave them a chewy mealy consistency coupled with blandness that made eating them a chore. The sardines on bruschetta were buried under a mountain of cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes were good, maybe that’s the reason for sheer volume of them, to hide the rank piece of sardine. The kitchen would have done better to open a tin of sardines and served them instead. There was a thin halibut steak that had been seared past the point of well-done and then some more. It didn’t taste fresh at all and stuck your teeth together with it’s dryness. The worst dish was the Honey Smoked salmon. This was a finger sized tranche that was unpleasantly salty and had a strange fishy bitterness. Worse it wasn’t skinned, worst the skin wasn’t scaled! Who in their right mind serves smoked salmon like this?! The kitchen needs to sort this out right away, it’s embarrassingly incompetent.

The service is typically Italian, that mixture of rushed and slow at the same time. If you’re not too demanding a customer it can be quite entertaining having up to six different servers getting your order mixed up. Some of the staff were very good but some clearly were there for decoration and should not be handling orders. We arrived around 7pm on a Friday and got a table right away. By 8pm the room was packed and there was definitely an enjoyable buzz about the place. The bar is elegant and the dining area comfortable. Which is why it’s such a shame the food was so hit and miss. With such a long menu I think it’s possible to have good meal there if you choose well. But on the other hand if you’d ordered the bacala, halibut, sardines and smoked salmon you would be close to having the worst meal of your life.

San Carlo have recently opened Cichetti in Piccadilly, if the food is twice as good as Fumo then it won’t be half as good as Polpo around the corner in Soho. Now there’s Venetian small plates to lose yourself in.

An Ode to the Reuben Sandwich

What’s your favourite sandwich? It’s the eternal question with an infinite number of answers. If you can eat it then you can put it atop or between pieces of bread. A sandwich can be anything your heart desires; a Bánh mì bursting with savoury pork and fresh coriander in a crisp light airy Vietnamese baguette, a beef burger crusty on the outside but pink in the middle with it’s juices soaking into a toasted light brioche bun, or for me the mighty Reuben Sandwich. That combination of corned or pastrami beef, melted cheese, sauerkraut, russian or thousand island dressing and rye bread. It’s a combination that’s hard to find in the UK, where are you going to get good corned beef or pastrami from huh? No, the first Reuben sandwich I ever ate was in the near legendary Katz’s Deli on East Houston St in New York City. Giant slabs of the softest juiciest pastrami topped with sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese. The bread is a side note just there to fool you that it is a sandwich, honest! These are the mythological sky-high NY deli-style sandwiches that your friends have told you about in their holiday stories. Their expressions become manic as they describe to you the heft and wonder of these beasts.

A pastrami Reuben from katz’s

At Katz’s the server slices the freshly steamed pastrami thickly in front of you before laying on a piece of rye with sauerkraut, russian dressing and swiss cheese. He microwaves it to make sure the cheese is nice and melty before topping it off with another slice of rye smeared with mustard. There’s no doubt here that the pastrami is the star of the show. The bread is there to keep your fingers clean initially but at the end of the sandwich you’re just shovelling slabs of savoury cured beef into your gob with careless abandon. That’s why napkins were invented.

So coming back to Blighty after that first trip to New York I just had to try and smoke my own pastrami. It’s quite a straightforward process really, buy brisket, brine it, smoke it, steam it. But achieving the level of pastrami excellence that you find at Katz’s is not simple at all. The biggest barrier is the meat, you just can’t get the heavily marbled stuff here unless you really look for it. An epic grail quest that Nick has been on and returned triumphant! Myself? After a number of less than satisfying attempts at smoking brisket I gave up trying to recreate that Katz’s sandwich though the yearning for it never left me.

When Mishkin’s in Covent Garden opened to rave reviews I couldn’t help noticing that they had Reuben on their menu too. It’s very different to the Katz’s version as you can see.

