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Cheesesteak, an excuse to make cheesewhiz

13 Oct

CheesesteakIf ever there was a dish that sums up American food excess, it’s the cheesesteak.

There couldn’t be a more aptly named plate. There is steak and there is cheese. There is also a slab of bread which effectively makes it a cheesesteak sandwich, and that is how you will often find it listed on diner menus.

Officially the cheesesteak must be made in the vicinity of Philadelphia, its spiritual home, but that’s like saying that a pasty can only be made in Cornwall. My first encounter with this monstrous pile of protein, fat and fibre came in New Jersey – not a million miles from Philly, but kind of like enjoying a Cornish pasty in Wiltshire. This didn’t make it any less decadently delicious. The beef was so tender it melted. The onions and cheese became as one. Unlike most meals on that trip I finished it easily despite being oversized.

So back in England and with a pack of frying steak in the fridge I decided to recreate my cheesesteak experience.

First thing was a bit of research. My reference for all things US and greasy is Man Versus Food and in a recent episode Adam Richmond takes on the mightiest of cheesesteaks.

 

This lead me to a related question (which if you watch the video you will have as well). What in the name of all things that are holy is ‘cheesewhiz’?

If processed cheese is one short of the devil, then this yellow liquid is Beelzebub himself.

I had to have some.

In the USA cheesewhiz comes in a jar. In the rest of the civilised world this stuff would probably be considered a class A drug and so if you want it you are going to need to make it yourself.

I won’t dignify cheesewhiz with a proper recipe, but it contained mustard, evaporated milk, a dash of tabasco and…cheese. This is supposed to be processed, but as I didn’t have any in the house, I had to ‘resort’ to real cheddar. Microwave this concoction for a couple of minutes and you have the amber, dairy-based nectar.

Assembling the cheesesteak itself was then a simple task. I sliced the frying steak as thinly as I could and flash-fried it with some sliced onion. I packed as much of this as I could into approximately half a baguette and topped with cheesewhiz.

You can see the results above. I think you will agree this is a fine looking steak sandwich in its own right. Add the sweet and sour cheesewhiz and you have a thing of beauty.

I didn’t tell Mrs G what went into the cheesewhiz and she thought it was pretty good. After she finished I told her the ingredients and she gagged, but don’t let that put you off as you have probably just pushed through the gagging stage yourself when you realised I was mixing evaporated milk with cheddar.

This was far from an authentic cheesesteak. A resident of Philadelphia would probably be upset I’m even making the connection, but for me it was a delicious reminder of happy times in American airports, and those are pretty thin on the ground.

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Adventures at The Spotted Pig

3 Jul

Spotted Pig burgerIt’s the darling of the New York gastropub scene (if indeed the Big Apple has enough to call it a scene) and it had the distinction of being the one and only New York restaurant I had ever heard of.

This makes it more than a coincidence that when looking for a dinner venue in a recent stopover near Manhattan that a colleague suggested we give The Spotted Pig a try.

Having only read about this place a few weeks previously after idly following a foodie tweet I was aware of a few key facts.

1) This was a genuine pub, in the heart of Greenwich Village.

2) It had a Michelin star.

3) You either loved it or hated it.

4) Chef April Bloomfield is British and a River Cafe peer of Jamie Oliver. He described her as ‘cooking like a ninja’.

The facade of the Spotted Pig was so anonymous that half our party walked straight past it without noticing. Inside it was small, cramped and kookie. It reminded me of a favourite pub of mine in Bristol (from the early 90’s), the Victoria, with nooks and crannies, small tables and not an inch of visible wall space that wasn’t covered by a picture.

A Girl and Her PigPride of place above the bar was April Bloomfield’s recently published cookbook – A Girl and Her Pig.

Excitement built. When we realised we could just forget the table waiting list and order at the bar it reached fever pitch.

If you are sitting at the bar you need to start with bar snacks.

We ordered a selection of starters to share – deviled eggs, devils on horseback (there’s a lot of devil in NYC) and chicken liver toast.

The bar staff were knowledgable, friendly and…Scottish. This was the most laid back Michelin star I’d ever encountered. Compared to JSW, my local Michelin starred venue in Petersfield, Hampshire, this felt like popping round to a friend’s for a mid-week dinner. I’m not knocking JSW and its contrived formality, but the Spotted Pig was so laid back that I felt like could sink into the bar stool and stay there all night.

