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My green-fingered cousin sent me some rhubarb in the mail. When I saw her last week in Edinburgh, she offered to pop some of her bumper crop in the post for me but I didn’t quite believe she would do it. Next thing I knew, a large brown paper envelope was plopping through the door, filled with healthy stalks of rhubarb. I’m a big fan of this maligned fruit, in large measure because of the spectacular rhubarb pies my grandmother used to make. My nana was a great baker and her pastry was short, buttery, but not sweet. It was a great match for rhubarb, which she sweetened with mildly horrifying handfuls of sugar. The resulting pie set me up for a lifetime of rhubarb love but it’s not an everyday dish.
I’ve done a rhubarb compote before on the blog, but this is a neat technique that Lemur friend K shared, which he got (in some fashion lost in the midst of time) from iconic cookbook editor and writer Judith Jones. Here, the rhubarb pieces don’t break down but keep their shape and colour, while their liquid turns into a delicious ruby syrup. It’s very simple, but I had never done it this way before and it really is a cut above your regular compote.
Start the day before you want to eat your compote. Slice the rhubarb into inch long chunks, put in a large bowl and sprinkle on as much sugar as you usually like (hint, more than seems initially reasonable, less than a Scottish grandmother would add).
Leave to sit overnight. The next morning, you’ll find the rhubarb has released a bunch of liquid.
Pour the whole lot into a pan and heat over a medium-high heat till boiling. Turn the heat down to medium and cook the rhubarb for about five minutes. If you are relatively gentle you’ll find the rhubarb keeps its shape and doesn’t break down as in a normal compote. It will also cook very quickly.
Remove the rhubarb carefully with a spider and reduce the remaining liquid to a thick pink-red syrup.
Pour the syrup over the rhubarb and enjoy with yoghurt and granola for breakfast, or with cake or on ice cream.
Remember when I wrote about how nice and welcoming Vietnamese people are? Well, this is another one of those instances. When we were on our Mekong homestay, the breakfast provided was a perfectly lovely spread of omelettes and French baguettes with jam. But as we sat on the verandah waiting for our Vietnamese coffees to drip through, our guide Anh arrived on her bike from the village with a whole other set of breakfast goodies. She’d heard me say that I didn’t eat eggs and knew that I loved eating little snacks at morning markets, so she’d picked up an array of local treats at the market for me. How sweet is that?
The ones pictured above are bánh chuôí (the little rhizomes made with rice flour and banana, which were really delicious and kind of reminiscent of the steamed banana cake we had in Saigon) and bánh bò (the flat white discs, which look very plain but were actually really good, flavoured subtly with coconut milk).
Around the outside of this plate are bánh bèo, made with rice and beans, and in the middle are bánh lá, which are also made with coconut milk and look a bit like papardelle. These are probably the least photogenic of the lot but they tasted amazing dipped in coconut milk. And of course there was still a vast pile of French bread to get through with lovely runny fruit preserves.
It was incredibly relaxing to sit on the verandah, looking out at the jackfruit trees and eating our way through all these beautiful looking breakfast snacks. I mean, really, not only did Anh go out and buy these for me, our homestay hosts presented them so beautifully. They could have been annoyed that the picky guest didn’t want to eat their eggs but instead they created this elegant Vietnamese spread. Tourist with a personal touch is one thing but the Vietnamese welcome was a whole other level. (Let me give you another example. I had mentioned to Anh at one point that this trip was for a ‘special’ birthday. When we were in our hotel in Chau Doc, she arrived at our door with a package: a birthday cake with my name and age iced onto it, candles, lighter, vase and a single rose. When we were checking into the hotel, she’d had a sly look at my passport to find out how old I was and my exact birthday, and had gone out and had a cake iced for me! I was so touched. There I was, thousands of miles from home, and someone had brought me a personalised birthday cake.) So, this was a simple breakfast but a really lovely gesture. Fortified, we went out to explore the Mekong around Co Co, where the fruit trees are abundant and the fruit sellers also super friendly.
