ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
ʼʼ

Friday, December 24, 2010

Yule Blog

Well, festoon my hearth with Yuletide mirth and gluttony, it done be Christmas Eve here, and one of those very special times of the year that I usually spend indulging in fine food and drink. (Not unlike the rest of the year, in fact!)

Merry Christmas!

Cheese @ Borough Market
Sadly this year the festive flu has rather curtailled such intentions thus far -  I've been pretty much housebound for the past week or so, with tastebuds so jaded I could probably eat a whole filet-o-fish without sicking up chunks of reformed pollock, and have thus been unable to sample much in the way of seasonal flavours.

There have been a couple of exceptions though - I made it as far as Borough Market the other day to stock up on high-quality cheeses (Comte, Mont D'or, and Worksop Blue on the Ben Viveur cheeseboard this Christmas!) and was able to neck a few festive ales en route in the excellent pubs nearby.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Big Fat Asian Wedding Food Tasting

I had anticipated eating rather well this past weekend, mainly because we were taking a friend out for a belated birthday dinner to a new contemporary English steakhouse in Newbury, and given my recent musings on the topic, I was eager to see how their fayre would, err, fare.

(if you’re wondering, the sirloin was admirably thick and juicy – though it could have been bluer – with a slightly smokey flavour, the vegetables were mismatched and plain, the so-called buffalo wings were a disappointing starter with little to no heat, and the crème brulee a perfectly acceptable sweet)

Anyway, in order to work up an appetite, I’d already decided I probably wouldn’t have a pie at the footie, and as it happened, I was completely stuffed as I watched Reading 'beating' us 0-0, and still not vastly hungry by the time we arrived at the restaurant.

The reason for my unexpected all-day satiety? Getting married next month! Not in the sense of romantic loss of appetite (which has never seemed to manifest itself in me, strangely enough) but because we had a ‘food tasting’ at a place we were looking at doing the catering for our reception. And, boy, what a tasting it was!


Blumenthall ain't the only Heston in town

I didn’t have a clue what to expect when we ventured gingerly into brunchtime Heston (yes, the place near Hounslow, known only for it's motorway service station), and the slightly scratty industrial estate where Premier Rouge are based.

Tikka taste test
All we knew is that my girlfriend had enjoyed the food at an event they had catered for a few years ago, and upon getting the name of the company from a friend of a friend, we realised that they were very competitively priced, which is a good start as we're hoping to get married as cheaply as possible, and ideally make a profit on the whole thing!

We opened their door, caught a glimpse of their kitchen, and wandered upstairs - the interior was far plusher than anywhere for miles around, with a dreamlike incongruity. One corner of the room was like a small office, another a bar area, another was like the waiting area in a massage parlour with big red sofas a wall-mounted TV (though not showing hardcore porn, admittedly) and the last was a mini restaurant with just one, elaborately decorated, table.

Out came the first of many, many courses, a big yoghurty plate of Dahi Aloo Papri Chat, bursting with different flavours and textures. Not knowing how much we were meant to take, or what was to come, we just took a couple of mouthfuls each, barely denting the dish. That turned out to be a wise strategy as the table was furnished with the mango chutney and mint sauce that heralded a range of starters to come.

There was well-executed chicken tikka and seekh kebabs, which is just what you need to kick off an Indian style banquet, and some of the veggie starters were to die for - potato pakora with chana massala, a perfectly cooked paneer tikka with a deep tandoori flavour, and the gloriously sweet and spicy chilli paneer.

They kept on bringing up plate after plate, then once the starters were done, they began to bring out plate after plate of main dishes, with a robust, classic Chicken curry, a lovely Rogan Josh full of tomatoes and really tender lamb pieces, and various other dishes I've lost track of. Rice, Naan and salad were all provided of course.

The only really unpleasant thing out of around 25 different starters, curries, bhajis and sweets, was the massala fried fish, which looked lovely, but the batter suffered from a really metallic taste, a bit like those low-sodium salt substitutes.

Personally, I hate peas and so the muttar paneer weren't things we'd be choosing, but the quality was generally exceptional throughout. I've also never particularly enjoyed Asian desserts, but did eat half of my gulab jamun, as it wasn't too sweet, and that's way more than I'd usually manage.

When we could eat no more, we wondered if we'd be presented with some kind of a bill, maybe deductable from our catering order, or at least some high-pressure sales pitch to ensure that we didn't take our business elsewhere.

But there was nothing. We actually had to ask one of the guys if we could discuss the business side of things. I guess they are confident enough in the quality of their food and reasonableness of their prices that most people who try the tasting will go with them anyway.

Their food is better than most restaurants I've dined in - and I've dined in a lot of Indian restaurants. Premier Rouge's owner explained how and why - banquetting menus are chosen way in advance, so they can properly prepare and marinate and get everything right, whereas restaurants have to respond to an unpredictable range of short orders in rapid succession.

You know it makes sense
It makes sense, so it does.


Free for all

Even now, a few days later, I can't get over the fact that this delicious multi-course tasting menu experience was free. Yes, we're going to book them, because they're very tasty and exceptional value to boot, but we never felt under obligation to do so.

How many other caterers are out there offering similar deals to people who say they are interested in booking catering for their wedding (or indeed any other event)? For years after we're married we can go around pretending to be newly-engaged just so we can get freebies from different caterers.

