Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Não falo português."

I read yesterday that there were approximately 30,000 Portuguese-speaking residents in Stockwell (this was via the Good Food Channel website, not the Bureau of Statistics – you can see where my research priorities lie). This makes sense when you’ve seen the concentration of Portuguese bars, cafes and grocers along South Lambeth road and Stockwell road. And we’re not talking Nandos, people (although there is one down opposite Brixton Academy).

I’ve been keen to check out one of the many bar/café/restaurants in the ‘hood which rate as “authentic” according to the following guidelines:
• Meat and fish menu. Simple as that. No frills. With side salad/chips/rice for mains.
• Flat-screen TVs broadcasting soccer 24/7 and positioned so that one is visible wherever you’re sitting
• Roomful of middle-aged male regulars who look slightly perplexed – but not predatory or pissed off, that’s very important! – when three clearly-not-Portuguese ladies walk in and sit down
• Kindly maitre d’/waiter who treats clearly-not-Portuguese ladies like regulars, and un-condescendingly points out the English translation clearly printed underneath each menu item after feeble pronunciation attempt.
• One type of beer available in bottles, but served with a tiny accompanying tumbler for the ladies
• Bottomless plates of olives and/or bread (good in theory, but bad when you’re a greedy carboholic and mains take a while to arrive)
• Simple, unpretentious dishes that YES, you probably could have cooked yourself… if you happened to be a Portuguese grandma
• Meat and fish. Give it to me. Let’s OD on protein and slop up the grease with bread.

So last night we headed to Grelha D’Ouro (“golden grill”) which is just up from the slightly fancier and utterly enjoyable Robato’s (Spanish tapas, great place for a date: maitre d’ wears a tux, flamenco guitarist on the stairs most Friday nights) on South Lambeth road. GdO is split into three areas – bar (yummy-looking trays of tapas thingies behind a glass counter), café (wooden tables, men watching football) and restaurant out the back (slightly moodier lighting, tablecloths, TV screens more unobtrusive).

Olives and crusty bread arrived immediately, house beers (Super Bock, £2 each – sweet, eh?!) arrived ice-cold. Menus were deliciously straight forward with accompanying illustrations (and English translations), and we immediately agreed to ask for cracked pepper when we saw our waiter toting a gimormous grinder from table to table – seriously, it was more than 3” tall. (And yes, that's the only photo from dinner.)

Terese ordered chicken with white wine and mushroom sauce (served with rice, veggies and fries, £9 perhaps?), and Rose ordered salmon steak with veggies (I have no idea - let’s say £10). I went for maximum seafood consumption with two entradas – mussels “in special Grelha D’Ouro sauce” (£5.50ish) and grilled king prawns (£4.50ish).

There was some issue with Terese’s chicken – namely, they forgot about it – which meant we all ate way too much bread, and poor T had to wait another 10 minutes for her food once ours had arrived. My mussels arrived on half shells, which certainly saved my prep time, cooked in a rust-coloured, reduced sauce of onion, tomato, white wine and dill
whatever, it was the first shellfish I’d eaten in months and it was delectable. Ditto the prawns – four fat juicy fellas cooked in a criminally tasty butter that was all too easily soaked up with crusty bread. Needless to say, I totally overdid it and went to bed with a bad case of indigestion.

I’d love to go back and share a fish platter or a soupy seafood rice (£20 for two people; Ronaldo's expression below is a good indication of my order envy face when I saw these delivered to neighbouring diners). The steaks looked pretty tasty too – they were served flesh-side-up on a sizzling stone, so you can flip and eat to your liking. Damnit – I’d just go back for the beer, tapas, and satellite TV…

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Trainspotters' guide to the Victoria line

Here's another feature of mine that's published on UK website The Collective Review - it's a love letter to my favourite transport route, the Victoria line.

