31 August 2011

Lion's head meatballs (shi-zi tou)

Well the weather's pretty shit isn't it? What a poor rump of summer this is turning out to be. It's not even September yet. Lion's head meatballs will ease our transition from stunted summer to nascent autumn: a cold weather dish, both burnished by frying pan and moistened by the braising pot.

I took a basic recipe from Robert Delfs's The Good Food of Szechuan and gave it some SDON tweaking. He suggests using a massive amount of soy sauce, as well as additional salt, so I've toned this down.

The ingredients are familiar, their configuration is not. Lion's head meatballs are wonderful beasts - globes of meat flavoured principally with the familiar triumvirate of garlic, ginger and spring onions, flecked with chilli, browned nicely in a pan and then given a relaxing braise to emerge damp and wonderful for eating with rice and greens. The name reflects their shape - when on their traditional bed of greens the meat spheres allegedly look like lion's heads against their manes of green leaf.

  • one kilo minced beef/pork
  • one head garlic
  • same amount of ginger
  • five spring onions
  • soy sauce
  • cornflour
  • sugar
  • Shaoxing wine
  • lots of greens (cabbage, spring greens etc.)

In a big bowl mix well: the meat (I suggest using a mixture of beef and pork - I used minced beef with chopped bacon as that was what was to hand but you could use anything really); the garlic from a good-sized head chopped finely; a similar amount of ginger and five spring onions similarly prepared; dried or fresh chilli according to preference (although I don't think this dish should be too hot); and two tablespoons of soy sauce mixed with one of cornflour. Form into large spheres.

Coat the spheres in a mixture made of four tablespoons of cornflour mixed with three of light soy sauce.

Fry them until dark colours and light caramelisation occurs.

Add water to almost cover the meatballs and slosh in four tablespoons of Shaoxing wine and a pinch of sugar. Possibly also a jot more chilli. That's all you need to lubricate the meatballs and provide a nice sauce. The lions' heads express meat juice as they simmer away, enriching the sauce. They also express quite a lot of fat (or at least mine did - I was using standard quality supermarket mince which tends to be a touch greasy) so it's a good idea to spend a minute or two spooning away any excess. The meatballs need about thirty minutes on a lowish head. Give them a gentle turn.

Meantime sweat your greens.

Serve with plain rice. Oh my days, these are very nice indeed. Slightly hot, slightly sweet and highly savoury, this is good comfort food, and pretty easy to boot.

I don't think you need to worry too much about sticking to a recipe - it seems like this is a dish with as many versions as there are cooks and Google reveals hundreds of varying pictures. Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook also uses quite a few different ingredients so perhaps I'll try her version next. Now get cooking!

25 August 2011

Beef with beans and anchovy

We all know that anchovy marries well with lamb. For some reason the salted fish can compliment meat quite extraordinary, giving depth and flavour. 'You don't taste the fish, only the meat' is the enthusiast's cry. The anchovy breaks down and mingles with the sauce and meat juice and looses its individual identity. So perhaps it will work with beef too.

I got the beef cheap. Who doesn't like a reduction? Only good, cheap food tastes better than good food. Not only on a half-price deal but further reduced! £1.75 for two modest but adequately sized rump steaks. How grand.

I decided to go for a gentle bean stew flavoured with garlic and anchovy and topped with the sliced medium-rare beef. This 'meat on stuff' is something that seems to pop up in the St John school of cookery from time to time (and in it's satellite restaurants by default) and I rather like it.

  • beef, or lamb - or pork?
  • beans
  • onion and garlic
  • anchovy
  • carrot
  • dried chili
  • a little feta or similar cheese if you have some to hand

Chop your onion, carrot and garlic fine. The carrot is very important here I found - a welcome sweet note amongst the other macho flavours. Fry them in olive oil gently and unhurriedly. You will need around 15 minutes or so. Add some crumbled dried chilli and your anchovies. Go easy with the little devils. I actually used Gentleman's relish instead which is a good back-up to have in the fridge.

Add you beans - if you have time then soak some, otherwise canned will do fine. Relax, it's a week night. I went for a giant tin of wachtelbonhnen from one of my favourite Turkish grocers on Hoxton Street, which turned out, I think, to be pinto beans. Don't add to much liquid from the can. Season.

When the beans are looking fine and dandy fry your steak and give it a couple of minutes to rest. Slice into semi-ribbons, flop it over the beans and dress with crumbled feta or similar and olive oil.

Here the beans play as important a role as the steak. It's not an all-out meat-fest where the beef is king and all other ingredients mere lackeys. It's balanced. Have some nice red wine or maybe a strong beer with it, and Turkish bread.