Don't take this as endorsement for blagging plate upon plate of free banquetting food, but it would be pretty easy to pull off this scam. Even if you only get away with it once, you'll save yourself the cost of a meal out. Not that I told you that. It's tempting though, isn't it? 

After eating so well on Saturday I needed to be brought back down to culinary reality on Sunday, and Mr. Wetherspoon duly obliged with a truly execrable turkey dinner. A karmic warning in the light of my scamtastic thoughts, perhaps. With peas.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I'd rather be Tiny Tim

Work Christmas party last night - the first one of the year - and at the risk of offending my otherwise lovely bosses, it was the culinary equivalent of a multi-vehicle pile-up with no survivors. But then these sorts of things usually are.

For years, my work Christmas parties consisted of eating a plateful of shit food, drinking uninspiring house red, trying and failing to cop off with girls I fancied, getting a bit pissed (both in the English and American sense of the expression), trying and failing to cop off with anyone at all, ranting and raving about the futility of life, then finally stumbling home home alone in a raging, dispairing, sobbing, drunken heap of messed-upness.

These days, now I'm all grown up and cohabiting, a work Christmas party merely consists of eating a plateful of shit food then going home early. Which is, I suppose, rather better.

I guess it was too much to hope for that the standard of Christmas party menus would improve in the way that other aspects of my life have done though. As meals go, 'christmas dinner with all the trimmings' has to be one of the most overrated, overhyped, overpriced dishes ever conceived. Yet we eat it every year, often on more than one day.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Steak Out?

I've seen a lot of people on the tube lately wearing Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. They look like twats.

In fact, they looked a bit like fringe Star Wars character Lobot, and he looked like a twat.

I've stopped telling people that though, because the first couple of people I mentioned it to said 'nah, they look cool. Big headphones are back in. Big headphones look cool'. 

If I'd let them carry on, they'd probably have told me Lobot was cool.

Cool?
OK, I suppose it's a change from the tiny white iEarphones which have become the height of ubiquity, and an oblique homage to the Rebel Alliance, but they still look like twats. Twats.

Anyway, I realised a long time ago that I'm not the arbiter of what is cool and what isn't and that 'fashion' is a cock I don't particularly wish to suck.

But, like it or not, the prevailing perceptions of coolness impact on all of our lives, no matter now little we want to play along. It affects how easy it is to dine in certain types of restaurants for a start.


Where are all the steakhouses gone?

When I were a lad, this whole town used to be steakhouses. 'Twere all you could see for miles around, so it were.

Well, not quite, but back in the 1980s (and for a long time before that by all accounts), going out for a steak was pretty much the height of gastronomic cool. It was where you took somebody you wanted to impress. It was what you ate when you were doing well, or had something to celebrate.

The predominant meme was a fundamental belief that 'steak' was the king of foods, and it had a cachet about it that set it apart from just plain, ordinary beef.

By the 1990s, we were all more sophisticated - food had to be more Ms. International Vegetarian Sophisticate, and less alpha man meat. 

London's once-thriving network of traditional English steakhouses has now dwindled to a handful of fairly naff places in the West End whose target market seems to be tourists, hungry after a long day's sightseeing and shopping for union flag t-shirts. The only places selling steaks in any great quantity are Wetherspoon pubs on Tuesday Grill Nights, and even they offer non-steak options

Steak became the plain, ordinary beef that it used to look down upon, and after more than 20 years, it still hasn't really ever come back into fashion.

Cool?
Sirloin, Rump, T-bone, Fillet - whatever cut you preferred, and whether you had it rare, medium or (shudder) 'well-done', you weren't eating coolness personified, and even a peppercorn or bernaise sauce wasn't going to give it the credibility of sushi or shaved Parmesan.

My skills with music and writing'n'shit have earned me a bit of a cult following myself - or possibly a cunt following, I'm not sure - but I'm under no illusions that I'm ever going to be the epitome of cool, and maybe steak doesn't either. 

But enough people fundamentally enjoy the flavour and cavemanny experience steak to make it a possibility.


Gaucho - the big beef comeback?

Steak needed a new angle and, frankly, to taste a bit better than it did 25 years ago, if it was ever going to make a return to the echelons of coolness.

Cool?
The Argentinian outfit Gaucho might just be the chain to do this. Their outlet on the wharf - one of half a dozen or so in London - and I approached with an open mind when taken there for lunch this week. It's steak. With a bit of a cult following. Just like me.

Gaucho Canary is different from the slightly tacky Gaucho restaurants found in the States where skewers of meat are theatrically cut at your table, but these guys are clearly out to impress, and that's reflected perhaps in the prices (£50-75 a head for a good meal with wine).

The seats are upholstered with real cow hides, the kitchen is open and buzzing, and the various cuts of meat are brought to your table so you can make an informed choice as to which steak you'd like, and how big you'd like it.

All the cuts are there, albeit with South American names like Lomo (fillet) and Cuadril (rump), and some are available Churrasco-style, marinated to perfection. 

They do all the sauces you'd expect (not that you'll really need them with a Churrasco Cuadril), and you can choose your side orders from an exciting range, including sweet potato with chorizo, wild field mushrooms and spicy roast potatoes.

The wine list is extensive, perhaps too extensive even, and a spicy Argentinian Shiraz was just the ticket; one of many which would I'm sure have been a more than acceptable accompaniment.