Back to those snacks. The verdict was that they were pretty good. I wouldn’t have classed them as fine dining – that’s not Bloomfield’s style anyway – but her famous ‘anal rustic’ techniques shone through. It was detailed informality.

She has a signature dish and I was determined to try it. The Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort & Shoestrings (fries that is) was famous for its simplicity and the fact that Bloomfield refuses anyone the right to customise the dish. No salad, no ketchup, no mayo (unless you are Bob Dylan who by all accounts got given some by a starstruck waiter one night in error). This was a burger that was confident enough to say ‘I am brilliant, take me or leave me’.

I took it and  I took it medium rare. Some colleagues were more adventurous and went for pork belly or octopus. Not for me such extravagance. I wanted that burger. I wanted it even more when I saw one go past the bar on its way to a lucky diner.

The Spotted Pig burger is a triumph. It is served on a brioche bun with a perfectly crafted criss cross of griddle marks. It is accompanied by a mountain of shoestring fries which are perfectly seasoned, with salt and a significant portion of fried rosemary. I looked and it and thought that I would not be finishing it. A few mouthfuls in and I knew I had to. Initial impressions were that the fries were like posh chipsticks, but that wasn’t fair. These were not fries in any traditional sense and once I got my preconceptions about chips out of my head I realised that the Spotted Pig was doing something pretty special.

I’m usually a fast eater. I wasn’t aware that I was taking my time with this simple, but enormous, burger, but 30 minutes in I realised that everyone else had finished. I still had a fair few shoestrings to get down me. Part of this was because the fries were hard to eat. Most of it was because it was worth savouring.

We wandered off into the New York evening for a less salubrious few hours in a variety of bars, but the Spotted Pig was a fantastic start to the evening.

I can understand the critiscism that it doesn’t deserve a star, but as a gastropub, and a not particularly expensive one at that, it stands out head and shoulders over anything I’ve ever tried before.

New Orleans – a humid Harvester

20 Jun

Work took me to New Orleans last week. I had some pretty romantic pre-trip notions about what the city and its cuisine would be like. In the end none of those notions turned out to be true.

Creole cooking, at least the version we get in the UK, is not subtle at the best of times, but it’s flavoursome and unique. This was not a budget trip, so I expected I might be surprised about what the real thing presented.

My first exposure was ‘biscuits in sausage gravy’. This was not a dish that I was queueing up for. Actually technically speaking I was, but I was intending to skip the biscuits and go for the stack of pancakes at the end of the buffet. A US colleague had no intention of letting me play safe. ‘You gotta try the biscuits,” he said. “It’s a Louisiana tradition.”

I noted that he was not loading up on this dish himself, but as a good guest I obliged.

The biscuits in question are actually a fairly tasteless scone. It’s a good job that they are tasteless because the ‘gravy’ is not. Salty and sausagy, this stuff was a breakfast nightmare – a real heart attack on a plate. I honestly could see no appeal in this stodgy mess. Oh, how I wished I had stuck to my guns and hit the pancakes.

I’m aware that McDonalds incorporates local specialities into its menus around the world (it draws the line at roast pudding burgers in the UK) but I didn’t expect to be walking past a Lousiana MickeyD’s the next day and see the dreaded biscuits and gravy advertised for a dollar fifty. I didn’t drop by.

So, breakfast was hit and miss. Global breakfast conventions one, Southern specialities nil.

Later that day I had the opportunity to visit a New Orleans institution – K Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter. Made famous by chef Paul Prudhomme,this place is a fine dining introduction to Creole and Cajun. It has a waiting list. It has a dress code. When I told people where I was going there were gasps of jealousy.

Before I get to grips with the food, I need to make a few points.

1) I was pleased to get the chance to visit K Paul’s

2) I loved the atmosphere

3) The service was fantastic

4) Perhaps I just don’t get it

The starter I ordered was popcorn battered crab fingers. I was used to US sized portions. I offered to share it with my dining companions, fully expecting that I would struggle to finish it.

Where on earth did they dig up these crabs? You know the soldier crab, the one with one huge claw and one tiny one? K Paul’s crab fingers have left a huge number of soldier crabs wandering around with one large claw left attached. They really were tiny. (Disclaimer – I have no idea what type of crab it was. K Paul’s is not mutilating soldier crabs and then abandoning them to their fate.).

They were tasty, although the dipping sauce helped, but I was ready for my main course. I would have been ready even if I hadn’t given half my dish to my colleagues.

I chose blackened fillet and sweet potato mash. The waitress sold me on this in no uncertain terms. “It’s just….oh. Just….oh.”

