pho the love of God

I’m very excited today.  When I’m this giddy, it has to do with one of the following: food, eating, or the anticipation of food and eating.

 

Tonight, I’m giong up the road, away from the delectable cool of the Northern Quarter’s restaurants, away from the big beefy steakhouses of Deansgate, away from the lovely continental snippets on offer all over central Manchester.  I’m going in the opposite direction, towards a little hole in the wall, a bring your own charmpot that more  convinces me that I don’t need to pay the airfare to get a taste of Vietnam.

 

Granted, V-Nam on the Oldham Road doesn’t look like much.  It’s slap bang in the middle of a row of what used to be shops when this part of town was cheefully considered a community, but is now replaced by a few high rises and busy stretch of dual carriageway and a place that no-one calls home.  The restaurant itself is really a cafe and they haven’t wasted any effort on making you think otherwise; it’s adornement-free, unless you count un-used plug sockets and undistinguishable marks on the wall.  The music is always, gratifyingly R n B (think Boyz to Men, not Beyonce) and the whole thing is perfect if you don’t want to be bothered by staff or have your water topped up every two minutes.  But, the food, ah the food!

 

I watched a programme on making pho, which is the national dish of Vietnam, a kind of soupy herby, sweet and sour broth with noodles.  In it, Rick Stein had a minor aneurysm perfecting his stock, which involved roasting and boiling bones and herbs for hours.  He fussed over the balance of fresh spices, the ratio of noodle to meat.  He was happy with the results and gave it, beaming, to a vietnamese woman who took one slurp and declared it ‘too salty’.  Stein was crestfallen, but held it together.  At least he had come close to slaying the pho dragon.

 

But the programme convinced me that to make pho, specifically the soup mix, is not something that you can do for two people.  You need to make mass quantities to make it worth your while.  Which conveniently means that I can go to V-Nam to sample it, where they must make a bath load everyday and leave it simmering on a low heat for me to bathe in.  So here’s what I’ll have.

 

I’ll have hands down the best salt and pepper squid that man has ever tried.  Forget about your calamari or your fritto misto; V-Nam serves its squid in big boisterous wedges, battered and seasoned and chilli-d to perfection.  Then I’ll have the prawn pho, a cauldron of soup dotted with bouncy pink shrimp, the size of a 50p coin.  Most seafood places in Manchester urge you to remortgage your house to eat shellfish, but at V-Nam, they produce wonders for under a tenner.  I will add to my soup some noodles, fresh coriander and mint, lime and chilli. Easy on the beansprouts (a personal thing).  I will slurp until soup runs freely down my chin.

Then I will sit back and muse on Stein’s efforts, and maybe even feel a little sorry for him.  I’ll enjoy it, too: it’s perhaps the only time I’ll ever be able to feel pity for a man who travels the world eating and cooking kick-ass food. 

Currying favour

Three of my favourite feelings are: the joyful realisation that there is another layer in the chocolate box; the glee at discovering a cold spot in a too-hot bed on a cold night; and the familiar comfort of my mum’s voice on the phone.

 

The latter takes me right back to childhood.  Even though the words and tone may have changed along with our relationship, the melody of my mum’s voice remains the same and puts me right back at the kitchen table, listening to her and my nana put the world to rights, largely through anecdotes involving Mrs Muckybum who lived down the street.

 

I sincerely hope that wasn’t her real name – how unfortunate if so.

 

Anyhow, last night’s conversation covered pillboxes, Night of the Hunter and her upcoming flying lesson.  My side of the dialogue was nowhere near as smart or sparky.  She was on speakerphone as I chopped onions and I realised as we nattered, that I was no longer the child at the table, witness to the conversation, I was part of it!  We’ve both upgraded a role: I’m her and she’s nana!  I felt a great happiness at this and relaxed into my natural non-teacher idiom which, like my mum’s, is much more aside-based and riddled with inuendo.  We’re basically drag queens without the vibrance (me, not her.)

