Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Vietnamese-ish fresh spring rolls

I can't believe I don't make these all the time. I can't believe everyone doesn't make these all the time. Inspired by happy memories of Song Que, I thought I'd give them a go to use up some leftover beanthread noodles and vegetables lurking in the back of my fridge. As so often happens with my so-called leftover dishes, it required a little light shopping of unusual ingredients, but nothing a quick visit to my local Chinese supermarket couldn't sort out. I couldn't find a recipe online, so kind of made it up*. But that's what's so great about these little fellas - they're clearly going to be a new favourite for stuffing full of whatever veggies I've got handy. In this case, I did add prawns, but actually you couldn't really taste them, so next time I'd probably go veggie. I'm just annoyed that I've only discovered them right at the end of the summer. Fingers crossed for a balmy September, as they do really feel like warm weather food.

I'm not going to give a recipe, because if I winged it, then you probably can too. Just buy some round rice papers, soak them in a bowl of warm water for just a few seconds, pop on some cooked bean thread or rice noodles, then vegetables chopped into small sticks (I went for cucumber, carrots, bean sprouts and red pepper). Maybe add some prawns, and definitely some herbs (I just had mint, but I think next time I'll also have basil and maybe coriander. But to me, the mint is most important.). Roll it up as best you can. (Not sure I got the hang of it but just about managed to keep the filling in, which is the main thing. My one tip is that it seems to work better if you actually roll it up, trying to tuck filling in as you roll, rather than lifting one side of the rice paper over the top and then the other side.) Dip in a peanutty sauce. Mine was pleasingly called Satay Gravy. 

* Though now I've eaten them, I've found this one which might work.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Plate Lickers Supper Club

It's not every Friday night that you have dinner on the exact same spot where you can often be found on Saturday morning sweating along to zumba class. Or dine in a room with a mixture of complete strangers, the odd friend picked up from book club and evening classes, and quite a lot of food bloggers and tweeters. Or swipe a wine recommendation using a little light Twitter stalking of one of the other guests. And, unfortunately, it's not every Friday night that you get fed a five course Middle Eastern feast by Jo and Ivana.

But this is what happened to me last Friday night, at the second ever Plate Lickers Supper Club.The top secret location was St Paul's Church on Hills Road, complete with pews and stained glass windows, which added extra atmosphere as night fell. There were three large tables, decorated with jam jars and flowers, and with our names written on the tablecloths. (Actually, I really liked the assigned seats - it removed any potential awkwardness of finding somewhere to sit, especially if you're on your own.) There was something of a wedding atmosphere - lots of people thrown together, a mix of friends and strangers, plenty of food and a slightly celebratory atmosphere. Conversation on my table ranged from naming famous Julians to THAT viral relationship breakdown, from the commercialism of the Olympics to a lengthy discussion of restaurant recommendations in Cambridge. (Conclusion of the latter: I really need to go Hakka.)

But it was really the food we were there there for. And, from the pomegranate and vodka cocktail at the start, to the stuffed peaches and almond and polenta cake for pud, there was not a duff course among them. The aubergine dip was fabulously smokey and moreish (and I'm started to consider myself quite the connaisseur (obsessive?) of aubergine dishes these days). The gooseberry relish was also particularly good, and worked wonders at cutting through the fatty richness of the pork belly. For a five course meal, it was surprisingly light - a green gazpacho and mint tea sorbet provided fresh, vibrant mouthfuls at just the right moments. So I went away perfectly full and very happy. And quite proud of myself for not drinking my entire bottle of Austrian white - one of the disadvantages of going solo is that you have to be very disciplined about your alcohol consumption!

I'd really recommend seeking out the next Plate Lickers Supper Club. (Keep an eye on Jo and Ivana's blogs.) It was a really sociable evening in an interesting location and the food was just fantastic.What more can you ask for on a Friday night?

PS There were so many food bloggers there I didn't even get to meet all of them. So there should be plenty of write-ups. Here are some links:

Oh! Not Another Food Blog
The Moving Foodie Blog
Gastronomic Girls

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Turkey: What to eat

So, having done my research and done my very best to eat as much as I could, it seems only fair to share some of my findings with the Internet. Here follows a list of the things that I would recommend seeking out if you go. I'm also going to be looking out for them in Turkish restaurants and having a go at some of them at home.
I've already mentioned the aubergines dishes and drinks, but they're definitely on the list too.