A Mishkins’s Reuben Sandwich

This one is much slimmer, the pastrami has been sliced thinly and the whole lot looks to have been put in a panini press. But the revelation is that I actually enjoyed this more than Katz’s version. Mishkin’s Reuben is a grilled cheese sandwich, all the component parts are in balance and fused together. Although the thinly sliced pastrami looked less impressive it still tasted wonderful, every bite had a little bread, sauerkraut, cheese, dressing and a hint of caraway seed. It was just a completely different eating experience to the mile-high sandwich at Katz’s. I knew that I had to try and recreate this. Luckily a Reuben topic cropped up on egullet at around the same. Apparently to real Reuben aficionados the mile-high offerings are abominations, Reuben purists insist that it should be a thin grilled cheese sandwich made with corned beef not pastrami. Well, I wouldn’t call myself a purist but I’m certainly a grilled Reuben convert and so with a freezer full of beef cheeks I decided to make pastrami with them so I could feed my craving. Why have corned beef when you can make pastrami with it?

Here’s my brine recipe, heat all the ingredients together so that the salt is dissolved. When the brine has cooled put 4kg of trimmed beef cheeks in it and fridge it for 3 days:

7 litres Water
780g Salt
175g Sugar
44g Pink Salt (#1 cure)
4 Cloves Garlic minced, 6 pieces Mace , 15g Coriander Seeds, 20g Whole Black Peppercorns, 6 Fresh Bay Leaves, 1 tsp Ground Ginger, 1 Cinnamon Stick, 6 Cloves, 1 Star Anise

After 3 days rinse and dry the cheeks. Grind equal quantities of black peppercorns and coriander seeds enough to cover the cheeks evenly. Let the cheeks rest uncovered on a rack overnight for a pellicle to form, this will help the smoke to adhere to the meat. Set up your smoker and hot smoke the cheeks at around 100C for 3 hours. I like quite a heavy smoking as I think beef can take it. Also, a heavy smoke is preferable because after 3 hours the cheeks are wrapped in several layers of foil and steamed in a 130C oven till they are tender, test it after 3 hours – a knife should slip straight in.

Beef Cheek Pastrami

The cheeks are a lot easier to slice thinly when it’s cool and you want to slice them as thinly as possible for the perfect Reuben sandwich. But not only that you have to squeeze dry your sauerkraut first before gently frying in a dry pan with some caraway seeds. This will cook out the sauerkraut, if you use it uncooked then it can be wet and stringy. You are now ready to make your Reuben sandwich.

Generously butter the outside of your bread before assembling, preferably rye but sourdough is a great alternative. Lay the pastrami on first then the sauerkraut, Russian dressing next and finally the Swiss cheese. Remember balance is the key, no one component should overpower the other, though I will forgive you if you lay the pastrami on just a little thicker. You are only human after all. Griddle (grill) the whole lot in a frying pan pressing it down till it’s all crispy and the cheese and pastrami is hot and melted together.

My Reuben Sandwich

Beef cheeks make a lot of sense for the home cook, they’re easy to handle and portion. Half a cheek is usually enough for one sandwich. But above all else beef cheeks give an extra sticky juicy quality to the sandwich giving it another dimension of awesomeness. I’m proud to say that it’s the best Reuben I’ve ever eaten and it’s my perfect sandwich.

A Guide to Buying Indian Mangoes

Just like a child waiting for Christmas (so I’ve been told), the anticipation builds up months prior to the season of sweetness and joy. I’m talking about Mango season of course, which I love above all other foodie times of the year. You can keep your asparagus, wild garlic, mushroom and Seville orange seasons, there’s only one food item that has me actually drooling at the thought of eating them. Yeah, but, you can get mangoes all year round, like I’ve seen them in Waitrose you may say. Quite frankly I don’t count those green-red Kent varieties from Israel/Cuba/Brazil/Kenya/etc as mangoes, they’re monstrosities. If they’re not from Asia then they just don’t cut it. No, in particular I mean Indian mangoes, the most famous of all being the divine Alphonso. If you’ve never eaten a ripe Alphonso (or Alfonso) at the peak of the season then you’ve never eaten perfection. Nothing can really describe the heady perfume and the juicy sweetness of it. No wonder it’s called the King of Fruit. But it’s not only Alphonso you should seek out, for every King has his Queen, and in the case of Indian Mangoes it’s the most beautiful Kesar. Then there’s Rajpuri mangoes and the most amazingly sweet Badami too.

