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I’ve spent most of this past week with old friends K & L. I met them in Providence, RI more years ago than any of us care to remember, but since then we’ve been barely missing each other in our various moves around and across the Atlantic. We lived just a few blocks apart in New York – except I moved there after they left – and both spent time in the Midwest – but only overlapped for a year. Although I speak to K on the phone more or less daily, we only get to cook together every couple of years, which is beyond wrong. K is one of the best cooks I know, with Italian cooking skills from his family that I’m massively jealous of (seriously, the man makes the best gnocchi ever) and an amazing feel for ingredients. The first time we cooked together was a wonderfully disastrous attempt to make the volcano chocolate cakes that were fashionable in the 1990s. Something went horribly wrong and we ended up with what was basically a vat of liquid chocolate ganache. But, you know, delicious liquid chocolate ganache that we totally ate anyway. Most everything I’ve cooked or eaten with him since then has been perfect, so I’ve been looking forward to the culinary possibilities of his visit.

Friday was L’s birthday so we wanted something suitably festive for dinner. K suggested doing a version of Paul Bertolli’s strawberry sorbet recipe that we’d made once before in Michigan. The recipe is brilliantly easy: no ice-cream maker required and no ingredients beyond fruit and a bit of sugar and water. I’m not a great maker of desserts so simplicity always appeals. Plus, it’s the middle of English strawberry season and I’ve been thinking about the combination of strawberries and black pepper since I read Miss Cay’s jam recipe and brought back the most amazing Madagascan black pepper from Paris. It was all coming together…

We futzed around with Bertolli’s recipe a bit: since neither of us likes our sorbet terribly sweet, we cut down the sugar and added in a bunch of black pepper instead. We also cut down on the water, since it already seemed liquidy enought. The basic technique is so simple that you could probably play with it a fair amount. Since we were celebrating L’s birthday in England, and during Wimbledon to boot, we thought it only correct to serve the sorbet with Jersey cream and shortbread biscuits. (Er, this might undermine the ‘not too sweet’ part but hey, it was a special occasion.)

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My inability to resist pork products is pretty well documented at this stage, so when Mr Lemur makes a run to the local shops to pick up some things for dinner, Ready Steady Cook-style, he knows he can’t go wrong with a chunk of pig. This time he returned bearing organic pork shoulder from the Nice Butcher and peas, asparagus and tomatoes from the Overpriced Greengrocer. Keeping things simple, I decided on a Mexican spice-rub for the pork and red rice with vegetables as an accompaniment. They can all go into the same oven and don’t need too much attention. Lovely!

The spice-rub idea came to mind because my good friend K is coming to stay, and last time he visited he brought a wonderful recipe for Mexican pork. That one was a bit more complicated and involved cooking the pork covered, at the very bottom of the oven, for several hours. It was sublime but more of a weekend project. This dish is a bit more practical, so long as you shove the pork in the oven as soon as you get home and don’t mind eating at mildly continental hours. I’m generally happy to eat at 9pm, but if you skip lunch as we tend to you can get more than a bit peckish. On this occasion I had both Mr Lemur and the cat basically wailing at me by the end, but the pork was worth it. Although there’s no sauce with this dish, it isn’t dry because the shoulder should be really moist, the spice flavours imbue the meat, and tomato rice is basically cooked with its own salsa.

Ancho roast pork shoulder

  • 1 pork shoulder
  • 2 tsp ancho powder
  • 1 heaping tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 heaping tsp Mexican cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin seeds
  • a pinch of cloves
  • 1 tsp salt (plus extra for skin)

Heat oven to 350 F / 180 C / gas mark 4. Mix the spices in a small bowl and then rub thoroughly all over the pork. You want to work the spice rub into all its crevices, leaving the skin free of course. Make sure the skin is scored (your butcher will probably have done this), rub it dry and rub in a bit more salt. Place pork in a small oven dish and stick it in the oven.

Cook for three hours, turning occasionally but keeping the skin facing up. When it’s done, let rest for ten minutes then slice and serve with rice and vegetables.

Serves 4-6

Having recovered from the sticker shock of just about everything in Stockholm, I decided to try to forget the all-too-simple exchange rate and not worry about what I was spending. It’s hard not to notice that your 200 SEK lunch just set you back £20 for a salad and a soda but I made a valiant effort to stick it all on a credit card and think about it later. One restaurant that came up in my research as good value was 12 Kungstensgatan, a chic little place that specialises in small plates to share. Now, I am not a huge fan of the small plate phenomenon. It started in New York when I lived there and seemed to be mostly a way for restaurants to charge not much less than main course prices for not much more than appetiser portions. As someone who regularly gets nervous that tapas will leave me broke and hungry, the prospect of artfully arranged modernist plates at £13 a pop is alarming, to say the least. So, a small plate place in Stockholm as “good value” seemed a strange idea but one I was willing to test out. Read the rest of this entry »

A research trip to Stockholm is providing my latest opportunity for international culinary adventure. I might be slightly held back by the cost though – I spent £25 (about $50) on a three-day metro card and about the same for a sandwich and a coffee in the airport. Eek! I think I’m going to have to forget I know the exchange rate and just put things on my credit card and worry about it later. One thing I did notice in my brief bout of Internet research on the Stockholm restaurant scene is that the fancier the restaurant, the less exorbitant the prices seem. A cheap lunch is several times more than it would be in the UK but a high end meal is just 10% or so more. So clearly, the fancy places are a better deal and I should go there, right?

On our first night we went to Södra Theatre restaurant, which has a beautiful outdoor terrace overlooking the city. Even better, they give you free blankets when the temperature drops, so you can wrap up and enjoy your after dinner drinks in coziness. It’s like a slanket service – genius!