Start the day with a traditional Turkish breakfast in the sun - usually some combination of egg, olives, cucumber, tomato, beyaz peynir (white cheese), honey and tea.
Menemen: scrambled eggs with tomatoes and peppers
Lahmacun: flatbread with minced lamb. Apparently the way you eat them is by squeezing on lemon juice ...
... then sprinkling on lots of parsley and rolling up, before devouring.
There's a simit seller on every corner - they're bagel shaped bread rolls covered in sesame seeds (on the left hand side in the picture).
This is what a real döner kebab should look like!
Gözleme, stuffed flatbread. Generally made by old ladies and cooked on a large metal convex surface. We bought a special long thin rolling pin to be able to make them at home.

Pide, another variation on the bread and filling combo. In this case, the filling was cheese and sucuk sausage.
Balik ekmek, or mackerel sandwich - the only thing to be eating next to the Bosphorus
Balik ekmek being made on a boat, then passed onto land for the punters. Clearly this was far too showy to produce the best sandwiches, but that didn't stop it from being packed with locals. (Our best balik ekmek, the one in the picture above, was from a grubby little stand on the other side of the Galata bridge.)

Köfte (meatballs)
Turkish delight, or lokum. Go for the pistachio stuff - it's the most expensive for a reason. (And still not actually expensive.)
Balkava. Again, I think pistachio is best.
Halva, a sweet sesame based thing
Künefe, a pudding made of shredded pastry, with a melted cheese middle.
Dondurma, or Turkish ice cream. It's chewy (from mastic), which is odd but good. The only annoying thing is that you have to smile through an elaborate jokey performance where the seller pretends to give it to you, takes it back again, and so on, while ringing a bell. Worth it, though.
Last, but not least, kaymak. My new obsession - this stuff is simply heavenly. A clotted cream type thing made from buffalo milk, it's usually served with honey and bread. It's unbelievably rich and creamy. Really worth seeking out if you can. I dragged Mr 'Splorer all over Istanbul in search of kaymak sellers. (Well, it's got no shelf life, so you simply have to eat as much as you can while you're there!)  

Clearly, there are many more goodies to try (and I'm already dying to go back in search of more new tastes), but this was certainly enough to keep us going for a couple of weeks of very happy eating. 

PS I haven't really gone into the meze - they were absolutely delicious too, and definitely worth seeking out, but they seemed a bit more familiar to me. Stuffed vine leaves and whatnot. But we did eat and enjoy them enormously!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Turkey: Top tips

So, after much build-up and excitement, Mr 'Splorer and I finally went to Turkey in mid-May. Two weeks and two days of belated honeymoon, of amazing food, beautiful mosques, idyllic beaches, turquoise sea, the occasional tortoise - and one massive hissy fit on a very precarious footpath on a steep mountainside. It was fab and I would recommend the country to anyone - and Istanbul in particular was a fascinating and fun city to hang out in. And the food ... oh, the food! It was, by far, the most consistently delicious and interesting food I've ever had. But I think a bit of research beforehand really helped. So I'm going to try and pass some of it on here, starting with my six top tips:

1  Do your research

I’ve read several times that Turkish food is one of the three great cuisines in the world, along with French and Chinese. It’s rather a vague claim, and surely quite difficult to substantiate. But it came back to me as I investigated before we went, and realised what a rich and varied cuisine it is, and how little I knew about it (especially compared to French or Chinese food). There were, of course, a few things I’d come across before, such as lahmacun, stuffed vine leaves and köfte. There were other things that were similar to familiar dishes (patlıcan salatası, for example, is the baba ganoush type thing). But there were a hell of a lot of really common foods and drinks that I’d never really come across before. Having done my research, it meant I could get organised enough to try as many of them as humanly possible. And I still didn’t manage to tick everything off my list. I need to go back just to try the mantı, for a start.

Patlıcan salatası
2  Order the aubergine

I think it’s generally well known that Turkish cuisine has a lot of aubergine dishes. It definitely seems like they’ve been practising, because the aubergine dishes we had were all spectacular. In almost every case they outshone everything else on the table. By the end of our holiday, the first thing we did on picking up the menu was find the aubergine things and order all of them. We had a lot of baba ganoush / puree type things and various aubergine dishes with onions and tomatoes. Neither of these sound particularly exciting but the Turkish do something amazing to the simple aubergine, rendering them smokey and flavoursome. I’m still dreaming of an İmambayıldı we had at our hotel on the Turquoise coast - and will blog immediately if I manage to recreate it.