The photo below shows from left to right; Badami, Alphonso and Kesar. The Badami is much larger and flatter then the other two. Alphonso is usually the smallest. Kesar more elongated with a very distinctive beak:

Three more Kesar mangoes, see how beautiful they are? Gorgeous blushing from the Queen on the right, you can see the profile of her beak:

A Badami alongside an Alphonso, the flesh of the Badami is much paler and firmer than the bright orange of the Alphonso:

This season started on Wednesday for me when I bought my first box of Alphonso and Badami from the usually trustworthy Sujal of Mumbai. At least that’s what they were labelled as, I only gave them a quick inspection at the market to check for rottenness. But upon closer examination at home they were all Badami! Looks like they’re trying to pass them off as their more illustrious little brother. Which actually I didn’t mind because the Badami last season were a lot better quality. That’s one reason for writing this guide so that you can tell them apart. Another is that I love Indian mangoes, like the fruit themselves the season is so short and intense, you must make the most of them!

Dining in Reykjavik, Food and Fun

Who knew that the dining scene in Reykjavik was so brilliant? Certainly not me, I went to Iceland hoping to see the Aurora Borealis and incredible geological wonders. It turned out to be a bonus four day gastronomic adventure of exciting dishes in some fantastic restaurants too.

The holiday was booked months ago by the wife and duly put on the back burner by me, I’d not researched any of the dining options until a few days before the start of the holiday. I really wasn’t expecting a long list of options but the more I looked into it the more it dawned on me that Reykjavik was bursting with great restaurants with some tasty looking websites. So I hurriedly made bookings at a handful of restaurants: Fish Company, Fish Market, Grill Market, Seafood Grill – notice the theme running through here? What’s more the city’s top restaurants were participating in the annual Food & Fun festival. For the week we were there, guest chefs from around the world would be taking over the kitchen and celebrating the local produce by creating adventurous tasting menus.

The first night we had a Food & Fun tasting menu in Grill Market sheltering from the Arctic blizzard that had descended without warning. This is an ultra-cool spacious contempory dining space split between two levels. The open kitchen greets you as you enter at the ground floor with the flaming grill foremost. There’s a bar on this floor but we were lead to the lower level to the main dining area that exuded Nordic chic, warm wood merging with natural volcanic rock with industral metal flourishes. The menu started simply with potatoes boiled in seawater that was well matched with a smear of seaweed butter. Cabbage wrapped langoustine with mussels showed off the freshness of the main ingredients but the cabbage was oddly tough. A perfectly flame grilled slab of Arctic Char with roe, beetroot and cucumber continued to emphasis the quality of the local seafood. The meat course was a crusty chewy (in a good way) wood-fired beef ribeye, oxtail, potato skins and truffled gnocchi. This was a fantastically flavoured piece of meat, with a nice smoky flavour from the grill that is the heart the restaurant. A dessert of crunchy chocolate, caramel mousse and frozen skyr finished the meal in comforting fashion. The food menu was 6900Kr, around £35. It was the most expensive meal of the holiday so all those horror stories you’ve heard about the cost of eating in Iceland are completely untrue.

Cafe Loki serves up traditional Icelandic grub next to the main landmark in Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja; the monolithic futurist looking church. The only thing I knew of Icelandic cuisine before this holiday was the infamous putrified shark, Hákarl, which by all accounts reeks of old Victorian public toilets. Basking shark is inedible you see, the flesh is poisonous, but the locals over the centuries have found a way to make it at least safe to eat. They bury the sharks in the sand for six months, the rotting flesh is rendered non-toxic but of course is now utterly foul smelling. Hardcore TV chefs like Ramsay and Bourdain have wilted in the presence of this stuff. Cafe Loki serves up little cubes of the ‘delicacy’ as part of an Icelandic platter with arctic char, smoked lamb, mashed fish, dried cod and rye bread. It isn’t nearly as bad as it’s made to be, just merely like someone’s pissed on your Camembert. All our group of nine tried it, none of us gagged but then we are Chinese and pretty hardcore eaters! But seriously the other items were delicious, the best marinated herrings I’d ever eaten and a very moreish rye bread ice-cream which is a speciality of the cafe.

