The Book of Chinese Chicken Salad

10 Aug

In the beginning…

There was nothing but darkness. Well, not quite darkness. But there were sullen grey clouds, that would drift across the sky and occasionally spit rain at inconvenient, umbrella-less moments.

And the Lord said, “I’m THIS CLOSE to cancelling summer entirely, unless you lazy, whiny people do something amazing to change my mind.”

And the people sent their athletes to compete on the water and in the velodrome and on the track, and won many victories over the other nations. And the people were simultaneously jubilant and incredulous. They said to each other “How is this happening? We never win ANYTHING! WOOHOO!”

And the Lord muttered, “Bunch of show-offs.”

And then said, “Well done! Let there be light!”

And there was light! And the people rejoiced, revealed their pasty flesh, and frolicked in the fields and on the pavements and on the beaches.

And this writer made chicken salad. Not just any chicken salad, though. No mayonnaise in this baby. Just shredded poached chicken, dressed with a mildly spicy, super-savoury Sichuanese dressing, and served over sliced cucumbers.

And she saw that it was good. Very, very good.



Cold Chicken with a Spicy Sichuanese Sauce (adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking)


Serves 2 as a light dinner

300-350g/0.75 pounds cold, cooked chicken breast (I poached mine, but leftovers from a roast would work, too)
3 spring onions, thinly sliced on a diagonal
0.25 tsp salt
1 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1.5 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
1.5 tsp caster sugar
1 tbsp chicken stock
4 tbsp Sichuanese chili oil, with 0.5 tbsp of the sediment from the bottom of the jar
0.5 tsp ground Sichuan pepper
15-20 1cm cucumber slices

1. Shred the cooked chicken, and put it in a big bowl with spring onions and salt. Toss to combine.

2. Toast the sesame seeds on a low heat on the hob until they go a few shades darker and smell nutty.

3. Combine the other ingredients in a small bowl.

4. When ready to eat, add the dressing and the sesame seeds to the chicken mixture, and toss to combine. Lay out the cucumber slices on two small plates, then divide the chicken between them. Serve, and enjoy.

Note: You can find the vinegar, chili oil, and peppercorns at any Chinese market. They will keep nearly indefinitely.

Seasonal Process

7 Aug

A step-by-step guide to make a plateful of summer:

1. After you’ve eaten breakfast, thinly slice some garlic and chop some basil into ribbons, and put them in a very big bowl with a hearty slug of good olive oil.

2. Go to work. Or, if you’re me, go to your nearest café/bakery and write more of this blog, then wander around random neighborhoods of London searching for more material for said blog and generally passing the time.

3. Return home after work/moseying. Your kitchen will smell like at Italian grandmother’s been cooking while you were out. After taking a deep whiff, chop up from two to four of the ripest, squidgiest tomatoes you can find and mix them with the garlic, basil, and oil.

4. Do whatever it is you do post-work; go the gym, run out to the supermarket, or watch the festival of minor sports currently appearing on most television channels.

5. When you’re good and hungry, boil some salted water and add a small fistful of spaghetti (not whole wheat – I normally love the chewy, nutty stuff, but it doesn’t work for this dish.)

6. While the spaghetti is cooking, cut a ball of mozzarella into cubes the size of your top thumb joint. When that’s done, run back and watch another five minutes of athletics.

7. Drain the pasta, then pour it on top of the tomato-garlic-basil mixture. Scatter the cheese over the spaghetti. Toss the spaghetti and cheese together first, then bring the tomatoes up from the bottom of the bowl.

8. Serve. Eat with lots of appreciative groaning. When you’ve finished with the pasta, pick up your plate and slurp the rest of the tomato-garlic dressing like a ten-year old drinking cereal milk.

9. Repeat for all of August and a chunk of September.

(Serves 2. For the less personalized version of this recipe, visit The Wednesday Chef.)

A New Taste of Home

3 Aug

Californians in search of Mexican food in the UK behave like addicts moved 3000 miles away from their fix. All through my time studying in Cambridge and Edinburgh, my fellow exchange students would furtively swap tips with each other; which restaurant grilled OK carne asada, or made guacamole almost as good as what you could get at home. But when all was said and eaten, these subpar examples just seemed to amplify their cravings, not satisfy them.

I’d held myself above this fray in the past, not out of any when-in-Rome snobbery, but because I didn’t see what the fuss was about. The staples of my northern California childhood weren’t burritos and fajitas but sushi and chow mein. I don’t consider a visit to my parents in Cupertino complete without visits to Bay Sushi and Hong Fu. Mexican food by contrast seemed mostly heavy and uninteresting.

And why on earth would people go in search of something that they knew wouldn’t be as good as at home, when they were surrounded by various examples of the wonder that is Indian food in Britain? OK, so that’s a little snobbery, but when places like Tayyabs exist, can you really blame me?

But anyway, I was wandering around the back end of Notting Hill yesterday, a place which makes me question whether the whole financial crisis actually happened. But along with all the designer baby clothing and five-quid tomatoes, this neighborhood is home to a restaurant called Taqueria.

