Monday, 4 May 2015

Banh Xeo: Vietnamese Pancakes

We fell in love with Vietnamese food when we were travelling through the country. Food is, of course, always one of our favourite things about travelling anywhere, but of all the places we've been we'd say Vietnam ranks one of the highest for its food (forming a nice top three with, we'd probably say, India and Italy).

We have done a few brilliant cookery courses around the world, but we have to say that the one we did on Thuan Tinh Island in Hoi An was probably the best.

Firstly, to any aspiring travellers who have not yet made it to Vietnam, may we just preface this blog post with a quick word on Hoi An: it's one of the most magical places we've ever been, with its gorgeous ancient town. An old port city, it's resisted the modernisation that other riverside towns in Vietnam have experienced as the Thu Bon river which flows through it silted up back in the 19th century so ships could no longer access the town's docks. The result is that, in lieu of modern tower blocks, heavy traffic and Chinese-style pollution which most of Vietnam suffers from, Hoi An is home to medieval Chinese shophouses and temples, interspersed with French colonial buildings and ancient Japanese pagodas, all to be found along cobbled lantern-lit streets.

Hoi An is somewhere you just get stuck - and a good thing too, as there's loads to do, including some brilliant cookery schools. We chose Thuan Tinh as it had some outstanding online ratings, and we weren't disappointed. We wandered around the market in the morning with our teacher, familiarising ourselves with the local ingredients, and then took a traditional boat ride to a small village where we were taught how to cook a range of dishes.

One we loved and got very fond of throughout our stay in Vietnam was Banh Xeo - Vietnamese pancakes. The name literally means "sizzling cake", named after the noise it makes, and they're wonderful: crunchy, healthy, tangy and easy to make, just like all good Vietnamese food.

We made ours with the traditional beef, prawns and beanshoots. The batter mixture is made from rice flour, normally mixed with turmeric, coconut milk (depending on which part of Vietnam you're in) and water. You can add elements like spring onions/shallots at this point too.

Once it's all mixed together, just pour a cup full of the batter mixture into the frying pan and tilt it so it spreads evenly and thinly around the bottom of the pan. It'll soon begin to crisp, and at this point you add the shrimp, pork and beansprouts, adding a bit of oil around the edge of the pan so it doesn't stick.

And that's pretty much it: fold the pancake in half, pop some lettuce, coriander, mint and Thai basil inside, wrap in rice paper and eat away! It's usually served with a tangy dipping sauce made from lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and chilli, just to make the whole thing even more delicious. Yum!
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Thursday, 30 April 2015

South America's Best Ice Cream: An Ode to Emporio La Rosa

Ah, Emporio La Rosa. This place is the stuff of legends: as soon as I told anyone I knew who had been to Chile that I was flying into Santiago and looking for food recommendations, this was always the first place they mentioned.

Don't just take everyone else's word for it - according to their website and every guidebook out there, this unassuming ice cream shop in a park has the title of "one of the best 25 ice cream shops in the world".

And unassuming it really is - it's a small place at the edge of Santiago's main park, a few streets away from the main Plaza de Armas, with a handful of tables outside and barely any room to move inside. There's one counter with a decent but not overwhelming choice of flavours: they know what they do, and do it well, and have been doing so since they opened in 2001.

C tried the lemon, butterscotch and rose flavours, and all were simply incredible: creamy and tangy and wonderful. To put it simply, let me echo the advice of anyone who's been to Santiago: if you're going to Chile, go here.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

River Cafe, Hammersmith

C and some of her colleagues have been working some pretty long hours lately for a campaign for one of their big FMCG clients. A few weeks post-launch and, with the campaign generally considered a success (much to their relief), the four account team members decided to celebrate with a slap-up lunch.

It was so good that from the first plate of antipasti, C knew it was one that she had to blog - if also just to make the point that it's not only A who gets to go out for fancy work lunches (Oxo Tower, eat your heart out!)