Dessert of the day was a well-executed Tiramisu, accompanied by a generous portion of pistachio butter, which didn't really go with it, but which tasted like a dessert in its own right. Two sweets for the price of one can't be bad. And at Gaucho prices probably affords much-needed fiscal relief!

Premium pricing aside, I do have a couple of criticisms - they don't offer steak knives ('because their beef is so soft a regular knife will just cut through it') and I found this a little arrogant, not to mention unhelpful. Yes, a well-done fillet might fall to bits on the plate, but if you're eating rump, cooked blue, it's going to need a little assistance on the way from plate to mouth.

And they insist on using metric weights, which just seems wrong when ordering steak. Give it to me in ounces, man, ounces.

But these are trivialities really - Gaucho has reinvented the high-end steakhouse for the age of Beats by Dr. Dre, and done so pretty convincingly.

Maybe steak will never become the ultimate food again. Maybe we're all too diverse and worldly now, but if anyone can make it cool, Gaucho probably can.



On The Wharf...

Gaucho Canary
29 Westferry Circus
Canary Wharf
E14 8RR
*********

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

value for money for old rope to hang yourself

I went to an FSA whisky tasting on the Wharf last night - one of the more civilized after-work activities I've attended over the years, it has to be said - and it got me thinking. Not just about whisky either.

Unfortunately there wasn't anything at the really extremely peaty end of the spectrum that I'd normally go for, but one of the drams we sampled was at the 'bloody lovely' end of a different scale altogether - the cask strength 37 year old bourbon cask Caperdonich. which was fruity, toffeeish and ever so smooth.

Very, very good stuff.
I can count the number of times I've drunk liquids older than me on my fingers and toes, and the older I get the less likely it is to happen, so I savoured every bourbon-casked moment.

To my palette, it made every other malt we sampled taste a bit ordinary, though the 12 year old Springtown with three years in claret casks deserves a mention for it's medicinal berry vapours.

Oh go on then, I'll even plug the shop that hosted the tasting. The Dufftown whisky shop. OK, run along now.

Anyway, the Caperdonich was by far the nicest, and it was, predictably, also by far the most expensive. But is it bad value for money?
If you enjoy a £150/bottle whisky more than three times as much as you enjoy a £50/bottle whisky, doesn't that actually make it better value?


Outlay divided by pleasure equals value

The answer of course is 'Yes. Yes it does'.

There is good-value stuff and poor-value stuff out there, and it doesn't always correlate with the price.
If you read the little blogpipe where I posited the Satiety Index you'll know that I likes me little systems, and statistics and indices'n'shit. I also think there aren't enough ways of easily quantifying complicated stuff in this world.

Yeah, I know, I probably should do more to repress my autistic tendencies, but my creative side doesn't do repression.

Relative to the subjectivity of our individual compasses, food and drink, like most other things, covers a scale from the execrable to the divine. Generally the price range for food and drink is as vast, ranging normally from 'free' to 'literally unaffordable'.

The real question of value is most poignant when something isn't literally unaffordable, but is so expensive as to impact on what else one can do with ones money, and consequently affects your lifestyle accordingly - e.g. you might technically be able to afford a bottle of 37 year old Caperdonich every day, but you'd be drinking it on the streets because you wouldn't be able to pay your mortgage; that kind of thing.


Cheap/Expensive does not equal Bad/Good

I said some disparaging things about cheap sandwich outlet Bene Bene the other day, and indeed some positive things about places where sandwiches cost three times as much - but there's a danger of reading an overly simplistic message into that.

One of the tasters yesterday mentioned Johnnie Walker Blue label, which is more expensive than the 37 year old Caperdonich, and was informed rather sneeringly (and rightly so, in my view) that all Johnnie Walker products are just mass-market blended whiskeys of dubious quality, and the high price of their 'premium' brands has little to do with quality and everything to do with marketing.

There are single malts that cost a quarter of the price that will always be superior. 

Likewise in a pub, the most expensive draft beer available will probably be something like Stella Artois. Does that mean it's the highest-quality beer on tap? Of course not. Any decent pub will have real ales that are a damn sight tastier, and they'll typically be 20-30% cheaper too.


Two kinds of snobbery

The problem is that some people are so lacking in confidence in their own tastebuds that they let the pricetag do the talking. They drink the Stella and the Johnnie Walker blue not really because they particularly enjoy it (though they might) but because they think the price positioning makes it good, and they want to be seen to be appreciating good stuff. Yes, they're the same people that bought the Mercedes A-class and the new Mini. And Mac computers.

I guess as a free market Libertarian I shouldn't be that comfortable with the triumphs of marketing ploys and in a free world, people are free to sell not very much for an inflated price and equally free to buy it. Mugs.

Personally I like to feel I've got good value for me pennies. Fish and chip shops are incredibly good value. Where else can you buy such a filling takeaway for a few quid? The huge bags of bombay mix that sell for 99p in some newsagents. They're good value too.
Some cunts call me a snob from time to time. I'm OK with that, so long as they mean the kind of snob that is fussy about quality and authenticity, rather than the kind that just only buys expensive or 'branded' things.

The person next to me at last nights tasting failed to turn up but a place had been set for them and their glasses filled. 

I craftily drank their measure of Caperdonich before leaving! Anything is value for money when it's free!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

If you only learn how to cook one dish, learn this!