Icelandic Fish & Chips and The Sea Baron are both in the old harbour. They’re part of a small cluster of little eateries that includes sushi, tapas and a Haitian Cafe. Icelandic Fish & Chips is not a takeaway in the traditional British seaside way. It quite a spacious comfortable restaurant with very warm and friendly service. They serve various deep fried fish in their special recipe batter made from spelt and barley. The chips are actually sautéed potatoes and they have vast selection of skyr based dips. We tried Red Fish and Haddock, both were really fresh and the batter crispy and light. Best of all though we ordered a big bowl of garlicky langoustine to share between us. We had langoustine at almost every meal, they’re ubiquitous in Reykjavik and that is no bad thing at all. The langoustine trail continued at The Sea Baron which has the most famous lobster soup in the whole country. Deep fishy broth with a generous amount of lobster (langoustine) tails submerged within. The soup is delicious, a nice hint of curry in there, though the bread supplied to mop it up with was disappointingly pappy. The Sea Baron is shack-like and does grilled fish and even minke whale but we were too stuffed to try anything other than an oversized grilled lemon-sole, which was merely ok.

Fish Company is at the forefront of Icelandic cuisine, particularly championing the concept of Nordic Sushi. Which isn’t as preposterous as it first sounds because if you have fish as plentiful and fresh as you do in Iceland then applying Japanese concepts to eating it makes perfect sense. It helps too if your culture deeply respects fish and it really shows at Fish Company, another gorgeous restaurant in the heart of Reykjavik city centre. The restaurant was participating in the Food & Fun festival too but we had lunch when only the regular menu was available. The wife was smitten with the bread here in particular the combination of creamy skyr, butter and apple jam that accompanied it. We asked about the apple jam having never come across it before, we were told it was a speciality of the restaurant and couldn’t buy it but will see if the kitchen could spare us some. Apple jam was quickly forgotten about when the starters of fish soup with lobster tails, and minke whale arrived. The fish soup had little cubes of coconut jelly and seaweed, there was a Thai red curry flavour to it and all in all it’s probably the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. The flavours were so deep, I can only imagine the amount of lobster tails that went into it. The dish of minke whale was very peculiar though, virtually raw there was a very strong livery flavour to the meat and a lingering mineral after-taste that was very interesting, like sucking on a freshly minted coin. The shredded cucumber helped to cleanse the palate a little but I couldn’t help thinking a good splash of something acidic would have done wonders. So to our mains of Nordic Sushi and Arctic Char, both wonderful dishes. The sushi was presented on a wide wooden platter overflowing with varied preparations of char, roe, maki rolls and the most savoury of marinated shark. The plated Arctic Char dish again featured langoustine and was highlighted with smoked apple. This is fine cooking and after our meal one of the chefs presented us with a little jar of apple jam to take home, we were delighted!

Just over the road from Fish Company is Tapas Barinn. It was displaying its Iceland Gourmet Fiest menu outside and we couldn’t resist the look of it. I mean how can you resist any 7 course menu that starts with smoked puffin and costs only 5890Kr? We shared one menu between two and it came with a shot of the local firewater Brennivin. It’s like aquavit and goes down very easily. Smoked puffin is a cross between duck and pigeon and went very well with the sharp and slightly sweet blueberry sauce. The rest of the menu was spot on too but especially the minke whale, which this time was served grilled in steak like fashion. It was delicious with no hint of peculiar after-taste. The restaurant is in the basement of one of the old buildings, the low ceilings suit the traditional tapas bar vibe. We got there quite early around 6pm and by the time we left around 9 it was packed with big groups of locals eating and being merry.

