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October 2014

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Stax Diner, Carnaby Street

October 24, 2014

It’s October. It’s cold, the leaves are rotting and it’s dark by 4pm. The urge is to scurry home after work to burrow under a mountain of throw pillows and watch reruns of Frasier with the curtains drawn, chortling to yourself as you empty another bag of Doritos. On one such night I made plans to go to American diner Stax Diner, the main menu draw being the Fried Chicken and Waffles. I almost lost my nerve when I was there but thank God I didn’t. This is one of dishes I’ve fantasised about but never actually tried. Would it live up to my expectations? Would my fried chicken dreams be dashed? Well, the fried chicken is deliciously seasoned and de-boned, served on top of a crispy waffle. The maple syrup comes in a little dish on the side. OMG. It was so satisfying. It fulfilled all of my southern fried chicken and waffle fantasies. The Deep South by way of Carnaby Street, London. I didn’t even have to wear my George Bush mask.

I haven’t seen Cajun popcorn shrimp on the menu since I dined at Red Lobster in the 1990s. These were surprisingly juicy and nicely battered and came with a mayonnaise-based dip. Served in what was charmingly described as a “bucket” so it’s perfect for pretending to feed at a fancy trough.

The classic “Cheeseburger in Paradise” comes with your choice of American, Mild or Mature Cheddar, Monterey Jack or Stilton for the truly evolved cheese-chomper. This was described as being even better than Patty & Bun‘s cheeseburger. And it looked like a normal-sized – one that you could actually fit in your mouth. I never understood the appeal of a towering burger that you couldn’t even bite into without an industrial-sized waterproof bib.

“The Chickadee” is a towering behemoth of buttermilk marinated fried chicken breast on a brioche bun with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mayo. This was a bit hard to fit into your mouth with one bite but worth the effort. Stax Diner really know how to treat a fried chicken fiend.

Boardwalk Fries- hot and crispy and nicely seasoned. I’m really beginning to only like heavily seasoned, salted fries. I’m really growing as a person.

Most of their drinks are bourbon-based and I made the mistake of ordering one, thinking that maybe it could be something I could get into. Unfortunately I still don’t like bourbon. Served in jam jars obviously. I wish they had vodka-based cocktails but you can’t have everything. Much to my surprise, Stax Diner is the creation of Virginia-born Bea Vo – she of the famous Bea’s of Bloomsbury cake shop and tearoom. One of the few places in London where you can get fried chicken and waffles – instantly making it one of my favourite haunts.


Stax Diner
1st Floor
1.7 Kingly Court - Carnaby
London W1B 5PW

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Le Mercury

October 17, 2014

Treating myself when I was a student in London went two ways. Ordering two Domino’s pizzas and passing out to the flickering light of a DVD (there was no NetFlix, it was that long ago) or going to Le Mercury for a civilized dinner. The price of dinner for two at either establishment wasn’t actually that dissimilar back in the day, hence my enduring soft spot for Le Mercury eight years later. This candle-lit little bistro on Upper Street has been serving up affordable French fare for the past thirty years and has recently opened up a second location a few doors down called Le Mercury Deuxieme – but I still prefer the original location for the far superior ambience and old-fashioned charm. All of the starters, mains and desserts are a fixed price with an evolving daily specials menu. We started with the Ravioli de la Mer, filled with crayfish and lobster with a spinach and shellfish sauce – comfort food in the form of a demure starter.

I’ve found mussels to be a tricky thing to order in London. The broth tends to be overly salted or the mussels are overdone. Le Mercury gets it just right with their Moules Mariniere – a subtle white wine broth with a dash of cream, shallots, lemon and parsley – perfect for dipping the free bread basket in once the mussels are finished off. I usually just drink the remaining broth as a soup like the middle-class heathen that I am. I have to mention this complementary bread basket they present you with – it feels so old-fashioned and is served with a little dish of butter. Such a small touch but I love it. Takes me back to those halcyon days when restaurants weren’t so stingy.

FREE BREAD!

The Magret de Canard is roast breast of Barbary duck, garlic potato puree, Savoy caggage and red wine jus. The flavours all go really well together and every time we order it the duck is always perfectly cooked with a bit of crispy skin.

Like a predictable old lady, I pretty much always get the Filet de Saumon. Again it’s always perfectly cooked – I think salmon can taste a bit dodgy when ordered in restaurants – a real hit and miss fish if I ever saw one. It can veer toward the overly dry but this seared fillet of Scottish salmon is always perfectly tender and goes well with the broccoli spears and lobster sauce for a satisfying meal.

We always order extra side dishes of French Fries and vegetables because why not?

See what I mean? The place has a simply delightful vibe. All of the starters are £4.45, mains are £9.95 and dessert is £3.45. Go to Le Mercury if you’re looking for a charming French-style bistro with affordable food, wine and a really nice atmosphere. I’d definitely leave the warmth of my couch for this. Dominos’ House Special pizza be damned.


