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While in Singapore, we stayed in Chinatown, one of the few city neighbourhoods to retain many older buildings. Even here, you are surrounded by hulks of sci-fi style high rises. Some of the shophouses of Chinatown are run down but, this being Singapore, many have been renovated and now house chic bars and restaurants. Most are very nicely done, but there is a bit of a Disneyfied atmosphere in the more touristy sections. Still, what's fascinating about the city is the rubbing up together of the gentrified night clubs and the old men shooting the breeze outside the temple. Maxwell Road hawker centre is perhaps the best example of this promiscuity: on the one hand, it is definitely a tourist destination, with quite a few Europeans wandering around; on the other, it is a locus of genuinely excellent food, with long queues of locals patiently forming at the best stalls.
 
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While in Singapore, we stayed in Chinatown, one of the few city neighbourhoods to retain many older buildings. Even here, you are surrounded by hulks of sci-fi style high rises. Some of the shophouses of Chinatown are run down but, this being Singapore, many have been renovated and now house chic bars and restaurants. Most are very nicely done, but there is a bit of a Disneyfied atmosphere in the more touristy sections. Still, what's fascinating about the city is the rubbing up together of the gentrified night clubs and the old men shooting the breeze outside the temple. Maxwell Road hawker centre is perhaps the best example of this promiscuity: on the one hand, it is definitely a tourist destination, with quite a few Europeans wandering around; on the other, it is a locus of genuinely excellent food, with long queues of locals patiently forming at the best stalls.
 

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.

Rhubarb 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.

I should offer a prize for guessing correctly what exactly is in this picture. When we first arrived in Chau Doc, in the northern Mekong, we were perplexed and utterly transfixed by these obscenely glistening mountains that were to be found in stalls all over the night market. Context and smell told us there was a fish component but what else was going on? We remained in the dark until the next morning, when all became clear at the morning market. Before I get there, though, a little about Chau Doc. It’s one of the bigger cities on the Mekong and the last major stopping point before the Cambodian border. As a result, it has the slightly rakish demeanour of the border town (although it’s a ways to the actual border) as well as a substantial Khmer influence in its food and culture. Although there is a tourist market on the waterfront, I didn’t see any actual tourists there, and most of the town had a real provincial feel – urban but not especially concerned to be cosmopolitan. We felt nicely far from home. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

My very wonderful friends K & L bought me a present last time they visited: David Thompson’s Thai Street Food. Now, I know everyone’s been heaping praise on the book for a while now, so I’m a bit late to the party. Some of my favourite food bloggers like Andrea Nguyen love it, and it’s been reviewed everywhere from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. It’s as much a cultural moment as a book, finally bringing Thai street food into the cultural mainstream, courtesy of the chef many people see as Thai cuisine’s answer to Julia Child.

It’s certainly a handsome book: far too big to fit on even my tallest bookshelf and with enough glossy full-page colour photos to make the recipes sometimes hard to find. A cynical soul might imagine it to be a coffee-table cookbook for the kind of foodie that doesn’t actually cook. Certainly, one could spent happy hours leafing through its beautiful pictures of Thai street food culture (my favourite might be the man hugging a rather large dog, who seems to be looking at the camera thinking ‘yeah, he loves me, what of it?’). But you’d be missing the point if you didn’t realise that these are some seriously good recipes.

Now I know a more normal person might have started with a substantial curry dish, or perhaps checked out how Thompson riffs on a well-known dish like pad thai. But for some reason what caught my eye was a dish of kanom jin with dried shrimp and pineapple. Kanom jin are rice noodles usually served in the morning, but this mix of savoury and sweet was hitting all of my Thai buttons and I had to have it for dinner. Pineapple and noodles for dinner? I know, it sounds totally perverse but Thompson’s recipes don’t steer you wrong, and this dish was vibrant and ridiculously moreish. The ginger, garlic and shrimp cut the sweetness and provide an amazing savoury setting for the pineapple flavour to shine.

This version is based on Thompson’s recipe but I didn’t have all the ingredients to hand, so I’ve switched a couple of things around. For instance, I replaced green mango with carrot – Thompson also suggests apple or cucumber.

Kanom jin sao nahm

  • 1/2 cup white sugar (I know, this seems alarming but have faith)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 bird’s eye chilies, pounded
  • squeeze of lime juice
  • 1/2 cup coconut cream
  • pinch salt
  • 250 g kanom jin noodles
  • 1 cup chopped fresh pineapple
  • 1/2 cup shredded ginger
  • 1/2 cup shredded carrot
  •  1 tbsp thinly sliced garlic
  • 1/4 cup ground dried prawns
  • some more small chilies to taste
  • dash of fish sauce

Begin with the dressing: simmer the sugar with 1/2 cup of water, salt, fish sauce and chilies until slightly reduced. Take off the heat and add lime juice – I put in half a lime. The sauce is sweet (no shit, 1/2 cup of sugar) but also salty and nicely tart. It’s also already crazily delicious. I wanted to drink it.