Soslu Patlıcan

3  Istanbul Eats

Read the blog, buy the book, go on the tour. We did all three. And I can’t recommend any of them enough. I’m aiming to come back to the tour in a later post, so let’s just say it was fantastic. The book became our guide around the city, providing quality recommendations for wherever we were, and also encouraging us to explore new areas in the search of good food. I think our impression of Istanbul as the ultimate culinary paradise is a direct result of having that book stuffed in our rucksack.

4  Be brave

Generally I’m a pretty squeamish eater. I don’t really like offal, or eels, or snails, or any of that sort of thing. But in Turkey I developed so much faith in their cooking ability that I tried both kokereç (sheeps’ intestines) and tavuk göğsü (a milky pudding made with chicken breast). And I was pretty pleased with myself, I can tell you. I can’t say I really liked the kokereç, though Mr ‘Splorer was a big fan. The chicken pudding, however, was surprisingly nice. Mainly because it didn’t taste like chicken!

Chicken pudding
Turkish coffee and tea
5  Don’t forget the drinks 

I drink tea. Mr ‘Splorer drinks coffee. On most holidays, that means that only one of us can get a decent hot drink. And it’s normally him. Turkey, however, covers both our needs extremely well. For him, thick, dark Turkish coffee (top tip: let it settle for a bit before drinking it - I’m informed that you have to wait for the grounds to sink to the bottom.). For me, black tea served in little glasses everywhere from restaurants to parks. I also loved ayran, a drink of thinned, salted yogurt. A lot nicer than it sounds, and perfect with a plate of köfte. And of course, there’s rakı, I’m not that keen on aniseedy drinks myself, but a cloudy glass of rakı and water is apparently the thing to have with your meze.

6  Leave space in your bag

Years of light-packing indoctrination for Ryanair flights suddenly come in handy when you’re flying home with a proper airline. We picked up some spices from the stalls outside the Spice Market, from a man who, the moment my back was turned, attempted to sell Mr 'Splorer some ‘Turkish viagra’, complete with a well endowed little doll to illustrate the effects! He resisted this tempting offer, and we restricted ourselves to kırmızı biber (red pepper flakes), kırmızı biber salçası (red pepper paste), sumac, saffron and a mysterious but rather delicious spice mix. We also stuffed the suitcase with enormous quantities of chewy pistachio  Turkish delight (from the place recommended by Istanbul Eats, of course!).

kırmızı biber

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Cambridgeshire Wine School: Introduction to Wine Tasting

Is it a bad idea to write up a review of a wine tasting evening when you've only just got home? After six glasses of increasing delicious wine, might I perhaps be in the pre-tipsy effusive, enthusiastic stage when everything looks bright and happy and marvellous? Well, maybe. But I still think I'll be recommending the Cambridgeshire Wine School in the harsh, sober light of the morning.

OK, first, full disclosure. Mark from the Cambridgeshire Wine School offered me a free place on this evening (normally £22.50) in exchange for tweeting and blogging it. However, I took a friend and we shared the cost of her ticket, so effectively it was half price. She then pointed out that I owed her a tenner for a sponsored run she'd done, so we called it quits. And by the end of all this it rather felt like I paid twenty quid for it. Also, I don't write anything on my blog I don't actually mean. (And that is definitely FULL disclosure.)

So, the class was held at d'Arry's on King Street, meaning we could fit in a rather tasty (and fairly enormous) dinner on the fixed menu (£11.95 for two courses) beforehand. Then across the courtyard to the special wine-tasting room for a couple of hours of intensive wine tasting.

I think there is always something quite inspiring about watching someone talk about something that they are both passionate and extremely knowledgeable about - and Mark was the perfect example of this. From the beginning, when he spoke about how drinking wine is like travelling the world and each wine is the product of everything that has happened to it, it was impossible not to get swept up in the enthusiasm. He also clearly knows a hell of a lot, and talks with ease and confidence. There was so much information that it was simply impossible to retain it all, but I did learn a lot. There were also plenty of interesting standalone nuggets to be squirrelled away. (Such as the fact that, when serving dessert wine with a pud, the wine needs to be sweeter than the pud. Or that an oaky Chardonnay goes well with anything smoked.)

The six wines we tasted were clearly chosen in order to give an overview of different wine-producing regions and different things you can look for in aroma and taste. And I really could taste the vanilla, cherries, marmalade and Christmas cake in the wines (though I do worry I'm just an impressionable sort who tastes what she's told!). In short, pretty much the ideal introduction to wine tasting - especially in that it left me really wanting to learn more about it. Not least to see if I can come up with some of those flavours for myself. They also do an 8 week World Tour for £95 (plus £10 on the night for wine) and I am very tempted indeed.


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