Well, my pretties, I’ve finally escaped from farang food! After I met Naomi Duguid in London, we kept in touch and arranged to meet up at the Haw morning vegetable market in Chiang Mai. We had had a lovely time in East London talking about everything from Naomi’s travels in Burma to film, philosophy and Iranian gender politics and so I was super pleased to have the chance to meet up again. This time, though, we’d have a proper food market to visit and we’d be on Naomi’s home turf, as it were. She didn’t have much time to spare as she was actually catching a plane later in the morning – I know, right, how generous to meet up and show us the market when she was on such a tight schedule – but she packed in an intensive education in a brief space of time. In between catching up with all of our lives this autumn, Naomi explained many of the market’s treasures and introduced me to what may be my new favourite breakfast dish. Read the rest of this entry »
Ever since I was a child I’ve enjoyed dinner for breakfast. When my mum made her famous lasagne for Saturday dinner, the best part was eating leftovers for Sunday breakfast. While my parents ate weird shit like eggs and bacon in the dining room, I’d be in the living room enjoying my pasta, far from the noxious scent of boiled eggs. Ok, I knew I was somewhat freakish, but I felt vindicated by Asian morning foods. As soon as I learned that Asian breakfasts include rice, noodles and dumplings, I knew that these were my people. So when we got to Bangkok station this morning at 7:30 to be told by our lovely guide Aom that we could eat at one of several bakeries or go to the Thai food court, there was no decision to be made.
This is not what westerners think of as a food court. No chains, no shiny logos, just a series of stalls where your breakfast can be cooked to order. First you change baht into coupons, then figure out how to communicate with the staff. I considered some kind of congee and also some roast pork rice, but was ultimately seduced by the rapid movements and fresh herbs of the lady with the wok station. Foolishly I thought I had no idea how to order, and ended up picking fried rice because that’s what the person ahead of us had. In fact, food is my only area of even vague linguistic capability in Thai. We’ve all read a bunch of Thai menus and I could have totally ordered a pad krapow gai. Oh well, next time I’ll remember…
In any case, the fried rice was delicious, although I had to pick the bits of egg out. We had it with crispy pork belly and the combination of soft rice, crunchy pork fat and light crisp cabbage was pretty darn satisfying. There was a serving station for add ons, so I dolloped on bean sprouts, pickled chilies and lime. I may, to be honest, have made it a little too spicy, but I was into the idea of a spicy wake up call and it did the trick. We turned out to be the only people in our group to go the Thai breakfast route, so when the national anthem came on at 8am we were the only foreigners looking bemused as everyone stood to attention. But even in this very local space, people were incredibly gracious with the ignorant white people. Eating Thai breakfast set the perfect tone for our adventure. Next stop, Sukhothai!
We wanted to fit in some dim sum on Sunday, because really what’s an urban Sunday without dim sum? When I lived in New York, I ate dim sum all the time in a proper old fashioned palatial banqueting space with mean ladies pushing carts around. The anticipation of what might come next was part of the pleasure, backed up with the knowledge that you could always go up to the various stations for emergency potstickers, greens, or snails if hunger overtook you. The disadvantage was that they didn’t bother offering the more Chinese dishes to western diners. You could probably flag the ladies down and insist on chicken feet if you were determined enough, but my experience was that nothing too alarming was shown to me. Things were a little different in London, where the Crocodiles took me to Golden Dragon, a favourite haunt of theirs for many years. Read the rest of this entry »
Since most of my last post on London eating was consumed by the vitriol I was aiming at the pop-up restaurant fiasco, I thought it might not hurt to return to the wonderfulness of Brixton market. I went there with Caribbean food in mind but before my enormous Guyanese lunch, I came across a storefront selling freshly griddled Colombian arepas. Actually, it was Mr Lemur who discovered it – the man can nose out South American food a mile off. In the midst of a predominantly Afro-Caribbean section of Pope’s Road were a couple of shops focused on Latin American products and packed with Latino shoppers.
Out in front of Las Americas Butchers – which sells meat on one side and cooked foods on the other – was an old dude grilling cheesy arepas with a calm that can only be described as zen-like. I could have watched him lift and turn arepas all day. Actually, given how long it took for our order to cook, I kind of felt like I did. But that’s ok because while we were waiting, someone from inside brought out a paper plate of chicharrones to keep us going. I knew they were going to be good from the look of the hot meat dishes in the window. If there’s one thing you can be sure of it’s that Latin Americans know their pork, and these bites of pork belly and hot crispy skin were sublime. Washing the pork skins down with a sweet café con leche, Mr Lemur was in heaven.
