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Ode to Nuoc Mam

2009/11/08

I’ve received the honour of invited contributer to this blog. But  since the invitation, I have been nothing less than a terrible truant. So until I get my act together, I’ll be posting a few old posts from my private blog. Enjoy.

I had some friends over on Sunday for a leisurely lunch and made my special Magic Rolls (you’ll get the low down on them another time). They went down a treat, but more importantly I impressed myself too. I know, you’re not supposed to do that or if you do, not openly or publicly admit to it, but it’s the truth, I impressed myself. Not with the Magic Rolls per se, but with a devilishly good batch of nuoc mam.

My nuoc mam is so often hindered by an unbalance of sweetness, saltiness, spiciness but on Sunday I was on the money. It’s shame I can’t post it back and prove it to my mum (although she would feign indifference, I know on the inside she’s be quietly proud).

So, I bestow upon the world, this rare gift, my own personal recipe which I have decided to name:

Almost As Good As My Mum’s Nuoc Mam Nuoc Mam

INGREDIENTS

4 Red Bird’s Eye Chilies

2 Big Cloves of Good Garlic

5 Tablespoons of White Sugar

2-3 Generous Lemons

3 Tablespoons of Water

5 Tablespoons of Fish Sauce

INSTRUCTIONS

Using a mortar and pestle grind the chilies and garlic with the assistance of a little sugar into a paste. Depending on you preference, the more you grind the hotter the sauce. Traditionally this is quite a fierce piquant sauce, and you grind the chilies whole (without the stalks) but with the seeds. The raw garlic gives it an extra bite, although I do warn anybody, this is not date food: the combination of fish sauce and the garlic in this treatment is devastating.

When you have a nice paste, transfer it into a container, one that you will use to store the sauce in. So preferably something that can be securely sealed as any spillage is going to result in not so pleasant pungent smell for a good few days and also, fish sauce can flavour anything in its immediate radius so best protect on both accounts.

Now add all the sugar (yes it looks like a lot but trust me, this sauce is full of strong flavours and there is no point on wimping out the sugar because of what the government says. And don’t substitute for any of the Canderel rubbish. This recipe calls for good old fashioned genuine sugar). I prefer caster because it dissolves quicker but granulated is fine too.

Then add the water. In general, I try to use water that’s been boiled and then cooled. I don’t know why, but it seems right, that and my mum does it too. Add the juice of two lemons, taking good care not allow the pips to fall into the sauce (as the pips can resemble the crushed garlic somewhat) as that’s just not good nuoc mam etiquette. Then add the fish sauce taking care not to splash all over yourself .

Now give it good old stir.

Now taste the sauce, if it’s a little too salty (too strong on the fish sauce flavours) then add the last lemon to even it out, and if too sour, add a little more sugar. The sauce is should be terribly moreish and if balanced has even notes of the saltiness (fish sauce), sour (lemons), sweet (sugar) and heat (garlic and chilies).

Now serve with everything (maybe not cornflakes). Nuoc mam has a heat half life, that is, it will be at it’s peak (hottest) on the first day you make it and reduce it’s heat by half by the next day and so on. Of course that’s not entirely true, but you get what I mean. The sauce is good for a week, probably even two and I recommend you keep in the fridge to maximize preservation.

Joking aside, this is really versatile sauce that can brighten up many a meal, that doesn’t need to be restricted in the traditional sense. Try it with fried eggs and omelets, any type of grilled or lightly fried poultry or pork, it will be great as a dipping sauce for meaty types of seafood like salmon and prawns, also it is a perfect accompaniment to sides of salads, in particular lettuce, cucumber and sliced tomato. If you can get your hands unripe mangos, it’s a perfect dressing for that too. And I imagine it would be wondrous with avocados.

Making it will prove to all your Vietnamese cooking prowess. Personally I judge Vietnamese cuisine by the nuoc mam rule of thumb – once you try, you’ll see why.

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The Garden

2009/05/13
tags:
by

Have been very busy with new seedlings both human and vegetable.

Squash, tomato, beans all growing.
Also pepper and melon, but both looking like not enough heat.
Two crops of mange tout already eaten!

Not sure I’ll have much time for anything much this summer except running after all the young growing things.

Beef Braised in Soya Sauce

2009/02/08


2 ox tail per hungry person (try to buy approx the same size oxtail, the little ones will distintegrate into the stew before the large ones are ready) or
1 whole short rib per hungry person (short rib to be cut in half by butcher if possible)

2 bay leaves
3 cloves
1 cinnamon stick or cassia bark
(1-2 whole dried chilli optional)
(2-3 peppercorns optional)

4-6 carrots (in sticks)
4-6 onions (peeled and quartered)
4-6 sticks celery (optional, roughly chopped, 5cm lengths)

1 cup light soy
1 cup dark soy
Thick sweet soy (optional)
Sugar/honey to taste
Water / Sherry / Marsala / chinese wine / stock (optional)

Neutral oil (eg vegetable, groundnut) or lard (not olive oil)

The aim is to create a soya salt, sweet, savoury broth to braise the beef and you can balance out the various sweet ingredients depending on what you have.