 

I’m hoping that this recipe will have a Proustian effect on you.  It was a real treat for me to make it as I listened to my mum’s voice, as pleasant an accompaniment as a glass of prosecco or a favourite playlist.  It’s a made up curry, and I apologise to anyone who knows how to make a serious curry.  This is an end of the week, let’s put everything in kind of recipe.  A ‘ let’s focus on the most important things’ dish: in this case,  a chat with my ma.

 

Made up curry

1 tin coconut milk

Curry powder

1 onion sliced

Chillis to taste, chopped

1 chicken stock cube

Any veg (potatoes/squash, cubed, carrots/courgettes cubed, peppers sliced, whatever)

1 handful red lentils

 

Pancakes

Gram flour

Water

Bicarb soda (1/4 teaspoon)

Salt

Cumin

 

For the curry,

Fry off the onions till translucent.  Add chillis, ginger and currry powder to taste.  Add coconut milk. And stock cube and water if necessary. Bring to a low simmer.  Add in your veg and lentils, according to general cooking time.  Let it cook.  Add tomato herbs or spinach about 5 minutes before end.  

 

Pancakes

Mix 1 cup of Gram flour with 1 cup water and bicarb soda.  Add in cumin and salt and mix together, till it makes a thin batter.  Heat oil or ghee in frying pan and pour in half the batter.  Let it fry through and then flip and repeat on the other side.  Serve with the curry and tell your mum afterwards how great it tasted.

Day 17 of my blogathon and i think, in fairness, there’ve only been a couple of days where I ‘ve surrendered to producing something meaningless and poorly crafted, and just blahhed on, like relaxing into a lovely piss.  Today is one of those days; I had a whole acupuncture session to dream up something pithy, poetic, or provoking and got zero return.  So I’m going to leave a recipe with you.

I’ve more or less given up carbs for a few months now.  I say more or less, because I lack the dedication and organisation to do this consistently.  There’s always the interim between shopping trips, when I realise how poorly planned the whole activity is and resort to eating the Ritz crackers that are stuck to the back of the cupboard.  But most of the time, I stick with it.  Not because I’m trying to lose weight, or be healthier.  It just strikes me that the best part of any meal is the protein and the veg part, so why not just have more of that?  Couple my thinking with the advent of brother-in-law’s health club based around a low carb diet, and it was a natural progression.  The food, and discussion of it evolved.  And here we are.

I genuinely feel better eating less processed carbs, and there’s a wealth of guidance on the web about it (my favourite being nomnompaleo).  The recipes that work the least well are those that imitate carb based food; so savoury muffins made with coconut flour are good, but why bother tricksying around with faux versions?  The best low carb meals are those that you would eat regardless of your dietary intentions, like this very simple take on a cassoulet.

 

Ingredients:

Tin tomatoes

Garlic, 2 cloves, minced

1 onion

1 courgette

1 red pepper

1 leek

Sausages, browned in a pan

Cubes of pancetta

Oregano

Olive oil

Red wine

White beans (if you fancy it)

 

Pre-heat the oven to 190°.  Fry the onion rings till translucent, add garlic, oregano and the rest of the veg and the pancetta.  Cook until it is smooshed together and then add the tomatoes, half a tin of water and a glass of red wine.  Let it simmer for 10 minutes.

Drain the beans, if using, and pour over the sausages in a casserole dish.  Add the tomatoes mixture and pop it in the oven for half an hour.

Who needs mashed potato, when you’ve got this bad boy?

If food be the music of love

There’s not many things that I miss about London; friends obviously, the occasional supericilious pigeon and the yellow light of a vacant taxi at 2 a.m on a blustery morning after a good night out.  Like Proust (pretentious, much?), my memories revolve around food: I can still fondly recall a steak pie the size of a toilet bowl at a restaurant in Stoke, enjoyed at the age of 7.  And I’m always attempting to recreate what I call ‘1980s Spanish hotel soup’, which was thin and bisto-y, but which I yearn for because it reminds me of the excitement of going on holiday as a kid.  