So I plunked myself down at a two-top and ordered some chilaquiles. Chilaquiles are a waste-not-want-not dish: stale corn tortillas are simmered in a fragrant chile sauce (red or green) until almost soft, then topped with a little queso fresco (kind of like ricotta). Taqueria served theirs with a pool of creamy black beans. My second thought after taking a bite of my green chilaquiles (after how delicious it was) was how homey it tasted. I hadn’t grown up eating it every week, but I knew this was the ultimate comfort food. Stewy, a little creamy, with enough flavour and texture to keep things interesting without being challenging.

Then I realised why I found it so comforting: it reminded me of my mother’s glop casserole. Glop is something which is much more than the sum of its parts: canned corn, kidney beans, and beef mince mixed with a lot of mild chili powder, then topped with shredded cheese and crushed Fritos (a corn chip like an ordinary tortilla chip on flavour steroids) and baked. Thinking back on it today, it was the mixture of crisp corn chips with the mince underneath that came to mind as I ate my chilaquiles.

So, for all you Californians (and other Americans, too) in London who are longing for that spicy taste of home, you now have a place to get your fix. I know that I’ll be going back for another soon!

P.S. I also bought a jar of chipotles in adobo sauce for a future experiment with chicken tinga tacos. Watch this space…

Taqueria
139-143 Westbourne Grove
London W11 2RS

Absence and Berry Cakes

31 Jul

(So, where on earth have I been for the past four months? Well, I was a food-related fundraising intern for a wonderful organisation called Action Against Hunger, working with restaurants to join a campaign which the charity runs in September and October. Interning full-time meant that blogging fell down my To Do list, but I hope to make up for that over the coming weeks. If I have any readers left, in the immortal words of Sam Cooke, bring it on home to me! Now, the main event…)

Unlike 99.99% of the world population, I do not believe that fresh raspberries and blueberries are a sign that the God of summer loves us and wants us to be happy. I don’t find them offensive, just squidgy and kind of bland. I do have fond memories of picking fresh blackberries at summer camp and eating them churned into vanilla ice cream, but that’s kind of it.

But it’s summer after all, so I decided to confront my own prejudice and bake with berries. First I made a batch of raspberry-rhubarb muffins from the Flour Bakery cookbook by Joanne Chang as a birthday present for my father. Second was a raspberry-blackberry Bundt cake, based on a recipe from the ever-excellent Smitten Kitchen. Apologies for the lack of photographs – both recipes turned out less-than-photogenic due to some serious pan-sticking issues, and I was on holiday and feeling lazy.

(Also, I find as I get older than I’m becoming more of a cook than a baker. A less generous person would attribute it to my shortening attention span, but I’d like to think that I’m becoming more relaxed and generally willing to go with the flow. But the simplest explanation is that I’m out of practice.)

Despite all the messiness, both recipes turned out delicious. They work on a similar principle: make a vanilla-scented cake batter (the muffins included lots of melted butter, eggs, crème fraiche, and whole milk), then stir through whatever berries tickle your fancy. When baked, the berries (and rhubarb) become jammy pockets of tartness that refresh you in the midst of rich, moist, very sweet cake. It’d make a perfect mid-morning snack with a cup of strong, milky coffee.

A cake so good I couldn’t resist taking a bite before photographing it.

So will you find me locked away scarfing carton after carton of raspberries, eyes gleaming with the fervor of the newly converted? Well, no. But berries and I are now on nodding terms, and that’s an improvement!

What Makes a Restaurant Good?

4 Apr

I was recently asked if I’ve considered writing restaurant reviews for this blog. My response at the time was a marvelously poetic and coherent “Ennnnnnnnnnnh.”

To put that noise into words, I’ve not written reviews before because I don’t want to push myself as some kind of obnoxious all-knowing expert. Taste in food is leagues more subjective than in music, or films, or books. Every person in the world has their quirks of palate, their weird vestigial preferences that make no sense to anybody else. I’m the person who dunks dill pickles in barbecue sauce, for goodness sake, so who am I to judge?

Put simply, I’d like to think I’m an enthusiast, not a connoisseur. That said, after over 24 years of going to restaurants, I have a pretty good idea of what my ideal restaurant is.

Food

I’m biased towards food with big flavours (no surprise there!). I’m equal opportunity when it comes to cuisine, but I have a soft spot for anything Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. Taste aside, I think the most important factor for me foodwise is a lack of pretentiousness.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a reverse snob. I will hoover down foie gras and caviar if it’s offered, and I am kind of intrigued by molecular gastronomy. But I’m not interested in irony, or preciousness, or machismo. Good food, served with attention and pride. And preferably not in little towers or surrounded by sauce squiggles.

Service

I also think attentive but not overbearing service is important. I don’t need my servers to be my bestest, but I am delighted when my water glass gets filled before I have to ask. I’m under no illusions that this is an easy balance, so thumbs up to the servers who can strike it. Bonus points if they can talk about the menu fluently and make good suggestions for beverage pairings.