The restaurants in Reykjavik cater for large groups and certainly we found the service to be uniformly friendly, helpful and welcoming. In Grill Market we asked one of our servers whether the bill included a service charge, she said that all servers were well paid in Iceland so it’s up to you whether you wanted to leave genuine tip. We had to cancel some reservations in the end, regular holiday sightseeing stuff like Geysirs, Lagoons and Northern Lights got in the way of eating at Fish Market and the Seafood Grill. These will have to wait until we return along with Vox, Perlan, Lobster House and revisiting Grill Market and Fish Company of course. We’ll have to get a week off next time.

Cantonese Lobster Noodle 龍蝦麵

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Lobster Noodle is one of the classic Cantonese celebration dishes and there’s much to celebrate this week in smokeandumamiland! The deep red colour of lobster is considered lucky and they also symbolise wealth. Though the latter maybe because a decent Cantonese restaurant will charge you about £40. That’s why I like cooking it at home. I can buy a 1.5lb lobster from the market for about £12 and feel slightly wealthier through some pseudo-thriftiness. The choice of noodles is up to you; crispy or soft, short or long, narrow or wide. They are usually egg noodles though, I don’t think I’ve ever come across rice noodles used in this dish. At home it’s easier to cook soft noodles, long Yee Mein are good and symbolise longevity (I told you this was a classic celebration dish!). But I find that a lot of Chinese egg noodles are dyed yellow and aren’t all that great to eat. Instead I like to use Italian egg pasta, the De Cecco brand Taglierini all’uovo is particularly suited to this dish.

Ingredients – Serves 2

Lobster – 1.5lb
Taglierini – 250g
Shang Tang – 500ml*
Ginger – 7 thin slices
Garlic – 4 cloves halved lengthwise
Spring Onion – 5 medium stalks cut into 5cm batons, keep the green and white parts separate
Shaosing Wine – 50ml
Soy Sauce
Cornflour (cornstarch)
Oil for deep frying
Oyster Sauce (optional)

*Shang Tang is superior stock used in fine Cantonese dishes. I make a cheat’s version with pressure-cooked chicken wings, pork and Iberico ham bones. Chinese chicken stock will do.

Dispatching and chopping your Lobster the Cantonese way.
Insert a long thin chopstick or blunt skewer up it’s anal vent all the way up through the body. When the skewer is removed the lobster will release some unwanted by-product that Cantonese cooks believe causes off-flavours. Rinse your lobster under a cold running tap after you’ve done this and place on a sturdy chopping board. Locate the weak point at the top of the shell near the front and chop the head off across the body at a slight angle following the natural seam of the shell (see photo). Cantonese cooks do it this way as we like to present the head whole*. Remove the claws, separate the knuckles and crack the shells slightly. Now you can split the lobster in half lengthwise. Discard the instestinal tract but reserve any tomally or roe in a separate bowl. Chop each half of tail into three chunks. You are now left with two body halves with the legs attached. In total you will have 15 pieces of lobster; 1 head, 2 body, 6 tail, 2 claw & 4 knuckle.

*this is how you know a proper Cantonese cook has prepared this dish. Most cooks will have just split the whole lobster in half.

That’s the difficult part done, the rest is simple:
1. Sprinkle the cut sides of lobster with a little cornflour then deep fry in hot oil till the shell has just turned red. Do this in batches, the claws will take longer. Drain and set aside.
2. Clean out your wok, add a little fresh oil and gently fry the garlic, ginger and onion whites to release the flavour. Add the lobster, crank the heat up, sizzle the wine around the side of the wok then add the stock and the reserved lobster innards. Stir-fry everything together for a couple of minutes and season to taste with soy sauce. Add the green onion near the end of cooking. If you’ve used a light stock you may wish to add a little oyster sauce. There should be plenty of sauce, thicken it with some slaked cornflour.
3. During step 2 you can cook your noodles, drain and plate them up ready for the lobster.
4. Pick out the lobster pieces and arrange them on top of the noodles. Pour over the sauce so that everything is coated.
5. Eat and celebrate.