Colleague J suggested we try out The River Cafe - a place which enjoys almost legendary status in the London restaurant scene, but which we haven't ever ventured to. Having lived in north London for a while, and now living south-east down in Greenwich, it's safe to say that Hammersmith is not exactly somewhere we often frequent. The odd trip down there does remind you why the house prices are sky high, though - on the river, close to the centre of town, the enviable west London address and some pretty cracking pubs and restaurants.

The River Cafe is a stylish place. Airy, light and unpretentious in its decor, it has a relaxed and refined feel to the interior and a terrace outside that runs along the whole exterior of the building, overlooking the river and the restaurant's own vegetable and herb garden. Being a bit too nippy for the terrace in mid April, we opted for inside and were sat on a table near the bar.

The menu here changes every day, although there seems to be some tried and tested staples which appear in various forms most seasons. The four of us started with a good bottle of Italian red and a carpaccio of beef with broad beans and rocket - it was tender and flavoursome, and the plate came together very well. Not being a big seafood fan, C let the other three tuck into the calamari ordered as the second antipasti - it came very well presented, but was the only dish that got slightly mixed (or at least, not quite rave) reviews. Priced at £19-£20 per dish, though, it does ensure you savour every pricey mouthful.

For the primi course, the three men opted for a rabbit tagliatelle dish, which came beautifully presented and as a decent, but not overwhelming, portion. This one certainly did get rave reviews, especially for the flavour of the rabbit, as did C's choice - fresh nettle ravioli with buffalo ricotta and pecorino.

This was melt-in-the-mouth delicious: the filling was creamy and sweet, the pasta soft and the sauce buttery. If there were any holes to be picked in the dish (and, at £21 for a small plate of pasta, this feels justified), it's that it was ever so slightly swimming in the buttery sauce - some of the ravioli suffered a bit too much from the soggy bottom syndrome.

For mains, three of the four of us opted for the wood-roasted Anjou pigeon on bruschetta with tenderstem broccoli and green olives. Having never had pigeon before, C would be keen to eat it everyday if this is what it's always like - pink, tender, and not too dry, with a great woody, herby flavour seeping through. The bruschetta was indulgently oily and the broccoli/olive mix quite sharp and full of flavour. It was an excellent dish - but again, slightly eye-watering at close to £40 just for the one course. Colleague J had lamb - no photos of this one, as everyone was too busy eating pigeon, but it also came beautifully presented and there were a lot of satisfied nods around the dinner table as we all tucked in.

Finally, desserts - which were laid out on the bar top next to our table, taunting those with a sweet tooth like C the whole way through the meal. Two of us went for the lemon tart, and it was perfect - really sour and tart, and the pastry was firm, buttery and ever so slightly crumbly.

Colleague N went for the mysteriously named chocolate nemesis - after a cheeky taste, the remaining colleagues suffered from some serious pudding envy. It was a kind of gooey-looking chocolate cake, but instead of being dark and dense as suspected, it was suprisingly airy and light, and all around delicious.

After a round of teas and coffees, we rolled out of the place and almost all fell asleep in the cab back to the office. The River Cafe is great, and it's heartily recommended as a place to go if someone else is paying. If the bill's on you, though, prepare yourself. Here's a little perspective: this place comes in about the same, or pricier even, as Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, Dinner by Heston, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Le Gavroche or Fera. No doubt it's brilliant, but is the food at The River Cafe as stunning as you get in a three Michelin starred restaurant? Yeah, I'll leave that one out there...

Monday, 23 March 2015

Improvised Fish Pie

Now that we are a little more settled in Greenwich, we are finally getting back into the kitchen and cooking again. As a start and after haring around the Blackheath M&S five minutes before closing time (#middleclassproblems), A rustled up a fish pie. It's difficult to say precisely what he did, as he kind of added a dollop here and a scoop there, but this is a rough guide to the process.

Our overseas readership may not be familiar with this quintessentially British dish. It's a pauper's meal from the coast and pretty much anything goes: you can use any fish you want, but using at least some smoked fish such adds depth of flavour that much improves the affair. The only real rule of thumb is that the topping is made with potato rather than pastry (though even this is broken sometimes). This recipe, which uses a medley of fishes, makes for 6 decent portions.

