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Pickles and Pizza

I like a bit of fine dining as much as anyone, but sometimes one’s tastes run a bit more on the casual side of things. I don’t mean I ever want to eat a Prawn Ring or kebab meat again and I believe ready meals to be a waste of calories. But I do have a soft spot for the kind of comfort food that borders on junk, especially that brand of Americana popularised by Nigella recently.

So when Mister North was down recently, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to indulge some homemade delights that would make a dietician weep. I’d been lusting after deep fried pickles ever since a Southern friend told me about them a few years back. Seeing Homesick Texan and Food Stories‘ recipes for them put them at the top of my to try list.

I dialled down the trashy vibe and put myself in the running for a pretentiousness award by growing my own gherkins and pickling them myself specially. (If this makes you eye roll at the sheer foodiness of it all, be comforted by the fact they didn’t taste that different to a Mrs Elswood.) Horticulturally experiments aside, these babies are super simple. I got cultured buttermilk in Sainsbury’s, but you could use yoghurt watered down instead. Do not feel tempted to substitute cream crackers for saltines. You’ll end up crying into your hot oil as all the moisture in your mouth evaporates. I used coarse cornmeal instead.

Heat your oil while you do the flour, egg, dip thing with the pickles. Fry for about a minute each side and then serve piping hot on the side of something delicious. In our case it was some leftover rollmops, a zingy homemade ranch style dressing with buttermilk, tarragon and garlic and a beer on the side. It was a heavenly plate of tanginess, crunch and sheer gluttony. I want to eat all gherkins in a crunchy coating now.

You’d think that plateful would have quelled our cravings for pig-out style food for the day, but you’d be wrong. About an hour later, we started getting ready to make a serious pizza for dinner. We used Marcella Hazan’s pizza dough recipe, leaving it to prove for several hours and turned our attention to the mozzarella. And I don’t just mean jiggling it about the bag in a slightly smutty fashion, I mean making it from scratch

Using some non-homogenised cow’s milk from Alham Wood Farms at Brixton Farmers’ Market, my fledgling cheese making skills, some citric acid that we explored all of Brixton for* and my trusty bottle of rennet, we created mozzarella magic. Surprisingly easy, especially if you have asbestos hands like Mister North for dipping the curds into the hot whey, we ended up with two beautiful bouncing balls of mozzarella in no time at all.

Buoyed by this, we turned to the pizza bases, lovingly dressing them with homemade sauce courtesy of Mister North and a glut of Blackpool tomatoes and an umami hit of anchovies, green olives, some of my home grown plum tomatoes and a finishing sprinkle of ham salt from Comfort and Spice. Unfortunately made giddy by the cheese achievement, we forgot to dust the worksurfaces with semolina as instructed and the bases stuck somewhat, leading to some creativity with a fishslice and a slightly concertina style pizza.

The pizza might have lacked finesse, but it was loaded with flavour. The tomatoes tasted of summer and the mozzarella was so soft and fresh I could have eaten the whole ball like an apple to fully enjoy the texture. It needed a touch more salt and I think it would have been even better with buffalo milk, but for a first go, it was pretty amazing.

We devoured the pizzas like kids at a sleepover, both wishing we’d had more of the mozzarella to do a tomato salad with or go retro and deep fry in a crispy coating like the gherkins. Instead we rounded off a day of gluttony with a cheeky bowl of Veda bread ice cream and a glass of wine or two, proving that sometimes the taste of home is all you need. Your own kitchen provides the greatest comfort.

*Try the Nour Cash and Carry if you need it Monday to Saturday and the Low Price Food & Wine on the corner of Brixton Road and Loughborough Road on a Sunday. We did the walking round so you don’t have to.

In the market for good food…

Sadly I haven’t managed to convince everyone I know to move to Brixton, so at the weekends I tend to go elsewhere in London while socialising. This is something I enjoy hugely, but means that despite living so close by I don’t know Brixton Market especially well at the weekends. Therefore I couldn’t resist spending the weekend close to home when Mister North came to visit and trying to catch up with any many new openings and delicious places to eat as possible.

We started off ignoring the crowds at Franco Manca. This is literally the closest pizza place of any description to my house and I’ve eaten there more times than you can count. I think it’s excellent, but pizza would be too filling to start our day with. Instead we went two doors further up to the newly opened Mexican restaurant Casa Morita.