When the arepas were finally deemed perfect by the zen arepa-master, we scarfed them down in a blur of breakfast happiness. I’ve always been a big fan of corn-based breads and Colombian style cheese arepas are a particular favourite. While Venezuelan arepas and Salvadorean pupusas are often stuffed with fillings, the Colombian ones are more like corn pancakes, often with cheese cooked through the dough. These ones were particularly cheesy and nicely caramelised from the griddle. For Mr Lemur, it was a chance to bust out his Spanish and for me it was a nostalgic reminder of New York, where cheap, greasy delicious Latin food is always within reach. But even if you don’t have a Latin connection, the combination of hot cheese arepas and café con leche (perhaps with a little fried pork if you’re that way inclined) is not one to be missed next time you’re in Brixton.
Las Americas Butchers, 26 Pope’s Road, Brixton, London, SW9 8JJ
I don’t know London all that well yet. I can’t tell you how to get anywhere on the tube without a map and large swathes of the place are a complete mystery to me. Since I am mostly there for work or for films and theatre, I spend most of my time in the parts of central London that are not known for their chowhounding potential. Nonetheless, there are some things I consider to be a matter of basic pride. I can direct you to a very good Thai restaurant. I can take you for house-made pork dumplings. And I know where they make good nasi lemak.
Nasi lemak is real comfort food. Often considered to be a national dish of Malaysia, this combination of coconut rice, crispy anchovies, peanuts, cucumber, sambal and often chicken, egg or other proteins hits all the right spots of flavour and texture. Originally eaten for breakfast, it has become so popular that it’s now served all day. I haven’t yet made a thorough study of London’s more far-flung Malaysian restaurants (though obviously, this is an urgent goal) but if you’re near Soho, you can’t do better than C&R Cafe, located down the kind of alley I think of as highly promising and some of my friends view as mildly alarming. C&R is exactly the kind of Malaysian place I like – lacking in decor and general warmth, but more than making up for the formica atmosphere with reassuringly flavourful food. Their char kway teow is shrimpy and chewy, their Singapore laksa is rich and coconuty, and their Assam laksa is hot and sour. And their nasi lemak is the very definition of soul food for the hungry and out of sorts.
Yesterday, I had an early start at work and found myself in London at 4pm not having eaten all day. Obviously, I am not the kind of person that just forgets to eat, so I wasn’t feeling especially great about my situation. Luckily, while I had a plan to meet Thifty Gal in the evening to see Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre, she couldn’t meet me beforehand and I had a couple of hours free. Much as I love the very generous Thrifty Gal, my idea of a promising alley is her idea of hell, so eating solo was just what the doctor ordered. I made a beeline for C&R and, since it was technically breakfast, couldn’t resist a plate of nasi lemak. Their version comes with a substantial portion of curry chicken, as well as achar, or pickled vegetables. Their home-made sambal is only moderately spicy but nicely oniony, and those crunchy anchovies are little nuggets of salty heaven.
As it turned out, we both hated the play (seriously, there’s a good reason the book’s not told from the monster’s perspective) and wished we’d gone to a bar instead, but I can’t complain. I got to see a good friend, watch the charismatic Benedict Cumberbatch on stage, and set my over-stressed self to rights with a restorative nasi lemak.
C&R Cafe, 3-4 Rupert Court, London W1D 6DY
My friend K introduced me to the pleasures of rice porridge – not quite Chinese congee but a texture more like Italian polenta or Indian upma. I’m always on the lookout for non-traditional savoury breakfasts because I don’t like eggs so most of the savoury breakfast world is closed to me. I love Asian breakfasts, of course, because I don’t like the blandness of most western morning foods and I don’t have any qualms about breaking out the chilies first thing in the morning. That said, this dish is endlessly variable, and if you don’t want spicy food first thing, you can easily modify the dressing to be more sedate. I’ve used my leftover red curry paste but you could use nam prik pow, chili paste or just skip the chilies altogether.
