24 April 2010

Back To Black

I never claimed to be original. I do though regularly require comfort eating and when that coincides with breakfast / brunch time (or anytime between 6am and 4pm, if I'm being honest, and I'm flexible on the 4pm), the ultimate guilty, waist line expanding pleasure must be Eggs Benedict.

Me and Hollandaise are not always the best of friends. The first time I made it, it was a dream - rich, silky, smooth, the perfect consistency... The subsequent four or five attempts? Runny, buttery disasters. The equipment was the same, I was the same, the basic ingredients were the same but it just refused to congeal or, when it did, would separate rapidly into unappetising layers of the sorts of cholesterol involved.

Not one to be daunted though, I thought I'd give it a go last weekend because I was determined to combine my love of Eggs Benedict with another one of those (okay, slightly cliched) combinations I adore: scallops and pig product.

In the new(ish) undercover bit at Borough, a couple of very nice ladies are selling assorted Scottish smoked products including some excellent salmon and Hebridean peat-smoked scallops. They also sell Stornoway black pudding which is: a) for my money, as good as black pudding gets; and b) the sort of pig product that would probably taste pretty good with those scallops. Then I saw the Flour Station's incredible English muffins on a nearby table. It was all the inspiration I needed for a Sunday brunch of epically blokey proportions.

15 April 2010

Dough Eyed

Pizza is one of those things, isn't it? There's this endless quest for authenticity, this need and desire for what you order from your local to be the equivalent of that slice you had wandering around Naples... and that way massive disappointment lies.

I try to modify my expectations with these sorts of things, and focus instead on the more basic purpose of my UK pizza: does it taste good? Mind you, it probably helps that my experience of pizza in Italy is not what you'd call stellar.

It happened in 1996 and I can even give you the date: February 9th. That's not because the events were so memorable the date is etched into my mind, merely because it was the first day of our honeymoon in Florence.

At this time I was, believe it or not (and you're probably a "not") a vegetarian. Well, a pescetarian to be exact but that's still a quantum leap for anyone who knows my dining habits now. It wasn't a big moral thing, I just went off beef during the BSE crisis, realised after a few weeks that, actually, I hadn't eaten meat at all in that time and decided to see how long that would last. In the end that turned out to be just over four years and then the lure of bacon proved too great. But I digress. Back to Florence...

We'd lined up some lovely meals for the few days we were in this spectacular city, but had a few nights earmarked for simpler fare and the first of these HAD to be pizza. We wandered the streets, looking for somewhere that looked "right" and found ourselves in a rather studenty side of town. There, on a little side street, we found the perfect spot. Other pizzerias we'd seen looked smarter. Others looked - let's be honest - cleaner. But none had been this busy. The clientele was a fantastic mix of students and older diners and couples and families, the sort of crowd that suggests this is a place doing something absolutely spot on.

After a short wait, we were seated and, with a carafe of robust red to warm the cockles, we perused the short menu and munched our way through some first rate antipasto: sweet, roasted peppers, garlicky courgette strips, tender artichoke hearts, mushrooms, achingly fresh calimari and lovely, baked-on-the-premises bread. The saliva glands were in overdrive, a situation made even worse - or better, depending on how you look at it - by the fantastic smells wafting from the oven and the other tables. This was the place to be alright.

Given the quality of the antipasto, I confidently ordered the "vegetariana", while Mrs L had the "quattro stagioni". Hers arrived first, a crisp but still slightly chewy base heaped with garlic, unctuous slabs of mozzarella, rich tomato sauce, sliced, barely cooked mushrooms, rolling piles of ham, a stack of those delightful artichoke hearts... It looked and smelled incredible, the thing late night snacky dreams are made of. I was virtually rubbing my hands in glee as the waiter approached with mine.

The rubbing stopped as the plate was placed in front of me. The base was impeccable. The cheese looked delicious and the sweet odour of the tomatoes teased the senses. The only problem then was the boiled potatoes, carrots and green beans that covered it. No. Really.

I don't think I swore, not even under my breath. According to Mrs L opposite, my face fell at such speed I must have temporarily lost the power of speech. I looked down at the pizza, then up at her, then down at the pizza, then over to the huge bowls of lovely vegetables on the antipasto buffet, then back at the pizza. I probably whimpered.

I've had some disappointments in my two score years (and a bit) but really, that's up there. Happily, Mrs L is lovely and took pity on me, sharing the mushrooms and artichokes as I slowly cleared my pizza of its alien toppings, but I was just bemused. Was this really their idea of a "vegetariana" or a bad joke at the expense of the English tourist?

We never solved that mystery (and the rest of the honeymoon was a landmark event in my now extensive dining history) and actually maybe this way it's better. This way, I'm not facing the endless disappointment of sub-standard UK pizza because, actually, anything that doesn't feature potatoes, carrots or fucking green beans is automatically superior. Either way, when Mrs L's recent forays into baking took a sideways step from (glorious) bread to a pizza base (after a certain degree of "encouragement" from me), and we covered it in homemade tomato sauce, generous slabs of mozzarella, mushrooms, slices of various piquant pork products, peppers, onions and ragged handfuls of homegrown basil, it tasted really bloody good. It looked rather pretty too.

7 April 2010

It's Chilli Out There

I like spicy food. Mrs L often panics that her (lovely) chicken noodle soups lack flavour because of the amount of chilli oil I typically add. It's really not a reflection on her comforting suppers, it's purely down to my increasing addiction for the smoky heat which happens to go so well with this kind of soup. So, when my mate Ryder suggested a Friday night hitting one of Chinatown's Szechuan offerings, I leaped at the chance.

Much has been written about the nature of the burn, the buzz it engenders, the endorphins it releases. I just know I like the flavour as much as I like the eye-popping "oof" noises the spiciest foods generate. Saying that, I damn near met my match that night.

The chosen destination was the New China Restaurant on Gerrard Street, a restaurant that made up in spice what it lacked in terms of originality. It was a fine selection, for a number of reasons. First of all, when it used to be a grotty pub, the Dive Bar below it used to be one of my favourite London haunts. Secondly, we found them to be helpful, friendly, generous - for some reason we got comped a bottle of wine - and mildly supportive as we attempted to drain a bullfrog soup that was approximately one third chilli oil and about 25% Szechuan tongue-fizzing peppers. For a good 10 minutes, I was suffering, a sensation I've not experienced for a good 20 years since an ex- introduced me to the joys of the jalapeno.

But then, as is so often the case, the body - or the mind, or the metabolism, or something - relaxes and oral calm is restored. That sort of "oof" seems entirely natural and the resulting physical effects are oddly pleasurable. We didn't finish the soup, but that was down to the sheer quantity rather than the residual heat and, very probably, the highly enjoyable plate of chilli beef we were also attempting to clear.

It was the soup though that was the winner for me, particularly with the tender and slightly sweet (and yes chicken-like) joys of the frogs' legs. Aside from a slightly sore head the following day, there were now lingering after effects. Saying that, neither of us actually remember leaving the restaurant - but we've written that off as a reaction between the chilli and the entirely reasonable quantity of alcohol consumed...

Fleece by Decathalon, £27.99. Sweat, model's own.