 

My London food memory comes from a vegetarian restaurant/shop tucked away in Neals Yard.  The staff were always sleepy eyed and moved as if suspended in lightly set aspic, but they served the most incredible cheese breads.  They were stiff with a black olive crust, but once mascerated, chewy and moist and oily inside.  I ate them every time I visited the West end; it became part of my experience, the feeling of owning part of London, of being part of its machinery, essential, loved and looked after.  And they only cost a pound!

 

I spent a long time missing these little beasts of beauty until inspiration struck.   I needed to turn to the great God of my living room: Google.  Lo and behold there are a million recipes for Brazillian cheesebreads online and if pushed, I would say that mine are as good as the real thing.  This is what you need:

Cup and a half of tapioca flour

Third of a cup of milk

Half of a cup of olive oil

1 egg

As much grated cheese as you can handle (at least a cup’s worth)

Blend all these ingredients, pour it into a buttered muffin tray.  Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes at 200 degrees.  Take out and rest.  Hop from foot to foot with impatience until they are cool enough to devour.

 

Then devour.

 

And never say that I don’t give you anything.

In the club

Forgive me, sad old sop that I am.  I still hope, when someone casually mentions ‘meeting at my club’, that at some point during the evening an elderly gent will challenge me to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon or a juggernaut or some such.  This is how delirious I become at the casual mention of ‘one’s club’.  Naturally, I don’t belong to any – as none, quite rightly, would have me.  And its all in the belonging, isn’t it?  The possessive pronoun is king.  ‘Fancy going to a club?’ is not the same and should not be confused because ‘a club’ means vomit and techno and no comfortable seating.  But ‘fancy going to my club?’  Wowee.  That’s decanted port hitting crystal, cigar smoke and bottle green chesterfields. Much more welcoming.  Old men.  Paintings of dogs in mocked up courtroom scenes.  I’m thinking Hogarth, Hobbs and Harris tweed.

Before I disappear up my own portcullis, I’d like to point out that I’m not an idiot.  I went to a red-brick university and I appreciate that clubs are redolent of a particularly nasty brand of the good old days – when Empire was all and Britannia ruled the etc etc.  A previous boyfriend belonged to The East India Club – how unnecessarily colonial is that?  But for the purposes of today lets (say we can) wrench the style from its context and reach a concensus – old school club aesthetic is hot and I get excited when I think I’m going to get in one.

So when my oldest mukka, Chas,  drops an invite to her club (hers, not mine) into the conversation, I pounce on it.  Impatiently, I ask her what the odds are on discussing the Suez Canal with a bulldog in a bowler hat over boiled eggs and soldiers?  She doesn’t understand.  Ah, if only she could see what clubs are like in my head….

Instead, we’re left with the reality of her club, the one that really exists, that she belongs to and I don’t.  And here I am outside its entrance, somewhere off Moorgate, in scuzzy chic Hoxton.  Its evidently so cool that it looks like shit from the outside .  I’m a little dejected –Mayfair it isn’t.  I’m already downgrading my pre-selected topics of conversation.

I am suffering a severe status downgrading as well – this club, behind the mystery door is busy!  Tanned people in good but bland clothes saunter in and up the stairs.  They know how to get in.  I don’t.  Snatches of conversation put me at ease but set me up for what’s to come.  I over hear one member say to her guest ‘Go in, have a drink, just see who talks to you.’  Are we, as mere guests, not allowed to instigate a little chat? This is not and has never been my idea of a basis for a good night out.  And I’m beginning to think I’m a little out of touch with what member’s club means….

So here’s a simple guide.  Using tonight’s venue as a template, I will enlighten you as to the differences between a members club and a bog standard bar/restaurant.

The good about clubs

  • Less people.
  • Nicer décor.  Inside it sort of looks like Monica’s flat in Friends – exposed brick and fire escape, low warm lighting and a dull bronze bar façade and ceiling.
  • Bar staff – both hunky and less arrogant than other places.  I’m going to go with ‘bar staff from Amaretto advert’  as my point of reference.
  • Key difference in my view – loads of people check on you all the time.  Like a really good BUPA hospital.