You’ll have noticed, or possibly not, that I recently customised the design of Ben Viveur to include a background image that looks like a never-ending portion of chilli.

Mmm, infinite chilli. Feel free to salivate for there are few mental images more alluring than this.

A good chilli is, it has to be said, one of my favouritestever foods. So long as the guiding principles are right, it's a hugely flexible dish, and if you only teach yourself how to cook one thing, chilli would be a pretty good choice because a few variations can turn it into something that's more like a curry or a Bolognaise sauce or a cottage pie filling.

Not all chilli is good though. Rubbishcunt chilli makes me shudder, and there are so many ways in which chilli can be substandard – too bland, too mindlessly hot, too full of the wrong things - it’s a minefield out there, so it is.
 
Not that you'll ever find anything approaching consensus on what a chilli should contain, mind. A heated debate has been raging for a great many years - for some, kidney beans are a defining feature, but to some purists in certain parts of the US, beans of any kind are strictly verboten. Personally I like them, but they’re not mandatory.

In fact, almost no one ingredient is essential in my chili recipe, though if you left out too many of them, it might cease to resemble a chili.

There are, however, a few things that I’ve encountered in some unfortunate chillis over the years, which I really don’t think ever have a place –  prawns, peas, carrot, quorn… and a chilli should never EVER contain sweetcorn in my view. Not even a veggie one.

The only thing a chilli really definitely ought to contain is, I guess, some actual chillis, although I’ve tried some that seemed notably bereft!

Generally I’ll cook my chilli using either minced beef or chopped stewing steak, but I’ve made chicken chilli and an all-veggie version (with extra mushrooms, chopped celery and a variety of beans) too.

It’s satisfying and nourishing, and if you use extra-lean meat and low fat sour cream, it can be an extremely healthy dish.

This recipe is the classic – you can figure out your own variations – and it’ll keep well for a couple of days, improving over time.

My chilli, what I done made
I cooked one the other night. We ate with garlic bread balls, and finished it the following evening with rice. I'd have happily tucked into it a third night running if it weren't all polished off. Chilli be good.

Chilli

Ingredients

Minced beef, extra lean ( ¼ to ½ half a pound or so per serving)
Onion, finely chopped (roughly 1 small onion per serving)
Fresh chillies, finely chopped (either green or red, to taste)
Red peppers, finely chopped the long sweet twisty ones are best
Shitake mushrooms, finely chopped
Kidney beans, (¼ to ½ a tin per serving, depending on how beany you like your chilli). Get a tin that doesn’t have extra sugar or salt or anything else added to it, obviously.
Tomatoes, finely chopped, lots

Garlic, finely chopped, lots
Cumin, lots
Paprika
Black pepper
Cayenne pepper
Celery salt
Ground Ginger, a little
Chives
Fresh lime juice
Dark chocolate, a little
Dark (but not heavy) beer – dark lager is best, but a mild or porter will do
Worcestershire sauce
Olive oil
Butter

Sour cream


Method

Set a big sautee pan upon an high heat. The pan will need to have a lid for use later on.

Fry the chopped onion, chilli and garlic in a small amount of oil for a few minutes, then add a knob of butter and throw in your mushrooms.

Now put your beef in there, along with a big splash of Worcestershire sauce and generous quantities of cumin, black pepper, cayenne, and celery salt and a little ginger, and cook until almost browned, adding the peppers along the way.

Chuck in your kidney beans and a few squares of dark chocolate. Don’t drain the beans – the juices will enrich the sauce, as will the chocolate.

When the meat is brown, add the old tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes on maximum heat, then pour in a little beer for liquidity, whack the lid on the pan and turn the temperature right down.

Allow to simmer for an hour, stirring periodically if it makes you feel better about yourself. Midway through, chuck in some chives and the juice of a lime or two.

You might want to taste the sauce and see if it needs any more cumin or cayenne or whatever – just make sure it’s to your taste.

The longer you cook it on a low heat, the better it will get. If it looks dry, feed it with some beer.  

You can transfer it to a casserole and continue cooking it in an oven if you prefer - I have no strong argument for doing this, unless you need your hob for other purposes.
Serve it when you want to eat! And swirl some sour cream on top before so doing.

Chilli goes well with bread, garlic bread, green salad leaves, rice, baked potatoes, burgers, well pretty much anything really.

To drink? Dry, fruity whites or dry, fruity beers would seem to be the order of the day.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cordon Bleug


Today's Menu
 

To Start


Pickled Cloves (v)

Whole cloves, steeped in Spirit vinegar, just the way you like 'em.


Double Foie Gras

What could be more delicious than the liver of a force-fed goose? The liver of a goose that's been force-fed with Foie Gras, that's what!


Baked Toast (v)

Slices of finest toast, with figs, hand-baked until dawn. Tastier than watching a film.


Main Courses

Braised Tusk

A whole Walrus tusk, slow cooked in poo wine and garnished mit curds.

Served with your choice of fries, baked potato or Arctic Roll.


Pork Wombs in Brine

Three succulent, tender young pork wombs, stuffed with bletted quince and hand-cured in a spicy brine.

Comes with a big hunk of stale granary bread - perfect for mopping up the briney amniotic juices!


Arse Pie (v)

Our house speciality - a bigger slice than you can comfortably manage, with a salad of deadly vines.


Mashed potato with rice all mashed up together (v)

Served with chips, pasta and chips.


