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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

My £4 Funnest Lunch Date Ever

I've been biding my time for this – a truly inspirational 99th post.
Because then, the 100th can be suitably anticlimactic.
Cause life's really all a bit anticlimactic, isn't it?

Anyway, more on that profound little sound byte next time.

Oh and by the way – yes, I'll happily take some Congratulations love notes too, if you are kind enough to send them my way...Congratulations love notes always make my day.

And well, yes, speaking of love notes, I've just had myself the funnest lunch date ever!

Not involving my husband! 
But involving some other uber-cool guys. Yes, yes, in plural. (When I get adventurous, I really get adventurous)
And involving lobster.
And all for £4!

And well, when you put it all together, isn't it just totally dandy?

So, the lunch date is with Sid’s school friend and my foodie partner in crime – the living legend better known as The Closet Gourmand.

I also take along my almost-2-yr-old cutie-cute. Who is really the most willing accomplice to all my escapades I could have ever found. I mean, really! He’s always happy to go anywhere I take him and the more time I spend with him, the more it dawns on me, that of all the things Sid and I have done together, this almost-2-yr-old trooper is by far and away the best.

Anyway, so it’s TCG, Ranbir and myself, all out on a lunch date. Which is rather amusing really because to the untrained eye, we appear quite the model family – mama, papa, child – save of course for the fact that my son looks nothing like TCG. Which is just as well, because there’s no reason he should. As far as I can remember, that is.


Anyhow, we go to TCG’s pick (largely because TCG’s picks have never ever disappointed to date) –  a place that boasts an impressively concise 3-item menu: Burger or Lobster or Lobster roll. And is aptly (and very creatively, I might add) named, Burger and Lobster.


And this is precisely why I love this place. Love it enough to make it my 99th post.
Cause I simply hate menus.
Menus are the bane of my existence.
The notorious albatross around my neck.
A pain. A chore. A nuisance.
Menus mean I must decide the one thing that I can eat from the countless things that I could eat.
Just take a second and think about this please: do you realize how difficult this is for a person like me?
I’ll tell you – it’s a virtual impossibility.

Decisions, decisions. I hate decisions.
And what makes it worse is that there’s no winning of course. Because no matter what it is that I order, when I eventually get around to ordering, my neighbour’s food always looks better. I mean, always. This is not a possibility; this is a given. It’s my version of Sod’s Law. And it’s perpetual.

Now, if it’s Sid I’m with, this problem is usually easily solved. I simply pretend to kiss him and when his eyes droop in that dreamy half-closed fashion, I swap our plates (Sid’s Law?) But when it’s not one’s own husband in question, this strategy becomes a bit tricky. Even for a person like me who’ll go to pretty much any extreme for a good meal, I think kissing other people’s husbands is where I should draw the line.


And so, in a place where there’s only three things on offer and you can theoretically order them all, without coming off as totally deranged (or very rich), it makes the whole proposition most satisfactory.

So, without further ado, here’s the entire spectrum of what you can have at Burger & Lobster:

A. The Burger – a whole ten ounces of pure, freshly ground beef, served with cheddar and/or bacon, stuffed rather ingeniously inside a sesame bun, and served with chips and salad.

B. Lobster Roll – Generous chunks of lobster meat coated with Japanese-style mayonnaise, within a soft and sinfully buttery brioche, served with chips and salad.

C. Whole Lobster – big, fat 1.5lb Canadians at that – either steamed, or steamed then finished off on the robata-style charcoal grill, served with – yup, you got it – chips and salad.

All three come rather ritualistically on large silver platters covered with waxed paper.

It’s a super savvy concept. No storage, no inventory, no waste. 3 items, no menu, a stylish twist on surf-and-turf,  and that’s Burger & Lobster for you. Never been let down by a TCG pick, I tell you.

So, what do I order, you ask.

I am tempted to get the Lobster Roll. You see, I’m in a rather bizarre phase these days, where you just have to say the word “Japanese” and you’ve got me at hello. But, I decide to be a purist and get the whole creature, steamed and grilled.

Decision done, I have a chance to look around my very hip surroundings.  There’s an attractive looking bar, leaning elegantly against a red brick wall, all glass and mirror, chocolate leather barstools where one could choose to sit and eat if one wanted to. Or else there’s cosy red leather banquettes along the back walls, where we sit – Ranbir in the corner, me next to him and TCG opposite us. The ceiling is rustic unfinished wood, broken in areas by strategically placed skylights which give the space the casual, non-stuffy air that always comes with natural light.

The punters are varied – lots of prams, I’m surprised to see interspersed with a mix of urban, chic looking couples and a fair number of suited and booted hedgies taking, presumably, their lunch break. Ironically, that doesn’t put me off as I would have thought it would – in fact there’s something rather amusing about seeing hedgies in pin stripes with a plastic bib around their neck, digging their manicured nails into lobster claws….