The first trick is to find your rice polenta. If you live in the US, the best kind is Red Mill rice farina, which has a lovely nuttiness because it’s made with brown rice. In the UK, I’ve found brown rice polenta impossible to come by, but Indian stores sell the white rice variety, often labelled ground rice. You don’t want it to look like flour but more like polenta or cornmeal.
Asian mushroom rice porridge
- 1 cup rice polenta
- 6 shiitake mushrooms or 1 portabella
- 3 spring onions
- a handful of cilantro
- 1 tsp chili paste
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1/2 tbsp sweet soy sauce
- vegetable oil for frying
First make your dressing. Mix light and sweet soy, sesame oil, and rice vinegar and emulsify with a fork. You can add some sriracha to this for added heat.
Slice the shiitakes or, if using portabella mushroom, cut into small cubes. Heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan and, if using chili paste, fry it for a minute. Add the mushrooms and fry till browned all over. Meanwhile, slice the spring onions and pick cilantro leaves.
To cook the rice porridge, boil 3 cups of water and then add 1 cup of porridge. Lower the heat and stir. White rice porridge will cook in just a minute while brown rice will take about 5 minutes. Either way, stir constantly and taste for doneness. You want it to be soft but to retain a little grainy texture. It shouldn’t be totally mushy.
To serve, top porridge with mushrooms, spring onions, and cilantro and spoon over a few teaspoons of dressing.
Along with Seville oranges, late January brings the first young spears of forced rhubarb into the shops, in a vivid pink that brightens up the vegetable basket. We always had rhubarb growing in my back garden when I was a child. Truth be told, it was about the only thing that grew reliably and the giant leaves completely took over a whole section of the yard. These weren’t the delicate pale pink stems of Yorkshire forced rhubarb but monster stalks, assertively red and triffid-like. I always loved them, whether dipped in caster sugar and eaten raw or cooked in my grandmother’s buttery shortcrust pies and swimming in heavy cream. I found it sad when I lived in the States that American culture had not really embraced rhubarb, mixing it with strawberries and trying to tone down its sour-sweet pleasures. So one of the great pleasures of British life for me is its January appearance, heralding a long season of rhubarby breakfasts, desserts and even savoury uses.
This recipe for a fragrant rhubarb compote has lots of potential uses. You can use it to top french toast, as I do here, or pancakes, or it would be lovely with yoghurt, honey, and granola. It would work as a dessert with ice cream and ginger cake, or on a lemony cheesecake. It could even be served with cold roast pork, in which case I might add star anise to the cooking mix.
The french toast, meanwhile, is the specialty of Mr Lemur. What makes it Chilean? It’s all about the condensed milk. Chileans are obsessed with condensed milk and find ways to put it into everything. Cooked, it becomes manjar, which is a variant of dulce de leche, and is also a popular breakfast item. (I know it seems faintly horrifying, but try it on toast with bacon. Then come back and thank me…) Anyway, Mr Lemur came up with this neat method of sweetening french toast effectively and making it more custardy at the same time. It produces a rich, unctuous toast that is cut nicely by the sour-sweetness of the rhubarb. If you are feeling ambitious, you might even try making your own condensed milk – Almost Bourdain has a great recipe. Even with storebought condensed milk, though, this recipe is a decadent pleasure.
Chilean french toast with rhubarb compote
- bunch of 6-8 rhubarb stems
- tbsp honey, preferable orange blossom or similar
- 3 cardamom pods
- loaf of brioche or challah bread
- 3 large eggs
- 3 tbsp condensed milk
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 3/4 cup milk
- pinch salt
- butter for frying
First, make the compote. Wash and slice the rhubarb into 2cm slices. Heat the honey in a heavy-bottomed pot until melted. Add the rhubarb and cardmom, stir well, bring to a boil and then turn the heat down low. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the rhubarb has become very soft but still has some shape. Remove the cardamom seeds. You can do this part in advance and refrigerate until needed.
For the french toast, whisk eggs, condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and milk in a rectangular container (a small brownie tray or lasagna pan works well). Slice your loaf thickly. Heat a flat, non-stick skillet and melt a small knob of butter. When butter is sizzling, dip the slices one by one into the milk and egg mix, turning several times to soak thoroughly. Fry the bread until nicely browned, turning once.
Serve immediately and top with warm compote. I don’t think maple syrup is needed here, but hey, knock yourself out…