Dessertines


A lime (v)

Nothing more; nothing less.


Choco-nutty-toffee-coffee-fruity-mallow slice

With skipjack tuna chunks and cream.

For parties of one or more a discretionary charge of 12.5% will be added to your bill.


... And relax!

You see, the thing is that a lot of top chefs today are preoccupied with making their food unique rather than making it tasty.

If it can be radical and different and delicious than that's all well and good, but the loss of touch with ones diners is a cardinal sin that a select few can get away with purely because of their fame.

It's a similar pitfall faced by artists and musicians - where originality ceases to be useful in itself and exists purely for novelty value. Everyone can sit around talking about how worthy and unique Steve Reich's music is, without wanting to admit even to themselves that they'd rather be listening to Teh Quo.

How many people actually order Heston's famous Snail Porridge at the Fat Duck? And of those how many actually thought 'hmm, this is delicious; I'd like to eat it on a regular basis'?

I admit that I haven't tried it, and I'm in no hurry to do so, being no huge fan of either snails nor porridge, but I'd hazard that a more prominent reaction might be 'hmm, well, it was interesting... I'm glad I tried it... such a novel idea, isn't it?' - that sort of thing.

Maybe it's fantastic. I don't know. But it doesn't need to be, because the novelty value and fame element ensures a waiting list at the Duck, even in these austere times.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who I admire greatly, took several steps up the ladder of fame by cooking a human placenta and making it into paté. In some circles, this is what he's most famous for, and to some, all he will ever be, which is a great shame.

Celebrity chefs have, I've no doubt, spent most of their careers cooking fantastic dishes, and the creativity and flair for experimentation should be encouraged. (Heston, I want the credit if you steal my pork wombs recipe, I know you read my blog!)

But when radical foods succeed solely because of the reputation of their creator, and the repute itself feeds off controversy rather than quality, we're living in a dangerously hypocritical place.

If the snail porridge had been served up by some anonymous arthritic crone at the Bray parish church fete, the reaction would, surely, have been one of unanimous disgust and few would even have sampled its escargian oatiness.

Cooking shouldn't be conservative, and it shouldn't have boundaries and constraints. Last night, on a mad whim, I fried shards of apple in with my sausages. Never done it before like that. Yeah, I know, really radical.

But it tasted good, which is the important thing.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to start braising my walrus tusk and brining my pork wombs, because that's far more radical, and therefore will taste even gooder, obviously.

Or possibly not.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sandwich Course

They say that a man in Canary Wharf can live a hundred lives and eat a hundred different lunches every day.

Actually, nobody has ever said that as far as I'm aware, since I just made it up, but it's true that there are so many places to grab lunch around here, the choice is almost too much.

With the weather turning colder, salads and sushi are becoming less appealing, and hearty steaming soups rather more so, but what of that evergreen favourite, the humble sandwich?

At a conservative estimate, there are probably some 50 different sandwich outlets on The Wharf, with each offering maybe 20-30 different sandwiches - that's at least a thousand to choose from, without taking into account individual customisations ('extra mayo, hold the butter... Because it's actually margarine and I don't like it, fuckwit, that's why.')

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Satiety Index

The scare tactics began a few years ago.

‘Traffic lights’ on foods, telling us all, in a bright red, amber or green way, just how bad things were for us. Number of calories, amount of fat, amount of salt, that kind of thing.

Strangely enough there were very few all-green items on sale in the supermarkets, and lots that mixed amber and red, with maybe one token green column. (Ready salted crisps, for example, which score low in sugar and high in everything else.)

I do wonder just how they can accurately calculate exactly how much saturated fat or how many calories is in something anyway?  And does the figure quoted apply to the entire contents of the packet or the amount a person is reasonably expected to eat, disregarding any crumbs or sauce that gets left behind?

(I think an apple (probably all green except in the sugar department) contains about 50 calories, but is that if you eat everything including the core, which I normally don’t? In fact I don’t even usually get close to the core, so I’m probably only eating just over half the mass of the apple)

Anyway, whatever the inherent ambiguities in the system, it has stuck, and now the Food Standards Agency, in its final throes before likely Coalition dissolution, has been actively persuading the food industry to roll out such systems out beyond the chiller cabinet in the house of Sainsbury, extending it to fast food outlets.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The art of the possible - Murgh Keema Masala

When I eat at a Pizza/Pasta type restaurant (a real Italian one as opposed to a Pizza Hut, obviously), I’ll almost always choose a pizza from the menu, rather than a pasta or risotto or tuscan bean stew or anything else. Probably 95% of the time. In fact the only time I wouldn’t would be if I’d had pizza the day before or something.

That’s not because I’m a huge pizza aficionado, or because I don’t believe the other dishes on the menu would be fantastic. It’s because a stone-baked pizza or wood-fired pizza is one of those dishes that it’s almost impossible to adequately recreate at home without the requisite stone-baking or wood-firing malarkey.

I know I can cook more-than-acceptable Italian-style dishes -  My pancetta and parma ham linguine and seafood risotto rock like a bastardino. I also know that any attempt to make pizza will result in something rather half-hearted and uninspiring.

Same with fish and chips. Leave it to the experts. They can do something unique that the home chef without the specialist knowledge and equipment will struggle to achieve. Kebabs too, I suppose.