There’s a chalkboard near the doorway, explaining the menu: 'Burger or lobster or lobster roll, all with chips & salad £20'. If you miss it, the wait staff - pleasant, smiley and refreshingly enthusiastic - seem more than happy to explain it all to you.

There's an extensive drinks menu, which more than makes up for the food menu (or lack thereof). But given the fact that I am here with a very excited almost-2-year-old and a lovely man who is not my husband, add a cocktail to the mix, and methinks it would have all been a bit too much to handle.

But if you go, have a drink – do. The contents of the tall, ice-laden glasses on my neighbours' tables look very yummy indeed.  And so do, I must admit, their burgers. So much so that they make me think – in a moment of unbridled gluttony – that maybe, just perchance, I should have ordered both (all three??)

I force myself to stop staring at other people’s food (something I find myself grappling with at alarming frequency of late) and make easy conversation with my lunch date. We talk about this and that, but mostly food. Which is really just how it should be. I’m thinking – here’s a man who’d make a woman very happy indeed. Because he’s smart and he’s funny and he’s loyal and a bit eccentric. And as you know from here, he can cook. I mean, you gotto give it to my husband, he sure knows how to pick friends.

Anyway, anyway, here’s my lobster. And I mean – wow?
On tasting the first bite, I do a little dance on my red lather banquette, provoking an amused giggle from my son and a rather concerned – “are you alright?” from my date…
No!! I’m not alright. I’m about-exploding-from-sensory-overload-not-alright!

See, here’s the thing: I’ve become a bit spoilt since starting this amateur foodie career of mine. I can’t help it, but everything gets boring very soon. And I find myself looking for flavour hits all the time – the harder, the better.  I hate to admit it, but I’m becoming a bit hard to please.

And this freaking bowls me over.


There’s nothing more to be said.

In front of me lies one of the best sights in the entire world, a whole crustacean, steamed and grilled, in it's carmine shell, served alongside a boat of garlic butter, some excellent chips (that please my almost-2-year-old very much indeed) and a lovely side salad, that serves as much needed redemption for emptying the butter boat.

Simply beautiful.

So much so that I can’t speak.

Except to clarify one little detail. Which is if you're wondering why my title alludes to a £4 meal when I’ve just told you that everything (all of 3) on this menu is £20. And the answer to that my friends, is that yes, each dish is £20, but it isn't for me because TCG, being the perfect gentleman that he is, doesn’t let me pay. But even at £20, this is exceptional value for money in a city where most seafood restaurants would charge you upwards of £35-£40 for any creature that even remotely resembles a lobster.

(Oh and in case you’re still wondering about how, where and why I conjured up the mysterious sum of £4 - that’s my return-journey transport fare on the London tube, which, unlike Burger & Lobster, is rather unexceptional value for money. Or, plainly speaking, it's bordering on extortionist. But that’s a different matter for a different time. A time which simply must involve cocktails.)

Which is exactly what we’re going to have while celebrating my next and 100th post.

Meanwhile, this was just about the most fun I’ve had on a Tuesday afternoon in a long, long time.

Just thought I should let you know =)

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Tempura 101

So, we were with friends this past weekend, in picture-perfect Annecy, nestled high up in the French Alps, and besides admiring our pristine, spectacular surroundings every few minutes – because Annecy is physically stunning guys, just stunning – pretty much all we did was cook, eat, sleep, repeat. Which is what I would call a decidedly productive way to spend a weekend. The little time left over not spent conducting the above activities was spent discussing food. Yup, exciting lot of people, we are.


Right, so in the course of these many endless conversations - all uniquely centred around food and all it's glories - we asked each other several ranking type questions. You know, top 10 favourite restaurants in London, top 10 hamburger joints, top 10 world cuisines and so on.


Just when I thought I am getting way too old for surprises, I went and did it!
I surprised myself.

Because it appears (yes, much to my own surprise) that all things Japanese seem to hold a position of remarkably high esteem in my little food-obsessed mind.
Lets see:
My favourite restaurant? Japanese
My number 1 cuisine? Japanese
My death-row meal? (yes, we’re a rather cheery bunch of folks) Japanese
My first date with Sid? No prizes for guessing. It so happens that it was a little Japanese restaurant on 48th and Broadway, called Hakata.
And thus, over sushi and chopsticks, we fell in love. 

Well, yes – if you believe in coincidence.
I’m more in the conspiracy theory camp. Which means simply that in some future life, I will be re-born, a pink Hello Kitty with red ribbons in my hair.

Anyway, anyway.

Whichever way you want to look at it, what cannot be denied is that the above realities render the below realties very unacceptable indeed:
Which are that, one - I’ve never been to Japan. And two - I’ve never cooked Japanese food in my life. Never. Ever.
Note to self: must fix.