The bad about today’s clubs:

  • People stare at each other.  Obviously this happens in all bars, and some would say it is in fact, the sole purpose of bars, but when there are less people around, it’s a little de trop.  I think this exposes the club psyche – members are hoping that the exclusivity of belonging will introduce them to those of a higher status – but isn’t it entirely possible that the club will be composed purely of people who were stupid enough to pay in this hope?  Hence, at one point the place looks like its holding some kind of en mass plate spinning event, so many heads swivelling in different directions.
  • Nicer décor, nowhere to sit.  I love plonking down somewhere comfy in a bar – it’s the only way to drink.  But I’m informed by my friend, that all seats are reserved.  Even the shy retiring banquette in the corner?  The modish stool cum work-out apparatus?  Apparently yes, all are booked up – despite the fact that they remain empty for the time being.  So all around me, weary Londoners are shifting from foot to foot, looking enviously at unfurnished furnishings.  This strikes me as Britishness at its most ridiculous – there are enough seats free for everyone, yet we prefer to queue and practice our passive aggressiveness.  Someone who followed the rules and booked may show up and be horrified to find some royster-doyster in their seat.
  • And this brings me to the staff.  Wonderful and attentive as they are, beyond providing one with a constant supply of booze (2 cocktails and a bottle of Rose by this point), there’s not much they can do to relieve the situation.  So we try some low level bartering…’We’ll see what we can do’….’You’re at the top of the list’…a constant reassurance of how popular one is, with no guaranteed results.  Maybe this frustrating game of monopoly appeals to some, but I just find it ….frustrating.

So back to the first bottle of Rose, which has now been turned on its top and deposited on the bar.  We’re onto the second – this is as thrillingly close to sampling the Bullingham Boys’ way of life as we get.  Finally we are allowed table and nourishment.  Never has it been so needed.  We’re quite tipsy by now, so my notes get a little garbled, but I recall being led to a table on a lovely exposed terrace just outside the kitchen.  Great, food is forthcoming.  Another man in a white shirt greets us as old friends, so I assume he is a waiter.  He steers us towards the fish.  Now coming from Grimsby, my friend and I always have a line ready for this.  Its not a good one, but it plugs the gap in conversation.  This time Charlotte chips in with ‘Well, we’re from Grimsby, I think we’ve seen enough fish’.  See, I told you it wasn’t a winner, but it usually raises some sort of smile.  Instead, the waiter immediately breaks all ties with us as we decide to go with the cheese.  It’s the only word I could make out on the menu in my half lit, half pissed state.

Cheese is rustic, served on a wooden board that I SWEAR has been stolen from my mother’s house circa 1983.  Its fine, it all tastes of Rose by this point, anyway, but I can’t say that it feels like the sort of welcome sustenance one would appreciate at this stage of the evening.  This may explain my surprising determination to find Pot Noodle when we eventually leave.  The cab home is comfier than anywhere that I have sat throughout the preceding events.

I could talk about the toilets, that were lovely and the hallways, which were lovely and it was all lovely but it wasn’t a club.  Not my club, the one I belong to in my head.  I could also shamelessly borrow from Groucho Marx here, because I feel he has a point.  I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me a member, but I’d like to add, if I may, that I don’t care to belong to any club that wouldn’t have me on the books, either.  Not if they flatter to deceive in the way that tonight’s little haunt did.  Smiling, welcoming, but a club to belong to?  To aspire to?  I’ll stick with Wetherspoons.

Image
Club in my head
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Club in reality. More like Lasseters off of Neighbours.

Why fear the fennel?

Having a husband who eschews eating any beast that he can’t kill with his bare hands has somewhat curtailed my culinary education.  I’m an expert with a breast or two (fnar – I mean chicken) and a dab hand with a whole fish.  I get my carnivorous rocks through gutting and scaling, the nearest thing to butchery that my kitchen is likely to see.