And, thinking about it, it’s the reason why I usually drink real ale in pubs, rather than a bottle of beer (or wine or cider etc.) which would taste exactly the same at home.

Anyway, Indian (or, rather, South Asian) food is diverse enough that it falls between two stools of thought here. (It’s also diverse enough to accommodate mixed metaphors, thank you very much.)

Sometimes I’ll make a curry at home and it’ll taste as good as any similar dish in a restaurant, but I’ve also enjoyed some fantastic dishes in Indian restaurants that I know I’ll never be able to cook myself. 
No, I don't own one either

I guess using a proper Tandoor (which I don’t own and wouldn’t have space for) makes the difference here, just as an authentic pizza oven hides the secret behind great pizza. I do occasionally muse upon this reality, without much further analysis, admittedly, because food that I can and do actually cook and eat seems to be rather more worthy of earnest consideration than that which I can't and don't!

So, this week, I decided to cook a curry or two, and my girlfriend suggested in a fit of adventurousness, that it might contain boiled egg(!) and my mind immediately turned to a dish I’d enjoyed many years ago.

It not only worked out amazingly well, it has the added bonus that the ingredients can also produce a delicious starter by way of a side product.

It takes a little while, but the result is a luxurious dish of the kind you’d normally find on the ‘chef’s specials’ section of the menu.

More importantly, you'd never know that the tandoori components hadn't been cooked in a real tandoor, so you get the warm fuzzy feeling of cheating and getting away with it.

These three recipes should be within the capability of any decent home chef.

Keema Murgh Massala
Seekh Kebabs

Chicken Tikka will never taste as good in a regular oven, but just because the tikka you're in a position to make isn't authentic enough to eat on it's own, there's no reason not to include it in a thrice-cooked feast where the tikka pieces end up in a flavoursome sauce, giving you the best of both worlds.


This is one such dish, with the tikka pieces eventually finding their home in a spicy keema (minced lamb) sauce, and as a by-product there will be tasty lamb kebabs to enjoy as a first course!

Ingredients:

Chicken fillets, cut into bite-sized pieces
Minced lamb, half for the kebabs, half for the keema sauce.
Hard boiled eggs, shelled, whole, one per serving
Onion, finely chopped, roughly one medium onion per serving
Tomatoes, at least 1 ½ medium tomatoes per serving, a mixture of finely chopped and cut into quarters
Plain yoghurt, quite a lot
A lemon or two, for juice and segments
Red pepper, finely chopped
Garlic, plenty, chopped
Fresh coriander leaves, roughly torn
Tandoori spice mix (red spice powder)
Black pepper
Black onion seeds
Asafoetida
Chilli powder
Ginger
Butter


Method:

The first thing is to marinate your chicken, and if you can do this a day before eating and keep it marinating in the fridge then even better.

Just whack some of your tandoori spices into some yoghurt with a smidge of lemon juice and as much chilli powder as you choose, stir it all up, then coat your chicken pieces all over and leave for a while,

It’s a good idea to marinate it in the big oven dish you plan on cooking the curry in, because all the marinade left behind can become part of the curry eventually anyway.

When you’re ready to cook, you’ll need to allow a couple of hours, though there will be seekh kebabs to enjoy in the mean time.

Take roughly half your minced lamb and add some spice mix and chilli powder with maybe a tiny drop of lemon juice.

Work it in thoroughly with your hands (it should be red rather than ‘lamby’ in colour) and form solid little turd-shaped kebabs.

You can put these on a baking tray with the chicken tikka pieces and cook it all at the same time – it goes into a medium oven for about half an hour, turning everything over half way through cooking, and draining off the juices (into your main curry pan).

You should remove the chicken from the oven a little earlier than if you were just cooking chicken tikka, because it’s going to be cooked two times more!

The kebabs can go back in for a little longer, until red-brown and slightly crispy - or do this later when you're ready to serve them as your starter.

Serve with a little yoghurt and a wedge of lemon, and maybe some salad.

You can also search them cold in a naan wrap if there are some left over.



While that little lot is in the oven, you can begin making the curry.

Heat some butter in a big sautee pan with a lid, and add the chopped garlic (not the slices), and most (but not all) of the onion.

After a few minutes, when it’s simmering nicely, add some black pepper, chilli powder, black onion seeds, asafoetida and ginger, and a minute or two later, whack in the minced lamb and chopped peppers, making sure everything gets coated nicely with the spices and the lamb is properly cooked. If it starts to disintegrate that's not really a problem.

At some point you’ll be able to add the excess juices from the tikka and kebabs that are cooking in the oven, and this would be a good time to put in the chopped tomatoes (but not the tomato quarters) and keep it cooking gently until the chicken in the oven is ready.













OK, so you've cooked your chicken tikka and kebabs, so the time to make it all come together is almost at hand.


Add the cooked chicken tikka to your curry, along with the quartered tomatoes and a big fistful of fresh coriander.
Cook it on a low heat with the lid down for 15-20 minutes - the aromas should be lovely by now.

Now, go back to the dish where it all started (where you marinated the chicken) and transfer everything back into that, adding the boiled eggs at this time. Everything should be mixed up nicely and the keema sauce should be lovely and thick and moist.

If it’s too dry, add a little more yoghurt, maybe diluted with a spoon or two of boiling water. But bear in mind that the tomatoes will add liquid and the lamb juices richness.