And while I know that the first will take a fair bit of vacation time and funds, both of which I’m running dangerously low on right now, I’m about to embark on the second.

And I mean, right now.

And so without any further delay in allowing me to reach my ultimate destiny (meow), I give you, Japanese Vegetable Tempura.

Here’s what you need:
Please use whatever vegetables you have on hand. This is what I had…

- 2 small eggplants
- 2 small courgettes
- 1 small sweet potato
- 4 shiitake mushrooms
- 1 red pepper

For the batter:
- 1 egg
- A jug of ice water, 250 ml + few ice cubes
- 85g plain flour (all purpose flour)
- 1 tbsp corn flour
- Groundnut or sunflower oil , for deep frying

For the dipping sauce:
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
-1 tbsp brown sugar
- Grated daikon radish (if possible)

Here’s how you do it:

First cut the vegetables in a way that makes them easy to dip in the batter and then fry. So, for example, take the end off the eggplants, and slice into wide strips lengthwise. Cut the sweet potato into rounds with the skin on. Cut the zucchini and the red pepper into strips. Leave the mushrooms whole.

Spread out the cut vegetables into a single layer on paper towels, and leave to dry. The vegetables should be completely dry before coating with batter.
The dipping sauce simply involves mixing together all the sauce ingredients in a bowl.
Making tempura batter:
Do this just before you start frying – premixed batter that’s been lying around will definitely make the end product soggy. So, make it, cook it, eat it. Simple.
Right, so to make the batter, mix the egg and water together, then add the flours, whisking rapidly with a fork. A few lumps in the mixture don’t matter, and floating ice cubes are fine - they’ll help to keep the batter cool, which is really important.
Batter mixed, pour the oil into a heavy pot that retains heat well. I use a crimson red Le Creuset, which is a cast iron enamelled pot that I love! Mainly because it goes with my style. Just kidding! It's just strong and deep and keeps the heat well. And so I'm using it. Of course, you can use a wok too.
Heat up the oil – it should get to about 175 - 195 C. You can test the temperature by dropping a bit of batter in the oil. If the batter drops down and then shoots up to the surface immediately, the oil is hot enough.
Keep a large plate or tray ready, lined with paper towels to absorb the oil after frying.
Ready? Set? Go!
I dip each vegetable piece in the batter individually to get a thin, almost transparent coating. I’ve seen experts do veggie strips in bundles, picking up a few at a time with chopsticks and dipping them in the batter together – I’m too amateur for this right now, but just saying – if you’re brave enough, go for it!
Start with the more delicate vegetables first, such as the courgettes, which only take a few seconds. Proceed to the firmer or thicker vegetables, so for example the sweet potato slices should be last. The amount of time each thing should be cooked depends on the vegetable – but it ranges from a few second to a few minutes, at most. Only do 3-4 pieces at a time, try not to overcrowd the wok.
The secret is: don't over-mix the batter, or let it stand; keep the batter ice-cold as it prevents the batter from absorbing too much oil. Keep the oil hot, try not to coat the ingredients with too much batter and don't fry too many pieces at once as this will reduce the temperature of the oil.

Ok, now drain each piece on the prepared paper-lined plate – keep the pieces separate from each other, leaving a space between them.
Serve tempura along with dipping sauce when it’s piping hot, for maximum crispiness.
Done! Perfect tempura; crisp, golden brown, hot and delicious.
By the way, here’s another bit of trivia (in the remote possibility that you're interested) - I’ve spent much of my life afraid of deep-fried food. Yup, you heard me – afraid. Afraid it’ll make me fat, afraid the grease won't leave my hands or my kitchen counters or my plates, despite countless washing and the best of what the wild and wonderful world of detergent has to offer, afraid the smell of deep fried batter will remain sunk into the deep recesses of my upholstery for ever and ever after and that eventually, just like the ending of a very sad story - my home will smell like McDonalds. And of all the terrifying thoughts in the world, that has to be the most terrifying of them all.

So, yes, deep fried food made me afraid.

But this was before the Tempura age.
Now, I am living IN the Tempura age.
And I'm happy to report that I'm no longer afraid.
My jeans still button (well, the top one does). My hands don’t smell of grease. Nor my kitchen counters. Nor my plates. Nor my sofas. And nor – thankfully – does my house.
Yes, my friends, Fear has left me for greener pastures. 
And so I think it's fair to say that Tempura changed my life.
Or am I being too dramatic??