I asked for it rare which was possibly a mistake. It was rare to the point of bleu. However, what distinguished it from your average rare steak was the thick layer of charcoal that encased the raw meat. This was blackened fillet after all, but had I been served this in any other environment I would have been unimpressed with the contrast. This could only be achieved by a grill set to nuclear.

Having said those uncharitable things there was a lot to like about this dish – notably the obscene amounts of beef on the plate, but in particular the delicious sweet potato mash. Yams are rapidly becoming my favourite vegetable.

I obviously hadn’t had enough of them because I ordered a sweet potato and pecan pie for dessert. I expected a large portion and I got a large portion. My dining companions looked on in pity and I struggled to down this monster slice of pie. Every bite was great, but the sheer volume created an ordeal. This was Man Versus Food, UK style.

Food in New Orleans is like the city itself. Exuberant, slightly sleazy and something you either love or hate. I was much closer to hating both than I expected. Spending a few days there was like being trapped in a giant US version of Harvester, only without the salad bar.

In the red corner – mezze, in the blue corner – tapas

17 Apr

While ‘enjoying’ some particularly disappointing mezze the other day I started to daydream about what my perfect mezze/tapas meal would comprise.

Before I sat down to document my thoughts I decided that I should satisfy the purists and educate myself as to the difference between the two, but this turned out to be surprisingly difficult. Most sources reference the difference in origin (Spain for one, the Middle East for the other) but the concepts have merged so much in Western culture as to blur the boundary significantly.

In their respective mangled interpretations that we get in the UK, it is possible to make some sweeping generalisations; mezze seems to consists of bread and yogurt, tapas isn’t tapas without potatoes, eggs and meatballs.

Variation is not always easy to find with mezze and tapas, but the problem of being boring seems to afflict mezze more in my opinion. There is a middle-eastern cafe in my local town. It’s a nice but ultimately unexciting place, that sells pretty unexciting mezze in the form of a bunch of chopped vegetables and olives and several variations on the theme of yoghurt. Unfortunately this seems to come in enormous quantities, so by the time you have ploughed your way through enough of it not to appear rude, you don’t really feel much like a main course (which is a shame, because the mains at this cafe are excellent). The meat mezze there is excellent though, including an amazing spicy salami, but that is as much to do with the ingredients as anything.

My only experience of restaurant tapas in the UK is at La Tasca, but I had always felt they set the bar pretty high. My expectations have been raised in recent weeks following a visit to Singapore (of all places) where I enjoyed some stunning tapas. La Tasca may not cut it any more. There is also a worrying trend of pubs serving what they call a ‘sharing platter’ that seems to borrow a lot from both concepts in spirit, if not in quality.

All of this means it’s a good job that I love making and serving my mezze/tapas combo. Inspired by both cuisines, borrowing from others as well, I’ve refined a few dishes over the past few years. It should have its own name – mezpas perhaps, or tapze.

Here’s a typical platter:

  • red wine braised chorizo
  • home made baba ghounash
  • grilled pitta (cypriot if possible, but it rarely is 😦 )
  • mozarella or halloumi gremolata
  • potatas bravas
  • pepperdew peppers (neat)

The best thing is that it can all be thrown together pretty quickly, so with the aid of some elegant presentation you can be impressing guests with very little effort. You shouldn’t feel confined by my suggestions though.  Make the dishes that you love, the dishes that are easy to assemble and the dishes that you feel best sum up mezze/tapas.

Swiss wine – there’s more to the place than chocolate

25 Jan

White wine bottleSwitzerland is not a country the British associate with wine-making. Just about every other country has penetrated the UK market – some more than others – but Swiss wine is almost impossible to find, even direct from importers. Whilst their alpine neighbours Austria are an acknowledged producer (80’s anti-freeze scandals aside), the Swiss seem determined to keep their wine to themselves.

This is a crying shame as they know how to make a fantastic bottle.

With family in Switzerland I’ve had the happy opportunity to sample the local stuff on several occasions, and it’s left me with a long-standing love of the crisp, slightly metallic and enormously refreshing taste.

The vineyards are generally small and the wine doesn’t travel far, even within Switzerland. We have often stayed near Geneva, and the wine in the supermarkets is all sourced from within a few tens of miles (including the obligatory French stuff – France is only a few miles away as the crow flies of course). My favourite is from the Celigny region – it’s light and all too easy to over-consume. The commonly heard phrase at Gastronome Towers is “Go on, just a splash.” This is repeated several times until drunk and was first coined in Geneva after too much of the aforementionned vintage.

