Saturday, 27 February 2010

Fish pie

I have a strange history when it comes to fish. Some of the first solid food I had as a littl'un was fish. I used to adore shellfish - I remember greedily gobbling mussels, clams and prawns from my parents' Cataplana on holiday in the Algarve. But at some point, I can't remember why, I stopped liking fish and seafood altogether. For most of my life, I couldn't stomach the thought of the seas' fine produce, save for prawn mayonnaise, batter calamari and tinned tuna. I tried at various points start eating fish again, but it was only when I was in Montreal in 2007 that I plucked up the courage to order a moules frites.

On subsequent trips to Croatia and Portugal, I tried more and more fish and seafood. In Portugal the seafood was particularly good. We stayed in Sesimbra, a fishing village down the coast from Lisbon, where I ate razor clams, crabs, squid, sardines, swordfish.

And yesterday, after much craving, I made my first fish pie. I cycled over to Steve Hatt on Essex Road, which must be one of the best fishmongers in London. The fish is top notch, so fresh that you can't smell a thing, and Steve Hatt's young lads are incredibly jovial and helpful as they prepare your fish. When the guy serving me sussed I was making a fish pie, his eyes lit up and mentioned his envy to his colleague. Such is the love of fish at Steve Hatt's! They also had a great selection of fish and seafood, including the lesser spotted razor clam. I shall have to go back for some another time.

I decided on a Mark Hix recipe for fish pie, as it looked the most sensible and traditional of all the recipes that Google threw up. Start with the basics and then you can innovate! It was quite a process-y meal - lots of different pots and pans, sieves and collanders, but all of it made sense and contributed to a lovely, comforting pie in the end:

I served it with some dressed leaves and some steamed spinach with butter. The mashed potato and the fish elements probably blended together a little too much. This might because I didn't let the fish mix set for long enough. It was absolutely delicious though - just as homely, fresh and luxurious as you'd hope. The way that the recipe suggests cooking the fish (poaching for 2 minutes, then later cooking in the pie) had the fish just right. I used cod, salmon and smoked haddock (smoked by Steve Hatt himself!) and it was the perfect combination. Might have also been nice to have prawns in, but the tweaking and adjusting I can do next time.

The whole experience of making fish pie has definitely upped my confidence in cooking with fish and I am now ready, eager and willing to try out some more dishes. Smoked haddock chowder next? Mmmmm....

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Tufnell Park tapas

Last night I finally made it to Cafe del Parc, after years of cycling and bussing past it regularly. It's located halfway up Junction Road, which is a rather dreary main road that links Tufnell Park and Archway, although there are a few hidden gems there, like the Hideaway and some nice antique shops. I'd always been intrigued by its stylish frontage but never stopped to take much of a closer look.

Inside it is utterly charming - the kitchen is in the middle of the restaurant and totally open, complete with luscious herb plants, bottles of olive oil and hanging chorizo. The tables are arranged around the kitchen; the menus printed on brown paper and attached to clipboards to accommodate for the seasonally evolving menu. The music was fairly loud Indian instrumental stuff, which actually worked quite well. Café del Parc is said to be inspired by old Ibiza and you can well imagine that hippy vibe there.

The menu was absolutely WOW. There were probably about 40 tapas dishes on it, all of which would have been delicious. Luckily there we were a party of four and could justify a reasonable order, even with one seafood eating vegetarian! The wine list was also incredibly well chosen and reasonably priced - we plumped for a rosé that was deep fuschia in colour and beautiful to taste.

We started with some home made bread with olive oil and some olives with garlic and preserved lemon. All of which were amazing. Our first round of tapas was potted shrimps in saffron butter - tasted of the sea, a carrot and lentil stew which was rich with cumin and served with aniseedy dill, and filo pastry stuffed with spinach, feta and pomegranates - this was one of the highlights of the evening - sweet, sour and salty all in one, we could well have ordered seconds.