Decide on if you want to braise on the hob or in the oven.

Oven tends to be a little longer, but potentially you check it less often. Technically the beef may end up more tender but my Mum has cooked this on the hob her whole life and I’ve not really noted any memorable difference. If I’m in for the evening or afternoon, then I will probably use the oven. Like all stews, this tastes richer the day after.

Choose a pot / casserole that will comfortably contain the ingredients.

Coat the pot in a film of oil and bring it to just below smoking (the oil will start to shimmer) and then brown the meat. This creates the meaty browning flavours that are the base savoury notes of the stew. You might want to do the meat in two batches. Put the meat to one side.

If the beef has not released enough oil, add some more and then fry the chopped onions until soft and slightly golden. Some people roughly chop the onion, but I’ve found in quarters is fine and quicker. Add the carrots and if you are using them the celery, half way through cooking the onion. You can put them in all at once, but I’ve found it slightly easier to stagger them. The celery adds a delicate vegetable flavour, that I like, but you can leave it out for an equally robust stew. You might need slightly more liquid, and a touch more sweet balance the less vegetables that you use. My Mum would probably use 8 to 10 onions, a few carrots and no celery.

When the vegetables are soft – about 5 to 10 minutes – add back the beef and herbs. I’ve also added garlic, but now generally don’t.

Here is where you mix your braise juice in. The more vegetabes and beef you’ve used, probably the less sugar in the mix. If you’ve used at least 3 short ribs or 6 ox tail, I probably wouldn’t bother with a stock cube or stock. I’ll give two versions, mine and my Mum’s and then you can adjust to what suits you.

Mine: a cup of rice wine or marsala (if you use marsals or sweet sherry, you need less sugar/honey), which I simmer off a little – I like the depth it adds (I think Nigella uses stout or beer and cider is also poss). Then I add a cup of light soy, a cup of dark soy, and a few shakes of thick sweet soy (probably 1/3 a cup) and a few good shakes of worcester sauce (probably 1/4 cup). I taste and add some sugar or honey to taste, probably around one table spoon. I then add water so that it just covers the beef and vegetables. I then simmer for around 3 hours on the hob or the oven, with it gentle enough to have only a few bubbles emerge. I might check it once or twice to make sure the beef is submerged and check its tenderness. Cooks talk about fork tine tenderness, when you slip a fork in the beef and it slips in easily. FTaer it has cooked. I then leave it on the hob, where it will be good for 3 or 4 days, and better after 24 hours. I reheat gently. If I want a thicker sauce, I’ll remove the beef in order to boil it down. My other half prefers the stew be thinner. Ox tail will tend to be slightly more gelatinous. If overnight, there is a lot of fat on the surface then you can skim it off before re-heating it the next day.

Mum’s: No marsala. Enough soy, both dark and light to cover the beef. Good shakes of worcester sauce. Two tablespoons sugar (lack of marsala needs more, but more onions makes it sweeter). She won’t add water, so it will be thicker and she will have the chilli. She won’t use celery. The peppercorns, chilli, bay and cloves will all be in a tea strainer, so she can fish it out at the end of cooking. She always uses the hob.

Serve with rice. Either basmati or thai fragrant for first choice. Potatoes also possible, mash or boiled. You can add peas when reheating or in the last 5 – 10 minutes for a blast of colour. Or, I sometimes add lenghts of spring onions. Watercress or steamed pak choy are also good sides.

Best Thai in London

2008/12/18

Number One

1 Dalgarno Gardens, North Kensington, London, W10 6AB

020 8968 0558

Occasionally you have restaurants that you know about, which you feel shy about mentioning as you really don’t want them over run with people coming from all over to such an extent that you never can eat there again without a booking 3 months in advance. This is one of them, but I shall temporarily lose my selfish desires and tell you about it.

I’m going to start with the only possible blemish. The décor isn’t up to much. That’s about it.

It serves amazingly cheap, very authentic, sensationally tasty Thai food. I’ve been told some of the spices are flown over by the grandmother from Thailand every week due to the lack of supply in London.

The curries are hotter than average (as they are in North Thailand). Even the mild have that all infusing tang of spice that the Thai love. The spices blend in to a cut above the average restaurant. Rich, sweet, complex and textured. About equal to my Mum’s Singapore-Malay versions, but with much less effort to make! (My Mum’s still have the edge, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you why except childhood memories. Perhaps my Mum loads the curries with that much more meat, which restaurants never do.)