You will need:

  • 2 salmon fillets (skin off)
  • 2 haddock fillets (skin off)
  • 2 smoked haddock fillets (skin off)
  • 4-6 spuds
  • a pint and a bit of milk
  • 100 g butter
  • a handful of parsley and/or dill (chopped)
  • 30g flour
  • pepper to taste


1. First, salt some water and bring to the boil, add the peeled potatoes (cut into chunks), and boil until soft. Make these into mash by adding a slug of milk and a knob of the butter and pulverise.

2. Take a pint of milk and bring to the boil. Add the salmon and poach for about 2.5 minutes. Remove the salmon from the milk with a slotted spoon and place in an ovenproof dish. Repeat with the haddock and again with the smoked haddock. Keep the milk simmering once the fish is poached.

3. In a separate pan, put the rest of the butter and the parsley. Melt the butter and leave to bubble for a minute or two. Add the flour and keep stirring but do not let it go brown. Add the hot milk little by little to the parsley butter, stirring regularly. Add the entire pint until you have a thick white sauce. Leave on the hob to simmer for 5 minutes.

4. Pour enough sauce over the fish in the dish until the fish is covered. Spoon the mash over the top to seal. Sprinkle some breadcrumbs over the top to add some crunch and bake in the oven at about 180 (fan) or 200 (normal) for 35 minutes and serve.

This takes about an hour but the result is a hearty favourite which is bound to be a hit with a family or with a group of friends. We will be pulling this one out a dinner party in the not too distant future.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Recipe: Misshapen Lemon & Raspberry Muffins

Who doesn't love muffins? Deciding to mix things up a bit (and mainly because M&S were out of blueberries - shock horror), we tried our hand at lemon and raspberry muffins during a Sunday afternoon baking session.

They are both incredibly easy and incredibly delicious: you need about 10 minutes to make up the mixture and a further 20 to bake, meaning you can stuff your face with these delicious little delights in just over half an hour from start to finish. Not bad, if you ask me!

These first attempts came out a bit soggy, and hindered by what we've discovered is a shockingly bad oven at our new place in Greenwich (put that on the list of home improvements needed), but we are nonetheless pretty pleased with the taste of these things. They are gooey, light and airy, and the mix of lemon and raspberry is definitely a winner. Ignore how they look, the taste is amazing - and I'm sure in any normal oven they'll look a lot nicer!

Here's our recipe:

You will need:
  • 100g/4oz butter
  • 250g/9oz self raising flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 100g/3.5oz golden caster sugar, plus 2 tsp for sprinkling
  • 100g raspberries
  • 1 lemon, zest only
  • 2 eggs
  • 150ml/5fl oz low-fat natural yoghurt
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • 12 tsp lemon curd

1. Preheat the oven to 200c/400f/Gas Mark 6. Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases.

2. Melt the butter in a small pan over a low heat, then aside to cool.

3. Sift the flour and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl and stir in the sugar, raspberries and lemon zest. Make a well in the centre.

4. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until smooth then beat in the yoghurt, milk and melted butter. Stir into the flour mixture with a spoon until very lightly mixed.

5. Divide the batter between the muffin cases. Place a teaspoon of the lemon curd on top of each one and sprinkle with the remaining sugar. 

6. Bake for 20 minutes or until well risen and golden brown. Serve warm, or allow to cool on a wire rack.

Just a warning: the lemon curd will be very hot, so don't eat them as soon as they're out of the oven - let them cool down a bit before trying!


Friday, 6 March 2015

Marrakech Street Food: Eating Out in the Djemaa El Fna

Marrakech is a place which feels really exotic. Sure it's only three short hours from London by plane, but it feels a world away. No more so is this the case than on the Djemaa el Fna, the plaza that dominates the centre of town and marks the edge of the medina and the start of the novelle ville or new town. The Djemaa el Fna feels like a place that hasn't changed in centuries. It's full of snake charmers, men with tame monkeys, henna artists, and pickpockets by day. By night, the place transforms and story tellers, acrobats, fire eaters and all manner of other street entertainers come out.