Next came Moorish lamb skewers with butter bean mash. The lamb was smoky and tender and still juicy and pink inside. The butter bean mash alone would be worth ordering the dish for - rich with roast garlic and herbs, my friend has already tried to re-create it at home!

Calamari rings arrived next - and were a world away from your typical ruibbery bland calamari experience. Again, they tasted of the sea, the breadcrumbs tasted positively healthy and they came with a delicious garlic mayonnaise.

The next dish was a meaty highlight - pan-fried chicken, chorizo and Serrano ham in a creamy, paprika-y sauce. I could have eaten every last drop. We also had deep fried goats cheese balls in orange blossom honey - goats cheese is one of the few things I don't enjoy, but here it was so smooth and soft that it was actually a pleasure to eat.

Next up was razor clams and salad in a sweet wasabi dressing. There could have been a more generous serving of razor clams, but they were still sweet, meaty and delicious. The wasabi dressing gave it a nice kick too.

The last dish to come was the ol' classic, Patatas Bravas, which you just can't go wrong with really:

After such a delicious meal it was hard to resist having a dessert. We opted for the home made ice cream selection, which included a scoop of malaga raisin and cinnamon, a scoop of pomegranate and a scoop of orange ice cream. Wow. We also shared a chocolate mouse, which was rich and eggy, topped with some vanilla ice cream.

Every dish was absolutely excellent, but there were so many more we could have chosen. 12 dishes between four was just the right amount though. I will certainly be going back with anyone who is interested to make more progress on the menu. The tapas were definitely reasonably priced rather than cheap, but the ingredients were clearly of excellent quality and when the bill worked out as £23 per head including wine, it certainly felt like one of the best value meals I've had in a long time. So, whether you live in the area or not, it's definitely worth making a trip to Cafe del Parc if you are in search of quality, imaginative tapas in a lovely setting with great service!

Friday, 19 February 2010

Legend of Leong

After a late Sunday afternoon film at the Prince Charles with friends, we wanted to have some tasty food in China Town. So many places, many tourist traps, but we plumped for Leong's Legends on Lisle Street after reading many favourably mixed reviews. The décor was all timber and low lights and there was a bit of a speakeasy vibe, which was quite cool really. The restaurant was busy for a Sunday night and it passed the age-old quality benchmark of 'native' diners.

We kicked off with some some turnip dumplings, which were all shrivelled and flaky on the outside and gooey and flavoursome inside.

We also had some steamed vegetarian dumplings, which weren't too exciting really:

For the main course, Ben had the 'three cup' squid - three cups refers to the equal quantities of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. With a hint of anise, this was a rich, treacly, more-ish sauce that I kept dipping my spoon into.

I had Kung Po chicken, which was sweet and fiery. It was served with heaps of whole chillies - I tried one and it blew my head off.

I'll admit that the service was a bit shambolic, dishes coming out at lots of different times, chicken instead of squid in the first instance, other dishes forgotten. But they got it right in the end, and were not rude about it at any point as some reviews have suggested. I'm no expert on Taiwanese cuisine, but it tasted great, ingredients seemed to be fresh and it was definitely a cut above the average China Town fare.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Bruxelles sans moules

Pete and I went to Brussels last weekend and we didn't have moules frites, we didn't have waffles, and we didn't eat copious amounts of belgian chocolate. Fail? No way!

We did have...

A delicious salmon and broccoli quiche and yummy healthy salad:

A spinach burger (!!) from lovely organic vegetarian cafe Greenway, wherethe friends we were staying with used to go every week when they studied in Gent:

Boudin blanc while perusing the Jeu de Balle fleamarket:

Falke's delicious home-made lasagne:

And a sneaky cone of frite et mayo after some serious sampling of beers at Plasir Flagey:

And lots and lots of amazing beer.

So we learnt there's more to Belgium than the old culinary clichés. But the absence of moules prompted me cook some this week!