Our starter was amazing: a crayfish and pickled apple roll with Avruga caviar and cheese bread. The pickled apple was sliced thinly and formed the outside of the rolls; the inside was stuffed with fresh crayfish. Little sweet caviar piles were joined by some kind of honey sauce. The whole thing was spectacularly good and completely fulfilled my hopes for new Nordic cuisine.

The main courses were a little disappointing after such a beautiful beginning, and all of us reported a heavy hand with the salt. But they weren’t bad – just not revelatory. I had ox cheek braised in red wine with cheese-flavoured mashed potatoes, fried onions and pickled gherkins. The cheek was rich and meaty, though the potatoes tasted more of salt than cheese.

Consensus of opinion seemed to be that the best dish was lamb with chorizo, beans and lentils, which may have been because of its delicious roast garlic gravy.

We’d already watched desserts go by with some interest (especially the smaller members of our group) so despite being pretty full we went for apple and cardamom pie. The “pie” was deconstructed with apple slices rolled up and placed atop a crumbled base, with sides of custard, apple sorbet and addictive sour apple candy strips. As is often the case with high end restaurants, the smaller, more delicate dishes surpassed the meaty mains for inventiveness, originality and flavour.

I only have a couple of days here in Stockholm, but hopefully I can fit in another culinary foray. I’ll keep you posted.

It’s been a busy week at work with sadly little time for cooking. I did manage a trip to London to see David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing, which somewhat made up for missing his Hamlet. (I had a ticket, procured after much pathetic begging from my Hollywood contacts, and then he went and hurt his back. Bah!) This time all went well, the play was hilarious and David was gorgeous in a white naval uniform. Check out my fellow theatre-goer Thrifty Gal’s post for photographic evidence. And, since no trip to London is complete without Asian food, I even managed a quick trip to C&R Café for a Singapore laksa and a Malaysian tea before the show.

But a girl can’t live on hot men in uniform alone (sadly) and come the end of the week I was ready for a different type of sensual pleasure. My friends JD and M gave me a lovely Moghul cookbook for my last birthday, and I’ve been meaning to test out some of its more complex dishes. It’s not a style of cooking I know a lot about: Moghul cuisine is associated with royalty, richness and opulence, and I’m more drawn to peasant food that draws deep flavour out of not a lot. That said, I need to learn a lot more about regional Indian cuisines and I am very interested in the connections between Moghul India and Persian foodways. So, in at the deep end, I decided to try out Shahi Rojan Josh, or royal red meat, a luxurious dish that uses 14 different spices just in its masala. It begins by soaking quite a lot of saffron in warm milk and this decadent opening gambit really sets the tone for the dish. Despite the complex masala, the saffron taste comes through as a sultry back note almost like a shaving of truffle in pasta. It wasn’t terribly red despite the name, and I wonder if it needed more dried chilies. Next time I will play around with the proportions, although I wouldn’t want to overwhelm the sweet perfume of saffron or throw off the delicate masala. The refinement of Moghul cuisine is certainly a challenge to the novice, but for now I am more than happy to appreciate some of its beauties. Read the rest of this entry »

My favourite Thai restaurant in London – though of course I’m willing to undertake further research on this question – is Esarn Kheaw in Shepherd’s Bush. It’s a bit of a schlep for me if I’m not going to see a show at the Empire but if I’m anywhere vaguely nearby I’ll make a detour for their num prik pla sod, or fermented fish dip. This week I found myself in Baron’s Court (at the talented Thrifty Gal‘s new play) and despite her very reasonable warning that I’d end up going home on the drunk train if I started messing about on the tube after a play, I couldn’t resist the siren song of fermented fish.

Esarn Kheaw specialises in Northeastern Thai food from Issan (hence the name), and although the menu also offers a full complement of standard British Thai menu classics, it’s the northern dishes that really sing. The first thing I ever ate there was their homemade Issan sausage, a dish that really doesn’t mess around. Homemade sausages are always a treat, and these come with giant slabs of ginger, peanuts, and whole red chilies. The flavours are amazing. However, for me it’s the fermented fish dip that’s the real star. Num prik pla sod is the quintessential ‘white people don’t order that’ dish, and as expected, the waiter asked us very politely if we knew what we were ordering. Yes, we assured him, we’ve had it before. He looked a bit skeptical and said that it’s too hot for him and he’s Thai. In fact, it’s not all that hot. I mean, yes, it is quite spicy and probably a bad idea if you don’t like hot food, but if you do, it’s more of a slow burn. It’s also delicious, a with the roasty flavour of grilled vegetables, the deep tang of fermented fish and a heat that burns just ever so slightly in the mouth. It comes with raw cucumber, carrot and longbean for dipping.

We also had the pork larb with pork skin, which was fresh and toothsome. The textural mix of crunchy peanuts and shallots, soft pork and chewy skin was very pleasing, although Mr Lemur had rather been hoping for pork crackling of the kind we had at Nahm. This was more like the strips of ear you sometimed get in carnitas.

We decided to offset these spicy dishes with something sweeter and saucier, and ordered beef noodles with oyster sauce. It was ok, but a bit on the gloopy side. Step away from the Issan dishes and I think Esarn Kheaw moves back toward standard Anglicised Thai fare. Issan food is actually known for being less spicy than Southern Thai cuisine, but the difference here is not so much chilli levels as boldness of flavour.  I can’t blame them: many of their customers probably don’t order these regional dishes and it makes sense to cover all your bases. If you’re there for the spectacular Issan flavours, though, it pays to order carefully.

Esarn Khaew, 314 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, London W12 7LJ

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