It’s now time for the final phase – put the lid on the dish and return it to the oven, where it will improve on a low heat for 30 minutes or so, during which time you can cook the rice or nan bread or whatever you want, or possibly a garlic mushroom bhaji.

When you serve it, make sure everyone gets an egg and a few big bits of tomato.


Garlic Mushroom Bhaji

This is a really easy side dish and contrasts nicely with the Murgh Keema Masala.

Ingredients:

Chestnut mushrooms, chopped
Garlic, thinly sliced, lots
Onion, a small amount, chopped
Turmeric
Cumin
Butter

Method:

Take a regular frying pan and fry the onion and garlic in butter, then add the spices – don’t be afraid to be generous.

After a few minutes, add the chopped mushrooms and cook on a medium heat until the mushrooms start to soften and the garlic slivers turn brown. That's it. Serve it with your main curry.


A simple naan bread or basmati rice completes the meal, and you might want to drink an appropriate beer with it. Cobra is fine, King Cobra better, and Wolverhampton & Dudley brew an 'Ultimate Curry Beer', but my preferred option would be a chilled bottle of Brewdog Punk IPA, which I find an excellent accompaniment to spicy food.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Non-evasive answers to existential questions

So, what are we doing? Why are we here? Why am I writing this new blog? Why are you reading it?

Well, to put it simply: I done likes me food, and I done likes me drink, and I done do writing'n'shit, and if you add up all them there things and multiply them by the internet, you come up with this blog what I'm done writing.

Makes sense, no?

Teh Wharf

I shall be reviewing eateries and drinkeries, mostly around the Canary Wharf area initially as that's where I'm based, and there will be general comment on developments in the epicurean realm. As you'll have undoubtedly noticed a couple of days ago, I moaned about the dubious gourmetness of gourmet burgers in my first blogpipe here - and that's pretty much the kind of thing you can expect.

I daresay there'll be some comment on the beer and brewing scene from time to time (and you can, of course, read my beer writing in the London Drinker magazine, available in all good pubs in the London area).

I hugely enjoy cooking myself (not in the auto-cannibalistic sense, obviously), so there'll be recipes from time to time, which is a tad ironic as I'm from the 'never ever bother with following recipes ever' school of cookery.

You'll learn what I adore (anchovies), what I despise (margarine), and what I'm utterly indifferent to (sauvignon blanc). You'll also learn how to dress a crab wearing only a pair of skimpy briefs. 

I do hope we can enjoy this journey of good food and good drink together, in good company.

No? OK, fuck off then. I don't care.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Burger Me!

I recently returned from my latest trip to the USA (the ‘Four Corners’ area around the rocky mountains and Monument Valley as it happens) and as usual, I drank plenty of uber-hoppy microbrews and polished off a few big, meaty burgers.

Now back in The Wharf, with a shiny new food’n’drink blog to pen, I’m left to reflect on what is ultimately a bittersweet experience, because trips to the US tend to remind me that, with scant few exceptions, our beers are generally nowhere near as uncomprising as I’d like, and most hamburger products available in this country are crap too.

You can get crap burgers in the States too, of course. They pretty much invented fast food and have sustained a passionate love affair therewith for decades. But you don’t have to look too far to find something much better; much beefier; much more flavoursome. Pretty much any bar will grill you up a thick injection of beefy goodness, topped with whatever you like. It’ll taste damn good, it’ll fill you up good and proper, and it won’t cost the earth either.

And, unfortunately, it’s an experience that seems so difficult for British restaurants to recreate.

It’s not all about the toppings either, or we’d have it sussed by now. Yes, it’s great to have your half-pounder bursting with chilli, avocado and sour cream, or (my personal favourite) Canadian Cheddar, bacon and BBQ sauce, or whatever. But so the fuck what? Any donkey can whack stuff on top and sell the burger off the back of the other ingredients, but it should be the bovine slab of delight underneath that matters.

A few years ago the Gourmet Burger Kitchen exploded onto the London restaurant chain scene, giving hope to burger aficionados everywhere. Run originally by exiled New Zealanders, they've expanded across the country, specialising in some inventive topping combinations – try mango and ginger on ‘The Jamaican’, or aubergine and tahini on ‘The Babaganoush’.

GBK’s chunky fries and aioli and polenta chips and coleslaw are all pretty good but none of these tasty things are burgers. And their actual burgers are, compared to their transatlantic brethren, pretty average (though, it has to be said, half-decent compared to most of their local competition).

One thing that has always really annoyed me about GBK is how the lack of table service completely detracts from the 'restaurantness' of the experience. It's all so 'fast-foody', deciding what one wants rather hurriedly whilst queuing to pay for it upfront, then returning to the counter to pay again if you want something else. The last thing you want to do when stuffed with Kiwiburger is to struggle to your feet and sift through your loose change just to get a coffee

Over the last few years Wetherspoons and similar pub chains have leaped onto the bandwagon to promote their own ‘gourmet’ burgers, as if it’s the toppings that somehow make them good, but it doesn’t fucking work. Try the regular and gourmet burger in our local Spoons, The Ledger Building – you’ll see it’s exactly the same burger, and there’s nothing much gourmet about it.