The square also fills up with carts selling food and drink. All manner of products are available here: fresh juice, fresh and dried fruit, sweets and lots and lots of barbecues. Amongst the chicken wings, sausages and so on, it's also possible to get some more outlandish fare as well - entire sheep's heads, for example. Whether or not you come to eat, the plaza is an experience that's unlike anywhere else we've visited. 

From the moment you venture into the square, hawkers start hassling and men from the stalls leap out to entice you to choose their food over many others. As we wandered around, one man got our attention over the others. Jokey, friendly and just on the right side of aggressive hassler, after a walk around the square a few times we gave in and decided to try what he had on offer.

The food was simple: olives and a thick, starchy bread to start. A then moved on to a meat and potato dish (we didn't ask what meat - we figured it was better not to know). It was simple, but fairly tasty: essentially a stew.

C had a starchy kind of pie, filled with sweet fruit and meat inside. It was basically a suet pudding and, in all honesty, not something she'd go for again - although to focus on its pros, it's certainly filling, being one of the stodgiest things she'd ever eaten. Coupled with some grilled aubergines, though, this made for a pleasant enough meal.

Honestly, we're not sure we'd eat in the Djemaa El Fna again. But we're definitely glad we tried it, and if you're ever in Marrakech, you should to. It's quite an experience - and isn't that what travelling the world is all about?!

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Gun - Docklands Gastropub

We're back! And in a new part of town. C achieved a minor miracle in convincing North Londoner A to move south of the Thames: proud first time homeowners, we're now settling in to our new house in Greenwich. It's a part of town we've loved for years, and it's also brought with it a whole new food scene for us to explore.

To celebrate our move and mark our anniversary, we decided to ignore our looming mortgage and go out for a hearty lunch. We'd heard good things about The Gun, a gastropub in Coldharbour (the bit of the historic Docklands next to the brilliantly named Mudchute, which also hosts a llama park - it's a special bit of London) and decided to give it a try.

Son of a... This place is good!

Once the local of cannon makers for the Royal Navy, The Gun is now tucked away amongst rows of two-up-two-down workers’ cottages and gleaming skycrapers. The place itself is full of character: there are several cosy rooms and a covered riverside terrace - apparently Nelson used to meet his mistress for secret trysts here (ooh-er!).

The place now seems to cater to a rather more sedate crowd of city types who care about good, interesting pub grub and the place offers a pretty broad array of fare, both in terms of the usual menu and the specials. When we visited, options on the Sunday roast front included roast beef, pork, chicken and, unusually, a special menu option of kid.

Roast goat? You've got to be kidding me!

C jumped at the chance to try the kid and was very impressed. The meat was succulent and flavoursome, served bright pink and with a wonderfully tender, lamb-like texture. Sides were also magnificent: fresh seasonal greens, herby, duck fat potatoes and a side of oozy cauliflower cheese.

Rather a fan of game, A had a bash at the roast loin of wild Suffolk fallow deer with hazelnuts. This came as a combination of slices of roast meat and a venison faggot (which, for overseas readers, is a type of meatball generally made of offal or off cuts and typical of Wales and the Midlands). This dish was not for the faint hearted and packed a pretty meaty punch - the faggot in particular had a very ‘high’ flavour and this was topped off with the rich dark chocolate and juniper jus. A loved it, but a warning that if you’re not used to game, it could well have been a bit much.

Spice up your crumble

For dessert, we both tried the fruit crumble special, which came with a crunchy top and spiced cider ice cream. It tasted like Christmas, in the best possible way.We washed the meal down with a glass of white and a pint or two of Koestrizer - A's favourite treacly, malty, chocolaty black Saxony lager, so he was pleased.

We really liked The Gun: we rolled out extremely full and satisfied with the ample portion sizes you don't often get at higher end gastropubs nowadays. Well done guys - you lived up to the hype!