Thompson instructs that you simmer the coconut cream but I didn’t bother as it was already pretty thick. I just stirred in a pinch of salt and put it aside for later. Grind the dried shrimp in a mini-prep until fluffy. Thinly slice the garlic, chilies, ginger and carrot. Chop the pineapple into small chunks. Boil the noodles until ready and cool to room temperature. Now you’re ready to serve.

Start with a pile of noodles in a bowl. Thompson recommends wrapping them like yarn around the fingers into skeins, which does produce a pretty effect. Add a handful of pineapple, ginger and carrots to each bowl. Add garlic and sliced chilies. Spoon on some dressing. Sprinkle generously with dried shrimp. Drizzle fish sauce over the top and lastly, spoon on some coconut cream.

I can’t tell you how delicious this dish was. Thanks again, K&L, your present rocks!

Serves 2. Mildly adapted from David Thompson’s Thai Street Food.

 

If there’s one altar of French cuisine that I am fully willing to worship at, it’s boulangerie and patisserie. Let’s face it, the French are unsurpassed in the pastry arts and a trip to Paris without substantial stuffing of pastries into one’s gaping maw is a trip wasted. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a wonderfully heavy apricot and custard pastry, a chocolate-studded brioche, and a very correct baguette. But you haven’t really had pastry till you’ve been to Poilâne and I try to work in a pilgrimage to the original bakery in St. Germain each time I’m here.

They have the most beautiful little breads, including these cuties with names on them.

They’re also famous for their punitions (the oddly-named punishment biscuits) and flavoured pastry forks and spoons, plus breads made from a wide range of grains including rice and quinoa as well as wheat. Their sourdough is legendary, and the nut loaves are rather good too.

However, there’s one thing I always go back for and that’s the simple apple tartlets. If there’s a better single bite in Paris than Poilâne’s apple tart, I’d be surprised. It’s the Platonic ideal of light, buttery pastry and soft, sweet apple. I could eat them every day and it’s really just as well I’m not in a position to.

Poilâne bakery, 8 rue du Rue Cherche-midi, 6e, Paris

Yup, I’m on a work trip to New Orleans, and aiming to devote a decent part of my down time to the culinary and architectural pleasures of the city. I’ve never been here before, although I’ve always wanted to visit, and I’m lucky enough to be here with several friends who either come from New Orleans or know the place well. I arrived last night, which is to say on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras. Not the best timing, and the city is still covered in beads and cleanup crews. But truth be told, I’m a bit scared of heaving crowds and girls gone wild madness, so maybe it’s better I arrive into a slightly calmer city…

I was exhausted after a long and rather turbulent flight, but happily my friends picked me up from the airport and whisked me to Herbsaint, a bistro on Charles Street that focuses on upscale versions of New Orleans and Southern classics. The vibe is relaxed and the mixology is impressive. Our table of cocktail afficionados oohed and aahed over the sazerac and the ginger mint julep, though I was not quite up to joining in. I ordered a bunch of small plates because so many dishes looked good and I was still feeling dopey and indecisive from the journey. (Who am I kidding, I do this all the time…) I started with the gumbo, which was a dark and complex thing of beauty. My New Orleanian friend asked if I’d ever had gumbo before. I realised that while I had many times eaten something that was labelled gumbo on a menu, I had in fact never eaten gumbo before. The depth of a thick, dark roux is something I’ve heard cooks discuss before, but I never really appreciated it until now. It is astonishingly flavourful. This gumbo was chicken and andouille sausage, but I don’t think it really mattered what meats were added. It was all about the roux.

I went on to have shrimp and grits, a dish that’s common across the south, but was especially good at Herbsaint. The shrimp are of course all locally caught and the flavour of ultrafresh seafood is central to what is otherwise a very rich plate of food. The grits are decadently soft and creamy: probably about 80% butter holding the grits together. This was listed as a small plate on the menu but I actually couldn’t finish it because it was so incredibly rich. It was also really delicious.

I also had a special of spicy frogs’ legs served with pickled fennel and carrot, and some kind of peppery sautéed green. The frog legs themselves were delectable – big and meaty but with a delicacy of flavour and texture that suggested they were very fresh indeed. The home pickled vegetables provided a much needed bite of astringency, especially the fennel. I couldn’t quite figure out the greens: the menu called them bok choy, but they were much thinner than any bok choy I’ve ever had. They looked and tasted more like young mustard greens. Whatever they were, they had picked up a smoky quality from their cooking that felt like a more charcoaly version of Chinese wok hei. It was really really good. (They don’t really show up in the picture, as they’re hidden under the frogs’ legs.)

For dessert we ordered a banana brown butter pie with salty caramel sauce that has been on the menu for ten years. It was so popular at our table that it was more or less gone before I had the opportunity to photograph it. I suppose the lack of photographic evidence is the ultimate sign of deliciousness.

This morning I was up bright and early for beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde. (Tip: come at 7:30am to avoid the Disney-style queues of tourists.) I can’t describe how good the beignets are. Seriously. I’m coming back every morning and I don’t care if I do gain ten pounds in four days.

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

 

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