You know you’re well on the way to being a London local when you can converse about tube lines like you might your favourite pizza topping or U2 album (e.g. everyone has their favourite; most will have one they truly detest). In fact, I’d say the tube map is more of a London icon than Buckingham Palace or Big Ben – although beware, new Londoners: it’s not spatially accurate! (Hands up who wasted tens of pounds during their first weeks in the capital, traversing tube lines that could have been power-walked on street level in half the time?!)

The cool kids in Stoke Newington and Hackney might disagree, but vicinity to a tube stop is as much of a priority as broadband internet and for most inner-city sharehouse-hunters. And while the Central line is the system’s longest (74km between West Ruislip and Epping) and the Northern line might have inspired a Jamie T track, for slick efficiency and sheer cool factor, you can’t beat the Victoria line. The pale blue route stretches from Walthamstow in E17 to Brixton in SW9 and offers more bang for your Oyster buck, especially if you’re after a feed, a night on the tiles, or some cultural stimulation. Here are some highlights along the line:

I remember the moment, ‘fresh off the boat’ in London, when I made the connection between this east London locale and the UK’s finest exponents of 1990s white boy hip hop. Walthamstow was the hometown and debut album title of East 17, clearly the grittier option to Take That, in the battle of the boy bands (they were fleetingly massive in Australia, FYI). With the 90s the retro decade du jour, it’s only a matter of time before someone plots a circuit retracing the band’s local haunts in E17, á la Sex and the City tours in Manhattan… right?

Highbury and Islington
Band venue the Garage had a facelift last year, now apparently called the Relentless Garage and boasts a band room that is more basketball court than stylish salon. Still, it attracts an impressive roster of indie bands and is still walking distance from Angel and Islington.

Forget Brick Lane – a more chilled-out option for decent grub from the Indian subcontinent can be found in Drummond Street, near Euston tube. Cheap-as-chips lunch buffets and vegetarian menus are the main drawcard here. Regulars to Raavi Kebab rate it above the legendary Tyabbs in Whitechapel for Pakistani grill, but don’t get caught expecting a beer – it’s a dry zone, people.

The Eagle is an institution on the London gay scene, especially Sunday night’s Horse Meat Disco. An alternative sweaty and glam night out can be found Thursdays to Sundays at Roller Disco at Renaissance Rooms.

Just down from Brixton Academy on Stockwell Road is one of south London’s best skate parks, whether you’re skating, scootering or BMXing – or just watching the talent from the sidelines. Formerly ‘Little Lisbon’ due to the Portuguese community who call it home, it’s attracting more gentrified crowds thanks to recent gastropub facelift on the Canton Arms (the Observer’s Jay Rayner is a loyal fan).

Foodies should make the journey for the best range of Afro-Caribbean produce in the heritage-listed Brixton Market, also home to London’s best pizza (Franco Manca) and Nigella Lawson (crossed with Sophie Dahl and Alexa Chung?)’s heir apparent (Rosie Lovell of Rosie’s Café).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Aroi cabbage*

You know those nights when you get home and realise you’ve got a stupidly incongruous collection of ingredients from which to construct a meal, but the stars align and by pure chance (skill?) you put together a Michelin-worthy dish? Although it generally ends in pain (eating enough for three grown men) and shame (scoffing the leftovers for breakfast and realising you now have nothing for lunch), it’s a wonderful ego boost.

Last night, my key ingredient was half a red cabbage. It cost 60p at the market last week and really needed to be used. By chance, I had some Thai basil (the more assertive, aniseedy cousin of the Italian variety) I’d used in a jungle curry on the weekend. In the freezer were some scotch bonnet chillies, and a lump of smoked bacon which I’d previously discovered needed to be used sparingly when stir-frying, as its saltiness was a tad overpowering. I thought I’d better cook the cabbage to cut its bitterness – the thought of a bowl of shredded red cabbage didn’t really turn me on. Given the basil, I thought a Vietnamese-inspired stir-fry might be a goer, to add to the freezer/cupboard staples of chilli, garlic, soy and fish sauce.