But here’s the really irritating equation; people who are fussy meat eaters are fussy anything- eaters.  Being a vegetarian/pescetarian (unless on ethical grounds) does not mean that one will automatically embrace every jaunty veg on offer.  Richard, my husband will sniff out celeriac at one hundred paces and throw his bib down in defiance.  Likewise any attempt at subterfuge with a  kohl rabi (sliced thinly, served unannounced in a salad of lettuce and tomato) is met with disdain and said tasty root is left to linger untouched with the dressing dregs at the bottom of the bowl.

So my adventures in cooking have narrowed considerably, which means I always jump for joy at an opportunity to go out and eat adult food.

Adult food is stuff that doesn’t make its way into your trolley in an average shop; sumac, chicory, roquefort and quail.  Adult cooking is when you artfully combine aforementioned ingredients using adult methods (braising, sauteeing, ceviche-ing). Adult cooking is Moro, the much lauded near-veteran of the East London restaurant scene, which popularised Middle Eastern cooking and whose eponymous cookbook has assumed erotic status in my kitchen.  This place has also been on the hotlist of my friend Rhi, who, as a mum, worker bee and actor/singer/muso with a fussy eating partner also rarely gets to eat adult food.

A good sign – it was packed as we entered and remained so even after we had royally out-stayed our welcome.  I could tell you about the room, which was light, subtly Moorish and elegant, but who cares?  It’s the food that counts, right?

Moro runs a tapas menu throughout the day, which seems like a good idea as it was practically impossible to choose just one starter and main from the lunch list.  After much cogitation, I went for the scallop, pan-fried caper, paprika and shaved fennel.  I was heartened when the waiter double checked out order and pluralised the scallop and was fully expecting three little beauties – but lo, it was a solitary queen who arrived, replete with a delicious coral.  The paprika oil was an unctuous counterpoint to the delicacy of the fennel and the capers added naughty texture to a well-balanced dish.  Rhi plumped for the seared pigeon, served as tiny rose red petals of gamey flavour with a puree of something (garlic?  honestly I can’t remember) which carried a pleasing slightly sour top note.

Scallop with pan fried capers, paprika and shaved fennel. On the tiny side, but very tasty.

When the mains arrived, it turned out that Moro know everything and that I’m an idiot – the one scallop starter was a perfectly sized prep for a whopping main; lamb with carrots, caraway, yoghurt and lentils and vermicelli.  Not so heavy on the adult ingredients, but brilliantly cooked by a smarty pants chef; the lamb pliant and pink, holding its shape against the comforting mush of the lentils and vermicelli.  The carrots were the breakout star, however, laced with caraway they were soft and savoury-sweet.

Charcoal Lamb with carrots, caraway, yoghurt, lentils and vermicelli. Om om.

Rhi’s Wood Roast Bream (max points on the adult food scale) looked like a gorgeous cartoon fish with a delicious minty green Borani.  I have since found out that Borani is a middle eastern spinach yoghurt dish – but please, Moro could you define these hidden wonders on your menu?  Lots of your glorious dishes sound like minor Star Trek characters.  Needless to say, everything was delightful and none too heavy in the afternoon sun.  We topped off with Malaga ice cream with raisins – I’m not a pudding person, but since in this context, Malaga meant rum, I dug in. We drank a light non-snooze inducing Txocalli (‘Yes Captain, the Txocalli have just hailed us‘) wine which proved a fabulous accompaniment to a memorable meal.

So back to my kitchen and I’m experiencing a sea change.  I’m a great believer in salt, chilli, lemon and garlic and I put them in everything but the dishes at Moro used very little ‘catch all’ seasoning in favour of  the natural taste (enhanced by some jaunty herbs) to create long lasting flavours.  Maybe I should have more faith in the ingredients themselves- for too long I have been hiding my beetroot under a bushel.  No more parading the chard as spinach, disguising the anchovy, camouflaging the turnip – the husband will just  have to embrace my adult food revolution.