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Mr Lemur had a significant birthday this year, and we’ve been celebrating in our usual half-assed fashion. We’re neither of us very good with marking dates and occasions – for instance, half the time we both forget our wedding anniversary and when people ask us when it is, we literally have to work it out based on other, more important things in our lives. Birthdays are easier to remember but we still don’t do a lot of planning. So when the actual day came around, all we had actually set up was a dinner in London with Lemur pal K. Happily, the universe did a bit of birthday planning for us – a check in with the Crocodiles led us to meet them in a Soho bar and then they ran into another pair of glamorous London friends so the next thing we knew prosecco had been purchased and we had an impromptu birthday party. Hurrah! There was some value to thinking ahead, though, because we scored a table at Lima, Virgilio Martinez’s London outpost. Read the rest of this entry »

Image Rick Harris, CC Attribution Share-Alike 2.0

Remember I went to Boston and my internet didn’t work? The whole trip felt like a massive technology fail, from my iPhone camera with the scratched lens to the iPad that didn’t want to connect to the hotel wifi. Not to mention that on the way out I missed a plane for the first time in my life and found myself stranded overnight at Logan airport. There was something deeply weird about the whole experience: I used to live in Providence and so I spent quite a lot of time hanging out in Boston. I wouldn’t say I knew the city well, but I did know my way around and had some favourite places to eat. So to spend several days there and be repeatedly lost and disconnected was an odd feeling. I should know Boston but I guess I don’t any more. So there’s something appropriately vague about my eating impressions of the city. I was staying downtown, far from my old haunts in Cambridge or even at the cheaper end of Newbury Street, and so I generally went where people took me. Luckily, I have well-connected friends who hooked me up with some amazing food. Read the rest of this entry »

Sometimes, your cooking plans are derailed by ingredients not being available but in the last couple of weeks, mine have been inspired by unusual ingredients turning up in stores. I knew I wanted to make some kind of salsa when a bout of warm weather cut through our rainy Spring, but I hadn’t exactly imagined that it would centre around kumquats. But there they were in a basket at the Taj grocery – wintery fruits that I usually associate with Christmas but that offer an bittersweet citrus punch not dissimilar to Mexican naranja agria. As soon as I saw them I knew I had to include them in my Spring salsa, so I poked around for ingredients to balance their chewy acid pleasures, coming up with plump little radishes, long red chilies and soft avocado. This recipe barely qualifies for the name, but it makes a substantial salsa that could function as the major component of a plate, not just a condiment. We ate it with grilled chicken and tomato rice but it would make a simple supper with just a rice bowl, or a vegetarian meal with Mexican black beans and rice.

Spicy kumquat salsa

  • a large handful of kumquats
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 large spring onion or 3 regular sized ones
  • 6-8 radishes
  • a large handful of ripe cherry tomatoes
  • 5 long red chilies (or 2-3 serranos)
  • bunch of cilantro
  • 2 limes
  • some olive oil

You basically just have to wash and chop everything – avocado into chunks, spring onion, chilies and kumquats thinly sliced, tomatoes halved, radishes diced, leaves pulled off cilantro stems. Salt generously with nice flaky salt, then dress with lime and a little olive oil and mix well.

Et voilà – a not exactly authentic salsa but a nice way to transition from wintery citrus fruits to the promise of summery flavours.

Serves 2.

People are often a bit skeptical of quinoa and I understand why: anyone who has eaten leaden, tasteless 1970s-era vegetarian food has probably had a scarring experience with it. Even Thrifty Gal, who enjoys her veggie grub, looked at me sideways when I suggested cooking it for her. But here’s the thing – quinoa is easy to make, its nutty flavour is a great base for a spring meal, and it is unbelievably good for you. Check this out: this ancient Andean foodstuff is full of essential amino acids, it can help protect against heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer, and it can even reduce the frequency of migraines. As a sufferer of quite unpleasant headaches, this last point had me planning a quinoa-centric diet, but even if you want to emphasise flavour rather than health, quinoa is one of the tastiest of the so-called ancient grains. It’s actually not a grain at all but technically a grass, which is why I always cook it during Passover, but it functions like a grain in cooking. I think the trick is to combine it with lots of vegetables so that it provides a nutty counterpoint rather than a protein-heavy mouthful. This dish came from my obsession with those superfood salads you can buy in Chopped and other salad places. I absolutely love all of those supposedly super-good-for-you ingredients of beets, dark greens and seeds and as it turns out they mesh splendidly with quinoa. Read the rest of this entry »