Half a red cabbage, shredded
2/3 cup raw bacon, sliced into small pieces
3 garlic cloves, slices
½ scotch bonnet chilli (or 1 birds eye chilli), chopped
1 lime, juiced (I used a lemon, but lime is more authentic)
Soy sauce
Fish sauce
½ cup Thai basil leaves, torn (don’t chop them with a knife – it really makes a difference)
Vegetable oil

1. Heat splash of oil to a wok on high heat, add bacon and toss quickly for like 15 seconds (don’t cook through or brown)
2. Add garlic and cabbage and stir fry with bacon
3. Add chilli (usually I’d add this first thing but it will completely overpower the cabbage if you do… not to mention fumigate your kitchen like capsicum spray)
4. The bacon will contribute the saltiness you’d usually get from soy and/or fish sauce, so just add a TINY bit of both for flavour (like, a teaspoon of fish and a tablespoon of soy).
5. Add lime juice – the sourness will help cut the saltiness. A good stir-frying tip is to pour liquids down the side of the wok instead of on top, so they add flavour from the bottom up (at boiling temperature), rather than just stewing the ingredients on top.
6. When the cabbage is stir-fry “al dente” texture (e.g. not raw but not soggy – you know what I mean), toss in the basil leaves and remove from heat

Ordinarily this would feed two famished people or three people with normal appetites. I think it would make a nice partner to a fried noodle dish, or something with some serious carbs - maybe a pad thai? Speaking of pad thai, I found an awesomely informative post on Chez Pim that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about cooking the classic Thai dish.

* Three weeks in Thailand and the one word I learnt was 'aroi' - "DELICIOUS!". Clearly I was a HIT at every restaurant I patronised...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Staying vegan over a Christian holiday in the land of lamb and Guinness

It’s serious post-holiday blues this week, after an awesomely indulgent and educational five days in Dublin. In between all the sleeping in and movie watching, we totally ticked off all the big ticket attractions: pints, potatoes, pagan ruins, and pony markets.

Our utterly hospitable hosts are Dublin locals which, let’s face it, is a privilege to have when you’re visiting a new city. The combination of a bloody expensive hospitality scene and a well-stocked booze collection at home meant we enjoyed lots of lazy lunches and dinners at home. Our friends went to so much trouble to accommodate vegan BF’s pesky diet… I’m pretty sure there’s a government-sanctioned drive to promote the consumption of meat and diary… especially when a litre of soy milk costs nearly FOUR EURO. Don’t covert it, it’s too painful.
I’ve got more posts to come on the sight seeing, pint drinking and dairy-free easter eggs, but for the time being, check out the vegan spread for the Easter Sunday roast.

The rack of lamb we three omnivores shared was cooked pink to perfection, but honestly, with roast veggies like that – who needs meat?! (Did I just write that…?)

In TV cooking show developments, watching approximately 58 hours of Come Dine With Me over the weekend made me realise how long it’s been since I’ve cooked to impress guests with meat. (The show confirmed that if faced with hosting these typically arrogant, ungrateful and uncouth contestants I’d spend all night boozing on in the kitchen while they no doubt mentally deduced points for my old-fashioned crockery, but that’s material for another post.) Yes, I’m a tighter$e but no, I’m not going to fork out £30 on a fillet of beef when the line between medium and overcooked is a glass of wine and a cheeky ciggie on the balcony. And the reality is the precious leftovers will never make rustic sangas with Dijon mustard and watercress for the next two days – the meat will be hacked and scoffed with cold gravy and spuds at the end of the night once the guests have left and the dishes are done. I just don't see the value for money (or taste).

Give me a big heavy-based casserole pot, a bagful of cheap meat and fresh veggies, pulses soaked overnight, and a cupboard full of individual spices. My justification is that if you’ve spent a whole day slow cooking the bloody thing, the last thing you feel like is seconds after the meal and therefore you’re more likely to actually have leftovers for the days after. Practicality over piggery!