The closest thing that is easily available in the UK is wine made from the Gruner Veltliner grape. You can find both Austrian and Hungarian bottles from online wine stores (as well as increasingly often in restaurant wine lists).

However, none of this comes cheap (at least £6 per bottle) and you have to ask yourself if it’s good value compared to other gluggable wines available in the UK.

I suppose that in the end I have an emotional attachment to Swiss wine and that makes it occasionally worth the extra investment. I urge you to give it a try though. It’s worth tracking down.

Singapore – culinary crossroads

22 Jan
Chinese sausage hanging in market

Chinese sausage anyone?

I’m privileged that my job allows me to travel pretty widely and that travel often involves dining at places that would normally be out of my reach.

Which isn’t actually saying very much as ‘out of my reach’ pretty much encompasses everything more expensive than Pizza Express (yes, yes, I’m aware that even Pizza Express would be too expensive for many, but this IS a food blog).

I’ve recently spent a week in Singapore, with a quick side dash to the Philippines. I have a colleague who hails from Singapore and he describes himself as a foodie. He eats out almost every day, and complains bitterly about almost every aspect of cuisine in the UK. I was slightly sceptical about this viewpoint. How could a small island in South East Asia, with a rich British colonial past, possibly give the UK lessons in good food with the notable exception of Chinese?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In six days away it was hard to find a meal that didn’t rank right at the top for that type of cuisine. Let me take you on a whistle-stop tour.

Sunday – Vietnamese (excellent). My experience of Vietnamese cooking is limited to a single visit to a restaurant in New York, but this confirmed that it’s great. Spicy, but not exceptionally so. Deep-fried scallop pancakes were the highlight.

Monday – Tapas. Yes, you read that right – I had a Spanish meal and it was superb. It made La Tasca look frankly rubbish.

Tuesday – Japanese. A slight let down by the standards of what had preceded it, but there was a masterful avocado milkshake. This was quite possibly the best soft drink I have ever consumed. The avocado was there – tasty, but not overpowering. The ice cream was not too sweet. Simply delicious.

Remnants of raw fish salad

Remnants of raw fish salad

Tuesday (again) – Chinese. The best Chinese meal I have ever eaten – bar none. We opened with the famous Chinese New Year dish of raw fish salad (Yusheng). Part of a majesty of this dish is the performance of preparation. The entire table stands and mixes the ingredients with chopsticks, throwing shredded fish and vegetables into te the air while shouting out desires for the next 12 months. No sooner was the salad dispatched than the duck pancakes arrived. Unlike the version you seem to find in the UK, these consisted of just the skin. The meat of the duck came along later in a separate dish. The plum sauce that accompanied them was not really necessary. They were delicious without. Next to emerge from the kitchen was black pepper crab. I’m not a crab man – I don’t even like looking at them. I went out of my way to avoid having to crack a claw, but spurred on by my hosts I relented and it was so worth it. Perhaps I over compensated on my ‘ mmm lovely’ comments, because black pepper crab was followed swiftly by the famous Singapore chilli crab. The star of this dish was not the crab, but the sauce that came with it (more accurately that it was bathing in) and the small round cakes, almost dumplings, whose sole purposes was to aid the hoovering up of said sauce. The meal was rounded off by the best lemon chicken I have ever eaten. It was alarmingly yellow, but by this point I didn’t care. I was in food heaven and I could have happily stayed there.

Wednesday – Indian. We do great Indian food in the UK, so this had a hard job matching the excellence of earlier meals. It had a very good go, but didn’t quite excite as much. Perhaps we are just too familiar with Indian to really appreciate it. There was a highlight though – two actually. 1) deep fried bittergourd. What is a bittergourd when it’s at home anyway? 2) a deep fried naan, that swelled up like a football and tasted like a giant savoury doughnut. Divine.

Thursday – Pan Asian Buffet. Food, food and more food. Then some more. All great, especially so when you consider it came out of a buffet environment.

Friday – Italian. OK, so by this time I had moved onto Manila where the continental European influence is greater, but I didn’t expect to enjoy amazing tapas, followed by fantastic blue cheese gnocchi.

I returned home several pounds heavier and totally inspired by asian cuisine. I will be inflicting it regularly upon my loved ones from now on, but I know that eating out in the UK probably won’t match up to the heights of my Singapore experience. Home-cooking would seem to be the way to go.