I’m in New York now, and staying with Lemur friend L in her lovely Brooklyn apartment with cat and laptop, so I’m hoping to catch up on some blogging. However, I still only have my shonky camera phone and emailing the pics to myself is kind of laborious, so I’m afraid my next few posts will not be awfully pretty. On top of this, I have an insane backlog of meals to write about, plus am gorging on the New York restaurant scene in an unseemly fashion, so there’s going to be more to write about than spare moments in my days. Sorry, but there are DVF dresses to buy, movies to see, and friends to catch up with out there in the city – that said, I simply must take a moment to evoke my extreme happiness at being back in a city with a proper Latin American food culture. New York, I am so very glad to be back… Read the rest of this entry »

To go with the feijoada I posted about last, I wanted a light(ish) and more refined starter. Most of the food I cook is very far from refined, let’s face it, and the Afro-Brazilian dishes I enjoy the most tend to be hearty and robust. But I thought moqueca, the Bahian coconut-based fish and seafood stew, might be open to a bit of refinement.

I know there are many different variants of moqueca in Brazil but the kind I’m most familiar with is from Bahia in the North and mixes indigenous with African flavours. I had it when I was in Brazil – although I was in Rio de Janeiro, so I’m sure my Bahian friends will scoff at its authenticity – and it was a truly enormous pan heaped with all manner of seafood, swimming in a spicy lake of coconut broth and with orange dendê oil lapping around the edges. It was a bowl to be reckoned with and as I recall two hungry people could hardly make a dent in it.

But the essence of the dish is, like many a seafood soup, good stock and fresh fish. So I decided to make mini moquecas with a vibrant sauce replacing the traditional soupy stew, and the seafood cooked separately. If I wanted a full-on Bahian experience this might not be the way to go but as the opener to a Brazilian meal, it turned out pretty flavoursome and, crucially, not destructively heavy. We served the moqueca with homemade pão de queijo. Read the rest of this entry »

I love making feijoada, the Brazilian national dish. It looks like a decadent feast of many components, but it’s easy to achieve and you get to watch the magic of black beans slowly becoming silky and thickened. It’s also fairly healthy for such a heavy dish – the central beans, meat and rice are joined with sliced orange, toasted manioc meal, and kale for a colourful and fully rounded meal. It was the perfect relaxed meal to share with our friend K, who had been working very hard and arrived in the middle of an apocalyptic storm. We passed around the pão de queijo and pretended we were in Rio…

The origins of feijoada are somewhat murky. Mr Lemur, who was born in Brazil, always told me that it was a government invention, designed with the optimal nutrition of a poor population in mind. I haven’t been able to find any sources for this story, so I suspect it’s an oddly socialist urban myth. Many people believe it to have originated in the slave quarters of early colonial Brazil, but this one is a bit of a myth too. These days, it is accepted that the dish has a largely European origin, with the Portuguese bean and pork stews similar to French cassoulet adapted for the black beans of Brazil. There are some native elements, such as the use of black beans rather than white, and the farofa sprinked on top of the beans. And it’s certainly true that African bean and leafy green stews, and indigenous bean and manioc dishes are crucial to Brazilian cuisine in general. But while Brazilians would prefer to view their national dish as emerging from native and African roots, this particular ‘national dish’ seems more likely to have developed in the grand homes of the colonists. No matter who invented it, though, feijoada today does represent elements of each of Brazil’s major historical influences: African, indigenous, and European. Even if, like most traditions, this one turns out to be a nineteenth-century invention, it’s a pretty good one. Read the rest of this entry »