Le Mercury
140A Upper Street
Islington
London N1 1QY
www.lemercury.co.uk

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Dishoom: Covent Garden

October 16, 2014

My love for shared tapas-style plates comes from being accustomed to the ubiquitous spinning lazy susan at Chinese restaurants, usually heaving with a minimum of ten plates. I mean why just have one dish when you can sample twenty? Dishoom is inspired by the old-school style Bombay cafes open from morning to night. Their Bombay breakfast menu is a unique treat but take note it ends at 11:30am or 12 on the weekends so you’ll have to wake up early on Sat/Sun to make it down unless you’re lucky enough to live nearby. The casual all-day style menu makes it a tasty and affordable destination for after work drinks and snacks or a laid-back dinner. They do have bigger dishes that can technically be a “main dish” but the fun in this place is in sharing. The Fried Okra is surprisingly moreish. I think okra is a tough dish to make appealing and these were lightly seasoned and crispy. As usual, a deep fryer solves all problems.

I was told that the House Black Daal is one of their most popular dishes and it’s the perfect way to dress up the Roomali Roti. Such a simple dish but really satisfying – I could happily just have this for lunch or dinner. But obviously I needed more.

Another popular dish is the Chicken Ruby. Full of flavour but not overwhelmingly so, this curry is more of a full-sized portion. The tender pieces of chicken are in a rich ‘makhani’ sauce (a butter-based tomato cream sauce) and again is best eaten with some roti if you’re not in a rice mood.

The Dishoom Calamari is one of my favourite dishes there – tiny tender squid with a delectable crunch and a subtle drizzle of sweet sauce.

No visit to Dishoom can be complete with their cheese naan. The cheese is melted inside the naan and it comes out all piping hot and melty. *cue heavy breathing*. Don’t leave without trying their House Chai – this is chai tea the way it was meant to be served – with warm, comforting and satisfying spices.


Dishoom
12 Upper St. Martin's Lane
Covent Garden
London WC2H 9FB
www.dishoom.com

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Hansel’s Unemployed Monday Porchetta

October 13, 2014

In between jobs I have a week off work. It has finally become Autumn in the UK and outside it’s pissing down with rain. So I wanted to buy some pork and make something special that would last a few days. Thus minimising the number of times we both had to leave the house. So I thought I would have a go at making a classic Italian Porchetta. Not that this is really classic. I used a whole shoulder rather than the belly and loin for instance.

Starting with a whole boned shoulder of pork.

Which I wanted to stuff with aniseed, fresh thyme, salt, pepper, and fennel

I took off the skin, along with its layer off fat. And then trimmed the remaining meat into another layer, about twice as thick as the skin. The meat taken off ended up being about 1.5KG in total so that got turned into some Caramelised Vietnamese Pork

On the skin I put ground aniseed, kosher salt, and pepper

Then on top of that went the flat piece of pork

With sliced fennel and chopped thyme

…and then rolled it up with some butcher’s twine. Which took two people and we still lost half the stuffing onto the counter.

Into a 200°C oven until the skin puffed up, then turned it down to 160°C for another 3 hours

And here’s the finished product. You can see all the various layers, the fat has almost entirely melted into the meat and the skin is a perfect crisp layer. Fennel and aniseed flavours going all the way through.

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Cooking for 30

October 6, 2014

This weekend just been it was my buddy’s 30th birthday. He decided he wanted to spend the weekend in a country mansion and he found one in Ross & Wye that would take 30 of us.

I agreed to look after all the food, cooking dinner on Friday night, then breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the Saturday. It was the biggest food project I’d ever done so I thought I would make some notes here.

Keeping organised:

It’s important to create a schedule and stick to it. Peeling and cutting vegetables for large numbers of people can take a surprising amount of time. The easiest way to create such a schedule is to work backwards from when you want to serve. If you want to serve 1.5KG of rare roast beef at 8pm. You need to leave 20 minutes for it to rest and another 70 minutes for it to cook. So to serve it at 8PM it should go into the oven at 6:50PM and you should probably give yourself 20 minutes to prep it as well. So the schedule for that might look something like td { border: 1px solid black; padding: 30px; } table { margin: 30px; }

6:10PM Prep roast beef
6:30PM Put roast beef in oven
7:40PM Remove roast from oven
8:00PM Serve roast

The basic idea is to create a list of actions sorted by time. If you don’t do this it’s very easy to end up serving cold meat and undercooked vegetables…

Experimenting:

Before you do anything on a huge scale you should at least run some experiments to make sure it’s going to work. This weekend I was serving a pasta course, each serving of which needed to be finished off in a pan. I had read that the best way to do this was to parboil the spaghetti for 5 minutes, and then rapidly cool it in cold water. After this it could be kept at room temperature and cooked quickly in a pan with the pasta water and sauce to finish it. But since I had never actually done this before I decided to test it with a small quantity of pasta before committing to cook the full 7 kilos.

So any techniques or recipes that you haven’t tried before should definitely be given a test run before being done at a large scale. But that’s generally true of cooking anything for other people.

Scaling recipes:

This was almost entirely guess work. There are plenty of charts and guides to cooking for crowds available on line but they all conflict. Eventually I just did some basic math. I’ve cooked plenty of meals for 5 people. So I used those quantities, multiplied them by 6 and rounded down a little.