The satay is never going to be like street satay but very satisfying. The sweetcorn fritters, with great blobs of kernel, held together in a not too heavy batter, are the best I’ve had. And if you can take the heat of the salads, they are richly complex undercut by a citrus tang.

Curries are about £5-£6 and starters around £3-£4. £10 a person, and you’ll be stuffed. Bring your own alcohol if you’d like a drink and don’t tell everybody, just special people else I’ll never get in again – it’s busy enough with the locals.

Matthew Norman gives it 9/10 in the Guardian with marks deducted for loo rolls on display ?!

Ferran Adria

2008/12/11

Ferran came to talk in London. He cam across as a warm, thoughtful passionate lover of food. Well aware of his place on the cutting edge of cooking techniques, but also for the history and art of cooking round the world.

Ferran believes cooking is like art and like culture; a complex interwoven tapestry of threads.

Science – even food science – is not cooking. But, if you wanted to bake the best bread, a master baker would consult an oven engineer.

Ferran dislikes (or indeed thinks bogus) the notion of molecular gastronomy. There are molecules in bread yes. There are molecules in buildings. The learning of science plays an important role in cooking, but science and scientists and not necessarily cooking or cooks.

I didn’t expect Ferran to be such a philospher of food. Of course, I should have expected this from someone who thinks constantly about cooking. But the experience of food in our lives is deeply important, from the tapas bar or pie and mash shop to the haute cuisine or El Bulli.

A question arose about creating El Bulli as a restaurant for one table.

There are occasions and restaurants for parties and celebrations, where you want food and drinking for all. However, there are occasions when you’d like to experience food and tastes just the two of you, or a small group of friends, or by yourself. Cooking like that might be experienced better in isolation, everyone and everything simply concentrated on your experience.

This would be the extreme conclusion of that, like in the kaiseki cuisine of Japan.

I’ve had this feeling and experience myself. Cooking sometimes for one, or often for my loved one. It’s only you and the food and the experience. Sure, we have that at home but in an exquisite restaurant the experience takes on new dimensions.

Enjoying kaiseki, from beautiful handcrafted bowls, in exquisitely designed rooms; just for two – a procession of 10 or 20 littles tastes all served in especially crafted dishes – incredible.

In writing that, I realise that is much of what El Bulli must create as well. I must try and get a reservation one day.

His new book about A Day in El Bulli is out from Phaidon.

St. John’s Redux: Suckling Pig

2008/12/11

I’ve been too busy to post much, so a few quick updates coming.

St. John’s recently had a refurb, but you wouldn’t really know, it keeps all its old nonsense charm.

We went for a suckling pig feast with chitterlings to start.

Chitterlings made from pigs intestines are like complex mature sausage at best and like poo at worst. Of course, St. J are like the best, with the chitterlings offset by vinegar notes of a crisp salad.

The suckling pig is great for a feast celebration. Everyone shares, and the meat is more tender and succulent (as you would expect) than most roasts you will come across. Unfortunately, depending on how it is done, this can mean the crispy skin is sacrificed under the English method (not true under, for instance, the Chinese one) for melting tenderness. So, if definite lots of English crackling is the choice then maybe this dish would disappoint, but for melting sweet porky meat, then you’ve arrived at the right place!

Braised Pork Cheek in Soya Sauce

2008/11/23

This is a great autumn/winter dish, served with rice. It can be done just with soya sauce and honey or sugar but I think the note of star anise is a vital aromatic note. The garlic and shallot adds a touch more complexity, but you can leave it if you don’t have any.

Pork belly or shoulder is good too. My Mum would use belly but I had this beautiful piece of pork cheek Middle White.

  • Pork Cheek / Pork Belly (1 cheek per person, 1 Slice belly per person); cut into chunks
  • 2 Star anise
  • 4 -6 cloves of garlic
  • 4 – 6 shallots
  • Light soya sauce
  • Dark soya sauce
  • Sweet soya sauce
  • Sugar / honey

Cut the pork cheek into chunks and brown in a pot. If you start fat side down or cut up a little fat then you won’t need any oil to get you going. After browning, you can soften the garlic (cloves crush) and shallots (halved) before adding the pork back.

Then add a mix of light soy, dark soy, sweet soy and sugar/honey. If no sweet soy add more sugar to taste. If you don’t like it too sweet, you can leave out the sugar. My marinade would be about 6 table spoons of light soy, 6 table spoons of dark soy, 2 spoons of sweet soy and a spoon of sugar.

Then add water (or pork stock for a richer stew) to cover and simmer for 1.5 to 3 hours until tender and melting. Serve with rice and some oriental greens or water cress. A boiled egg added 15 minutes before the end is also a tasty addition.