18 August 2011

Cabbage, pasta, parmesan and chickpea soup

Like parsimonious Italian grannies, in my flat we've been saving the rinds of spent blocks of partisan for a moment such as this. Now they come to the fore and truly become themselves. Soup. To be specific, a kind of minestrone x pasta e fagioli bastard, miscegenation born of necessity. The cabbage, pasta, parmesan and chickpeas are the backbone of this dish - feel free to experiment with the other ingredients but I think these four should remain as the central pillars around which the flavour is woven. If you have some white wine to hand why not add a small glass to the pot?

  • an onions and some garlic
  • one cabbage
  • one tin chickpeas (or other beans)
  • parmesan
  • vegetable stock
  • pasta
  • olive oil
  • dried chilli
  • fresh basil (not crucial)

Chop your onions and garlic and cook in olive oil. Give them ten minutes or so to get properly translucent and nice. Add the parmesan rinds and some dried chilli.

Introduce stock, a shredded cabbage and a tin of chickpeas. A couple of minutes later put in some pasta (don't go mad with the amounts - it should compliment and not dominate the rest of the ingredients). Cook for ten to fifteen minutes and make sure everything is cooked. Now is not an al dente time. Season, add more olive oil if needed and stir in some grated parmesan. Add some basil at the end if you have some, it's not a big deal if you don't

This soup is a great example of a combination which exalts its humble components beyond the store-cupboard. The chickpeas and pasta give it main-meal heft, the cabbage gives you vegetable goodness and the parmesan, chilli and garlic keep things interesting. You could posh it up a bit bit that qualifies as gilding the lilly in my book.

10 August 2011

Potato and stilton frittata

As we have seen frittatas are the ultimate fridge-clearers and most forgiving of evening meals. Fry pretty much anything in the fridge, pour over some whisked eggs and cook on the hob. Finish with a few minute's flash under the grill to brown things.

  • eggs
  • stilton or other blue cheese
  • carrots and potatoes

Add the stilton right at the end - if you add it too early it will all melt away and you will lost the mini molten-cheese pocket effect.

Ice-cream with sauce of maple syrup and Stoli in 2:1 ratio for pudding. This combination is sublime and I suggest you try it.

9 August 2011

On holiday in Venice and Sarajevo

I've not been ignoring the blog I promise. I've been on a summer holiday. First we were in Venice for their art festival the Biennale and then on (via overnight trains and a day of zombie-transit in Zagreb) to Sarajevo to the superb, yearly film festival. Here are some food highlights and snapshots.

coloured pasta in the tourist shops in Venice

no escape from the kebab

 a wonderful marble like statue - actually a giant candle

Italy is of course well famous for its food; the Balkans less so. Even now the Balkans in general and Sarajevo in particular make people think of the 1992-96 war  that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia and was the most biggest conflict in Europe since WWII.

15 years later and of course the city is very different, although you can still see the bullet trails on the buildings. It's definitely changed in the year I've been coming  to the film festival.

Bosnians love coffee. Every corner has a place selling it. Often you can get an espresso or a Bosnian coffee which is brewed in little copper pots with the grounds like its Turkish cousin. You can also get a cappuccino in lots of places should that be your wish.

One of the other things Sarajevo does very well is pastries. The ubiquitous boreks are everywhere - a bit like giant coiled sausage rolls but with lamb - but the vegetarian equivalents are probably a bit nicer and definitely less greasy. Buying a sirnica will get you the same pastry with a mashed up cheese filling (like feta), zeljanica is the same cheese with spinach and krompiruĊĦa contains potato. The tried and tested spinach and cheese combo is delicious, whilst the potato is a bit hard going when combined with the pastry.

You can buy corn on the street for one KM (convertible mark).

Pizza in Sarajevo is the business! there are a few places in the centre where you can get slices of the proper stone-baked stuff

The Balkans are not great if you don't eat meat. Omelette, lots of cheese, some nice simple salads, pastas and sandwiches are all available for vegetarians but if you sit down to a proper meal and are after proper evening food its a bit thin on the ground. Typical Bosnian food includes hearty meat stews as above. A little bit of spice, lots of tomato and onion and some beef or veal cooked for quite a long time.

Best enjoyed with salad and a delicious unsweetened yoghurt drink.

As well as coffee (and despite a large Muslim population, many of whom are pretty secular) beer is also everywhere. At the Saraveo Pivara, an old brewery, you can get light, un-filtered light and dark beer in about five sizes ranging from 0.1l to one litre bad boy steins.

Bosnian bread is so much better than Italian! This is somun  and is the absolute business. Elastic, pure white dough with a slight blackening on the bottom and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds on top.

The bakeries in Sarajevo are amazing, loads of top-notch fresh stuff every morning.

We enjoyed it with some spreadable cheese that was also wicked.

On the last day we kept things simple.