'Gourmet' Wetherburger, now with plate-corners


I read on Wetherspoons Facebook page this week that they've now upgraded their gourmet burger... to be served on a rectangular plate! Great. That'll make it taste so much more awesome!!!111one1

Thing is, you could put the finest foie grois and truffle oil on the sort of tasteless, gristly lipid-lumped patties that routinely pass for burgers in this country, and succeed only in ruining your foie grois and truffle oil.


But Why, I ask you, Why?

So, one has to ask the question. Why are so many British burgers uninspiring and bland when just across the Atlantic, a similar type of outlet can sell a similarly-named product at a similar price point that tastes like proper cow.

The quality of the beef cattle probably has a lot to do with it. I’m guessing here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of the meat that goes into hamburger mince in the US would have remained intact and become rump steak or perhaps a roasting joint of some sort, had it come from the flesh of an English cow.

It also wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if our burgers were made from the lowest-grade meat available, but from the next level up over there – their decent burgers get made from ‘premium economy’ beef, or maybe even business class, because all the economy stuff gets used by the low-end fast food outlets, with which we’re unconcerned, and whose burgers taste the same all over the world.

I think I've hit on something here: Wetherspoons burgers, say, aren't really much better than those from Burger King or a van outside a football ground, because they probably come from the same off-cuts and offal silos, if that isn't some sort of culinary libel. (If it is, I didn't say it, obviously). 

Here’s a little tip: one pretty good indicator of a good burger is that the taste holds up (and, as far as I’m concerned improves) when cooked on the rarer side of medium and eaten without extraneous toppings.

Burgers in outlets where there is no option other than the house ‘medium-well’ tend to be less good than those in places where they’re happy to give the customer the choice, knowing that it won’t disappoint, however it’s cooked. It’s all about the quality of the beef.

This rule holds true for haemophobes too – even if you’re always going to ask for your burger bien cuit, a burger that tastes good when rare will taste better when well done than a burger that tastes strange and falls apart when rare will taste when well done, if that makes sense, which it probably doesn’t, but I don’t fucking care because I’m lost in burger fantasy right now anyway.

New kids on the meat block Byron opened their Canary Wharf outlet a few weeks ago so I was naturally keen to see if their self-proclaimed ‘Proper Hamburgers’ could hold a candle to those I’ve eaten in the US - and the good news is that they can. Pretty much.
 
Get past the deliberately quirky branding, and toilet facilities eerily wallpapered with comics and the fundamentals are all there.


Byron, Canary Wharf


They’ll ask you how you’d like your burger cooked, and actually listen to you and act on it, which is a great start! The menu includes a few suggested topping combinations (the signature ‘Byron Burger’ comes with cheddar and bacon, and their tangy house sauce), but doesn’t make too big a meal out of toppingness and lets you choose your own, or indeed none at all.


(i've no idea who the Byron in question actually is, but it's reassuring that their slogan is 'Proper Hamburgers' rather than something convoluted around 'lording it over the competition' or 'club foot sandwich' or somesuch!)

The burger itself is more flavoursome than any I’ve previously sampled in a country with taps and pavements; the meatiness wafting through the toppings and working with them rather than hiding behind sauce like some frightened, beefy bastard.

Maybe they fly their cattle over from Montana first class and slaughter them en route to The Wharf from City Airport? It certainly tastes like it.

There are proper bottles of various sauces on the table, including Tabasco, which adds to the American diner-type feel, and which is no bad thing.

You can mix and match and share your sides (crispy courgette fries are a particular highlight) rather than be shoe-horned into a meal combo you might not want which is great, especially at lunchtime, and there’s Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Brooklyn Lager on the drinks list for an authentically modern American experience (or you could go for an old-fashioned milkshake served in the frozen bucket it was made in!)

Another reliable marker for the quality of a burger is to ask yourself if you could happily drink wine with it. Byron offer a succinct list, 'helpfully' self-rated from 'Good' (Pinotage) to 'Best' (a Californian Pinot Noir) via 'Better' and 'Great', though I'd suggest that in this context it's pretty much of a muchness and the scale goes from 'Alright' to 'Alright'.


They have a similarly-rated quartet of Whites, but who on God's fat earth would consider drinking white wine with a burger?!?.Come on.

There are myriad places to eat on The Wharf, but even with the presence of GBK, there was a burger-shaped gap in the market which has now been filled admirably.

OK, they ain’t quite perfect. The dessert menu is safe and bland (though GBK doesn't even have one). There’s no choice in the bread department, and the standard bun isn’t very inspiring, and I’ve been told the vegetarian and healthy salady options are disappointing and come across as an afterthought.

But then who seeks out the best burger joint in town only to eat something that isn’t a burger? Possibly the same people who are drinking Chardonnay when they eat something that is?


Anyway, a substantial meal for two with a couple of beers or a bottle of wine will set you back £35-50, which is about comparable with GBK (and 3-4 times the price of Wetherspoons but fuck 'em).

Bottom line is that I might have been to a dozen or so places that are better than Byron Burger, but they are all a lengthy plane ride away. So go to Byron for your burgers, dickwad.


On The Wharf...

The Ledger Building (JD Wetherpoons)
4, Hertsmere Road,
West India Quay
E14 4AL
********* 

Gourmet Burger Kitchen
Unit 24, Jubilee Place,
Canary Wharf,
E14 5NY 
********* 

Byron Hamburgers
Second Floor, Cabot Place East
Canary Wharf
E14 4QT

*********  
(Other branches of all three chains are plentiful across London