Hainan Chicken Rice 海南雞飯

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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
Salt

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.

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)

Verdict

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

Beef Cheek Rendang

What’s your favourite curry?  Maybe it’s a rich and spicy Rogan Josh or a hot and sour Vindaloo?  Thinking further east, there are wonderfully aromatic Thai curries, fragrant with lemongrass and lime tempered by luscious coconut.  Japanese curries are sweet and fruity, and of course us Brits claim a whole subcontinent of curry as our own. Curries are exciting, full of spice and flavour, you must have a palate of cardboard not to love a good curry! Now if you were to ask me what my favourite curry is I would have no hesitation in saying Rendang. The incredible concoction of flavours from Indonesia/Malaysia, it’s an explosive mix of the earthy, warm tones of the Indian sub-continent and the high fragrant notes of SE Asia. Both tempered and enriched by lashings of coconut. It’s most commonly made with tough cuts beef (Rendang Daging) but it’s also great with shoulder of lamb. I’ve never heard of a pork rendang and I see no reason why it wouldn’t taste great but it’s like having a pork biryani, just sounds wrong doesn’t it? Over the years I’ve tried cooking it with many different cuts of beef; blade, shin, oxtail and brisket. But there’s one cut above all others that makes my perfect Rendang; cheek. Imagine big chunks of wobbly beef that appear solid but when you put it into your mouth melts into a flood of beefy rendang goodness. Well imagine no more, because here is my recipe.

Rendang recipes change from cook to cook. Please feel free to alter any component of this dish, add cumin and coriander if you want a more Indian vibe, add belachan (shrimp paste) or fish sauce for a deep salty tang. The only thing you musn’t change is the method. Rendang must be dry. It must not be swimming in sauce, if it is then you’ve not cooked it properly and the flavours would not have been fully developed. This recipe makes a lot of Rendang, halve it should you wish.

Ingredients for the Spice Paste
Dried Long Red Chillies (Kashmiri Style) – 20
Shallots – 300g
Ginger – 50g
Galangal – 50g
Turmeric Root – 20g
Garlic – 50g
Nutmeg – 2, yes two whole nutmeg
Cloves – 10
Cinnamon – 1 tbl
Candle Nuts (macadamia nuts if unavailable) – 12
and the rest
Beef Cheeks – 2.5kg cut into large golfball sized chunks
Lemongrass – 3 stalks lightly bashed and tied into knots
Kaffir Lime Leaves – 10
Curry Leaves from 2 stalks
Coconut cream – 2 cans (600ml)
Dessicated coconut – 80g (optional)

Make the paste

  • Tear off the stalks of the dried chillies and shake out the seeds before softening them in warm water. When they’re soft blitz them in a food processor with the shallots, ginger, galangal, turmeric and garlic. If you need to loosen this mixture to help the blending then use a little of the soaking water.  Make sure that everything is well blended.
  • Grind the nutmeg, cloves and candlenuts as fine as possible in a big mortar with a heavy pestle. Add the blended mixture and the cinnamon to the freshly ground spices and use your pestle to amalgamate everything together into a bright red-orange paste.
  • You could of course make the whole paste the old-fashioned way from scratch in the mortar and pestle, if you like to punish yourself.

Make the Curry

  • In the widest non-stick pan you have (a deep sauté pan is best) fry the curry leaves in a little vegetable oil till their aroma is released.  Then add the beef, coconut cream, spice paste, lemongrass, lime leaves and a good smattering of salt. Stir well and let it come to a gentle simmer. Turn the heat down to as low as possible and cook it uncovered for about 3 hours.
  • After a few hours the meat should be nice and tender and most of the liquid will have evaporated. This is when the rendang magic starts. If you taste it now it will be under-powered even insipid. You see, to cook a rendang properly you need to do the opposite of braising and brown the meat at the end.
  • Crank the heat up to medium so that the meat and aromatics start to fry gently in the fat and the oil released by the meat and coconut cream. Remove the lime leaves at this point as they will become bitter when fried. Turn the meat carefully when it browns on the bottom, this is why you needed to cut big chunks of beef as small pieces will turn to mush.
  • For an extra coconut hit, toast the dessicated coconut till light brown, blend it to a fine powder before adding it to the rendang near the end of the cooking.
  • When the meat has been well browned and is dark all over your rendang is done. You can eat it now with a fresh chiffonade of lime leaves sprinkled over it but cruelly it tastes much better the next day. So make it the day before you want to eat it and make too much because it freezes really well too.