Eating arepas last week got me thinking about the cheap and delicious Latin food that used to sustain me when I lived in New York. I ate a lot of Cuban food, especially the ropa vieja from National Cafe, a great little neighbourhood place on First Avenue, now sadly closed. They also made plantains fried in pork fat, stuffed with ground beef and topped with crema. I could cry just thinking about them but it truly wasn’t a place for the diet-conscious. My other favourite haunt was Brisas del Caribe in SoHo – also now tragically gone – which in addition to mouth-watering Cuban sandwiches made amazing maduros, or fried ripe plantains. It was more or less impossible to finish both at one sitting, but there was no way not to order the sweet sweet plantains on the side.

While it’s probably a good thing that my lunches these days tend to involve less deep frying in lard, I do find myself craving Cuban flavours when it’s warm outside. Thus, I’ve been spending the last few days impatiently waiting for the plantains I bought in Brixton market to ripen. To make maduros, you need the plantains to be completely blackened, on the edge of fermenting really. If they were bananas, you’d be giving up on eating them and deciding to make some banana bread instead. But they’re not bananas and they are, at this point, perfect. 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

Since Mr Lemur was born in Brazil, he has a particular soft spot for Brazilian foods. It’s probably impossible to feed him black beans too often – we even have a local butcher from Brazil who offered to save us pig’s ears for feijoada – and my experiments in pão de queijo (little cheese breads) have been enthusiastically received. We even buy guaraná soda, which reminds him of his childhood in Rio and reminds me, weirdly, of Scottish Irn Bru, so everyone’s happy there. My favourite Brazilian dishes to cook, though, are the Afro-Brazilian flavours typical of Bahia: deep seafood stews like moqueca and vatapá, thickened with nuts and dried shrimp, and based on the rich foundation of palm oil or dendê. I love West African food (I was thrilled to find great Senegalese food in Paris recently) and so it makes sense that the Afro-Brazilian combination of West African nut-based stews with New World chilies, tomatoes and fruits would hit my food buttons. Xinxim de galinha is a classic Bahian dish, combining chicken and shrimp into an earthy stew that feels warm and reassuring even if you didn’t grow up with it.

The main things that you might not have to hand to make xinxim de galinha are dendê and dried shrimp. The shrimp are easily found in any Chinese or Asian store. Look for fairly big shrimp that are nice and pink in colour – brownish and dull shrimp are probably older and the small ones are cheaper and less flavourful. Dendê oil can also be found in many ethnic markets and maybe even the supermarket if you live in a diverse neighbourhood. It tends to separate in the jar but don’t worry, that’s normal. This bright orange oil makes all the difference to the colour and flavour of the dish.

Xinxim de galinha (Bahian chicken stew)

  • 4 chicken thighs
  • 1 onion
  • 4 spring onions
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 inches of ginger
  • 1/2 cup of cilantro (i.e. a very generous handful)
  • 1/4 cup of peanuts
  • 1/4 cup of cashews
  • 1/4 cup of dried shrimp
  • 1 small can of coconut milk (165ml size)
  • 3 small green chilies (serranos or similar)
  • hot sauce
  • 2-3 tbsp dendê oil

Roughly chop the garlic, ginger, spring onions and cilantro, place in a food processor with the lime juice, and process till fairly smooth. Pour this mixture over the chicken and marinade for an hour or till you are hungry.

Meanwhile, toast the nuts on a cast iron skillet till golden and process to fine meal. Next process the dried shrimp in the same way until fluffy.

Dice the onion and fry in a heavy-based pan in a generous amount of dendê. Scrape the marinade off the chicken and pat it dry, then brown chicken pieces in the same pan. When the chicken is browning nicely, add the marinade, nuts, shrimp paste and coconut milk and stir well. Add a little water to loosen. Cut the chilies in half and add them, along with hot sauce to taste. (The dish isn’t really spicy but you want to give a little green chili flavour.)

Cover and cook for 30 minutes, turning and stirring often. The sauce will stick easily so you need to keep quite a close eye on it.

Serves 4.

Recipe adapted from The South American Table by Maria Baez Kijac.

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