Atmosphere

I’m at home just about anywhere, as long as it’s not too over-the-top. To be honest, I think the company you’re with determines the atmosphere more than anything the restaurant does. I can have a sedate meal on my own in a noisy burrito joint, or have a boisterous group dinner in upscale surroundings. In generally, I tend to prefer places that are a bit more casual.

All of that said, here are my five favourite restaurants. I guarantee you will have a fantastic meal at all of them. Unpretentious and delicious food, great service, and a relaxed atmosphere. Go!

Sarah’s Top Five (in no particular order)

Range (San Francisco)

Moro

Barrafina

Bocca di Lupo

Tayyabs

This list is subject to change – there are places like Hawksmoor and Ducksoup which I haven’t tried yet and are supposed to be fabulous.

Your ideal restaurants are probably different from mine, so I’d love to know; for you, what makes a great dining experience?

Bridging the Hungry Gap

27 Mar

Springtime, and the living is easy. As easy as it gets in London, anyway. The sun is shining, the mercury’s in the very high teens (mid-to-high sixties for my American compadres), and my coat and boots are shoved deep in my closet for their long summer sleep. I’m even writing this on my sunny terrace whilst barefoot. To say that it doesn’t get much better can’t encompass the sense of intense wellbeing that currently permeates both this city and me. But one thing niggles at my contentment: the hungry gap.

For those of you blessed with produce aisles bearing strong resemblance to the Garden of Eden, and who therefore are blissfully unaware of this phenomenon, the hungry gap is the period of time (generally March and April) when British fields are entirely unfruitful. The last of the root vegetables and brassicas have straggled in, and the tender, pale green joys that are asparagus, peas, and broad beans won’t appear for a while yet.

So whilst every other indicator screams for us to cast away our woolly garments and frolic in the daffodils under a gently warming sun, the farmer’s market bogs us down with more heavy, wintery food. Don’t get me wrong, my love for humble stew is nearly boundless. But after six months of dietary hibernation, I want to dive into an enormous bowl of salad like Daffy Duck wants to dive into a mound of treasure, screaming, “I’m rich! I’m wealthy! I’m comfortably well off! WOOHOO!”

At first thought a warm orzo salad with beetroot and feta doesn’t merit quite the same enthusiasm as a mound of gold coins and gems, but look at the jewel-like colours on this baby:

No, your eyes do not deceive you; that pasta is SCARLET. You perform this magic cooking the orzo in the same water in which you boil the beets. The beets won’t have the same caramelly flavour they get from roasting, but I think that’s a worthwhile sacrifice to get the pasta to turn spectacular colours.

Overall, the result is a well-balanced mix of flavours: earthy-sweet beetroot, salty feta, savoury pinenuts, onion and garlic, bitter greens. Its feet are firmly planted in winter, but its lightness makes it perfect for a warm, lazy March day.

Check out the recipe, originally by The Parsley Thief, on Food52.

Lazy Day Pasta

15 Mar

But there are days when I am some combination of deathly tired, morbidly lazy, or very hungry. Those are the times when I look in the refrigerator once every minute, sigh, and shut the door. When working and waiting for an hour for a meal has all the appeal of a brisk hike in the Sahara. For moments like this, I have spaghetti alla puttanesca.

Lazy day deliciousness.

Spaghetti alla puttanesca has 3 things going for it:

1. It goes from zero to table in 20 minutes flat. The only prep required is chopping garlic and anchovies, plus opening some containers.

2. Said containers keep very well in your fridge and cupboard. If you’ve done it right, you should be able to make this dish without leaving your house.

3. It is a flavour-packed, lip-smacking bowl of deliciousness.

I lived on puttanesca in my last year of undergrad, and it’s still one of my favourite dishes of all time. Unfortunately, I rarely make it now, blessed as I am with a partner who thinks that anchovies, olives, or any combination thereof are the devil’s work. It’s become a rather sneaky pleasure, eaten at home alone while watching dumb romantic comedies.

This recipe reflects my abiding love of all things salty and pickled, but you can adjust the quantities of all the sauce ingredients (except the tomatoes) to your taste if you’re not quite as keen. It makes enough sauce for two people; so if you’re dining à deux, just double the amount of pasta.

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca


Makes one big, saucy bowlful

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 50g/2oz tin anchovies, drained and chopped
0.5 teaspoon red chili flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 400g tin/14oz can chopped/diced tomatoes
10-12 Kalamata olives, pitted
2 tablespoons capers
freshly ground pepper
100g/3.5oz dried whole wheat spaghetti

Warm the olive oil, garlic, anchovies, chili, and oregano in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Start stirring when the oil begins to sizzle. When the anchovies have mostly dissolved and the garlic is turning golden, add the tomatoes, olives, capers and pepper. Bring the sauce up to a simmer, then leave to bubble while you cook the pasta.

Bring a pot of salted water up to the boil, then add the spaghetti. Cook according to the package instructions – I find mine take about 10 minutes to reach the right texture. When it’s done, drain briefly, then add to the sauce.

Serve up in a bowl, without Parmesan (the anchovies provide all the umami this needs).