But on a serious note (ha!) it’s amazing, if you step back and think about it – how much the food of a culture reflects the culture itself. Think of sushi: neat little pieces, side by side, arranged in rows in small, perfect little boxes. No oil, no spices, no smell, no mess. And a perfect score on flavour. How do they do this? Miso Soup: have you tasted anything more delicious that is so ridiculously unassuming? Hot water, miso paste, wakame seaweed, tofu. That’s it. And yet, there’s absolutely nothing in the world like a hot bowl of Miso Soup on a cold, foggy day to lift up your spirits and warm your soul. Tempura: small, bite-sized bits of seafood and vegetables cooked in a manner that enhances the taste of the underlying item, not masks it. There’s no stodgy dough here, no thick, tasteless batter downing out flavours, no grease, no food colouring, no exotic ingredients that exist in someone else's world. Nope. And yet, how fantastic is Tempura? Crispy, light and so very subtle.

And so it is with the Japanese themselves: these admirable people who come with absolutely no "show". You can't help but respect them – their precise, neat little ways, their zen-like calm, their soft-spoken, polite habits, and yes – the quiet dignity in which they silently, speedily, efficiently and self-sufficiently beat a natural disaster of the scale of the 2011 Tsunami. In fact, I can sit in front of a map of the world and I’d be hard pressed to think of even one other country that could match Japan’s comeback in the face of such extreme devastation. Kudos to the unparalleled Japanese resiliency of spirit, the ethic of ingenuity and industry.

It’s true: You are what you eat.

I’m off to Nobu tonight, thanks to a business associate (and his expense account). Thank god for business associates (and their expense accounts).

I’m very excited, because Japanese food always gets me excited.
I’ll be sure to order some tempura and let you know how mine stacks up to the professionals!

Meanwhile, give this a go – do. It’s not as hard as it seems, and it’s SO worth it.
I'm eating it right now, and if I were a cat, I'd be purring.
But I'm not.  But that's ok because one day I will be. And one with red ribbons, at that.

Much love.

Monday, 6 August 2012

It's just that kind of day

Back from the last of the summer holidays and it's the usual bitter-sweet emotions...home, my sweet, sweet home on the one side. But on the other? Unpacking, washing, drying, ironing, putting away, settling, defrosting, never quite seems to end and as I take a deep breath (or many) and wonder if I am ever going to get done (no, never), I thank god, on more than one occasion, for creating the man (or woman) who created the establishment called school.

And I look at my photos from my holiday just done. I look at them sitting on my own chair in front of my own computer, dressed in whatever I like, with a cup of tea made just the way I like it. I stare at a hundred pictures of myself in a foreign land, smiling widely into the lens. And I smile widely into my screen.

It's just that kind of day.

And though I'm glad to be home, a part of my heart still lies in the cold, clear blue waters of Lake Annecy, glittering golden in the mid-morning sun. My ears still ring with the happy shrieks of little French children with their blue eyes and fair curls and multi-coloured bathing suits and my little dark-haired, brown-eyed, olive-skinned  boy playing among them, splashing around in the knee-deep water. My mind, still fresh from the memories, yearns in part to return to the lush conifer-covered mountains, their grey, scraggy peaks towering high above voice reverberating through the mountains as I sing with the birds into the deep, wide valley, to nobody in particular.

With these thoughts I snuggle into my bed - the most comfortable bed in the world...and I wonder - am I happy or sad? Or both? Is that possible? To be both? And then, as I often do when I ask these questions that can't possibly have any answer, I stop wondering. And instead, I think - what should I make for dinner? What is the appropriate first meal for the first day back from holiday?

And I decide on a pink grapefruit salad topped with strips of seared steak.

Here's what you need:
- 2 pink grapefruit
- ½ red onion, sliced thin

- ½ cucumber, sliced, skin on
- 5-6 handfuls of mixed salad leaves (Romaine, Boston, Arugula, Watercress, Raddiccio etc) washed and dried
- 3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
- 1 tbsp sesame seed oil
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- Juice of 1 large lemon
- Handful of roasted, salted cashews
- 2 x 100-140g Rib-eye or strip steaks, extra fat trimmed
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Here’s how you do it:
Using a sharp knife, peel the grapefruits, removing all of the bitter white pith. Work over a bowl, and cut in between the membranes to release the sections; squeeze the juice from the membranes into the bowl. The juice forms the heart and soul of this salad.

Separately whisk together the oils, brown sugar, red wine vinegar and lemon juice and keep aside - this is your dressing.

Cooking the steak is easy. Simply pan fry the meat, for 4-5 minutes each side with a little oil. Let the steak sit for a few minutes to rest, then slice thinly against the grain.

Arrange the lettuce leaves in a large salad bowl, toss in the coriander, cucumber, grapefruit sections and onion. Add the dressing and toss well. Finally pour in the lovely-sweetly-sourly-wonderfully refreshing pink grapefruit juice. Season the salad with salt and fresh pepper. Scatter the cashews and toss well. Finally, top with the seared steak.

This is a beautiful dish guys - succulent and juicy, cleansing and invigorating, yet light and lovely and fresh.

And bitter-sweet.
Poetically so.

It's just that kind of day.