Pressure Cooker variation: To cut the cooking time use your PC to cook the meat in the coconut cream and spice paste till just tender, drain off the meat and fast reduce the gravy in a wide non-stick pan. Put the meat back into the reduced gravy to brown all over and finish making the rendang in the regular way. Tip: Less coconut cream is needed, just enough to coat the meat and spices. Use only three lime leaves, the regular amount will produce too bitter taste when pressure cooked.

 

San Francisco Cookoff: Carnitas

“Why don’t you write about those Carnitas on my blog, I made an account for you” said mr smokeandumami enthusiastically.  But I wasn’t sure, this blog is like a diary isn’t it?  If not a diary then it’s Nick’s personal expression of his love of good food.  So at best I’m going to feel I’m doodling over another man’s thoughts.  At worse it could be even more personal, it could feel like playing with another man’s todger!  I know in these enlightened times that that’s kinda ok, but you know I’ve just never been that way inclined.  After a few days though I’ve warmed to the idea, maybe it’s more like he’s thrown me the keys to his Ferrari and I’d be foolish to turn down the opportunity to give it a blast around the block.  So here goes, wheelspinning away on the first proper collaborative contribution to smokeandumami.

Last Saturday there was Popstrami reunion round at Nick and Hannah’s where we had a nice casual dinner with a San Francisco cookoff theme.  This had been brewing for a few months and originally the main course was supposed to be Mission-district Burritos, massive tortillas overfilled with rice, refried beans and meat.  Truly a meal (or two) in itself.  I’ve had these from a Mexican street cart in New York and to be honest, they weren’t that great.  What are great are Carnitas, and as I’d volunteered to do the main then that’s what I’m going to cook!  Carnitas translate to little meats, these are little open tortilla parcels filled with highly spiced shredded pork, a little salsa (pico de gallo usually) and guacamole.  Here’s how I made them the other day, it was enough to feed ten hungry people – about 30 portions.  Although there were only 7 of us!

  • Cut up one whole pork shoulder butt into big chunks and season them liberally with salt.  Whilst the pork is salting, gently toast 3 pasilla, 4 ancho and 8 chipotle chillis in a dry pan till they are soft and malleable.  Don’t overdo them, they shouldn’t be too dry or brittle.  Remove the stalks and seeds and cut the chillis up into small pieces.  Cover with boiling water and let it soak for 15 minutes until the chillis are soft enough to blend into a smooth puree.  Whilst they are blending add 6 fat cloves of garlic and a tablespoon each of cinnamon and cumin.  That’s the mole made.
  • Brown the pork chunks all over in a shallow wide pan so that the meat is in one layer.  Add the mole and enough water to just cover the pork, stir well then stick the whole lot in a 150C oven uncovered for about 3 to 4 hours.  You will need to turn the pork occasionally when the top browns, maybe once an hour.
  • The pork is done when 80% of the liquid has evaporated and the meat is fork tender.  If too much liquid has gone before the meat is tender then simply add some more water.  Remove from the heat and when cool enough shred the pork with your hands.  The mixture should be moist and sloppy, ready for your carnitas!
  • Some people like their meat drier, you can after shredding put the meat back into a hot oven to crisp up but I like mine nice and sloppy!
  • Slap some meat on your tortilla (I prefer corn tortillas), add salsa and guacamole.  Eat and repeat till well stuffed.
Cheers Lap aka Prawncrackers aka Oishinboy