Nicely minimalist yet welcoming and quite busy, we squeezed in and shared a table with two others, ordering the mole chicken taco and a chorizo and potato quesadilla to whet our appetite. There’s quite a small menu and most people seemed to be doing the same as us and calling in for a taco or two rather than sitting down for a full meal. There was no sniffiness at this or ordering tap water and service was prompt and we didn’t have to wait long.

The mole taco was lovely. The chicken was perhaps a little overshredded, but the flavour was rich and complex with a lovely warm kick of chilli. Our quesadilla actually ended up being chorizo-less by accident (they charged us less though) and was delicious with silky fried onions and fresh coriander infused guacamole to stop it being heavy. We liked the place a lot and I look forward to going back and sampling more.

We called into Wild Caper and got practically the last seeded sourdough loaf for breakfast next day. You need to be quick in there on a Saturday! This was a problem we encountered again when we moved across to Brixton Village in search of our next course. The newly opened Mama Lan’s dumpling boutique closes for lunch at 3 and it was five past. We’d have to wait til 6…

Luckily there was plenty to tempt but we were both drawn to Okan which sells the ‘Japanese pancake’ or okonomiyaki that Osaka is particularly famed for. It’s hard to describe without sounding slightly off-putting, but tastes great. Basically a slightly sour batter infused with cabbage, it is stuffed with anything you can imagine and served like a pancake sandwich. We ordered the special which comes with squid, prawns, kimchi and corn and got some green tea too.

What arrived was a monster sized plate of okonomiyaki laced with Japanese mayo, delicately fluttering grilled onion skin and bursting with seafood and flavour, particularly the tang of kimchi. It was delicious and extremely filling even between us, making it top class value. along with Curry Ono in Market Row, this another restaurant that proves Brixton is becoming great for Japanese food!

Well and truly full and with most places no longer serving for lunch, although busy with those lingering over plates and drinks, we left the market behind and headed up Atlantic Road to the newly Kaff Bar which has taken over the space on the corner of Kellett Road that was La Lupa. They’ve opened it out, done a cracking paint job and made it spacious. It wasn’t that busy at 4ish and we scored a comfy sofa and some nice bottled American ales and passed a hour or two people watching. Friendly and with a nice vibe (although no British beers on tap) I’m keen to go back in the evenings.

Appetites whetted, we made a beeline for Honest Burgers around 6pm before all the tables got snapped up. I want to say unfortunately their gas was off so they were delayed opening, but fortunately it gave us time to go back to Mama Lan’s while it was quiet. Only their second evening open, we ordered two plates of Beijing dumplings, going for the pork and the unusual sounding dill and tofu from the list of three options.

A proper family operation, the dumplings are made in front of your eyes by Mama Lan in a blur of chopsticks and dough and then fried by Papa Lan. I don’t know if it’s the love involved, but they are wonderful. The pork was tender, juicy and flavoursome. But the dill and tofu was the star (and this comes from a tofu-denier). Shredded dill studded with five spice-infused tofu, they melted in the mouth. I wanted more, but settled for eating all the pickled lotus root on the side and keeping space for another course and went back to Honest.

Like Mama Lan’s, all the meat is supplied by the Ginger Pig at Honest Burgers and aged well. This means that the burgers really taste of something and therefore don’t need souped up with cheese to get flavour. I loathe melted cheese on burgers so it is a constant source of annoyance to me that it needs to be added to most burgers to make them interesting these days. We both went for the regular burger and we both liked the onion relish that comes as standard, thinking it worked nicely with the meat.

They do option with cheddar or stilton and bacon too and a tasty sounding veggie fritter. Gluten free buns are available too. All the burgers come with chips included in the price. I think the chips are amazing. Triple fried, properly golden crisp and dusted with rosemary salt, I could eat them three times a day and never tire of them. It’s an effort not to call into Honest everyday for lunch!

Completely stuffed after our day of feasting, we headed home around 8. The market was buzzing. There was a serious queue for Mama Lan’s and no chance of an outside table at Honest, Cornercopia or Casa Sibilla or Kaosarn. There were plenty of families stopping it getting too hipster heaven and it all feels quite relaxed and dare I say it, continental. Make it a destination as soon as you can. Come early, bring a bag, use the market too for wonderful world foods and deli goods. Then prop up a bar or two in the afternoon and reconvene in the market for dinner. As long as you remember nowhere takes cards (try the Brixton Pound) and bring a healthy appetite, you’ll want to move to Brixton in no time!

Brixton Ginger Cake

Ginger cake

One of the few branded foods that I have a soft spot for is McVities Jamaican Ginger Cake. Squishy, sticky and so good smeared with butter, I occasionally sneak one into my trolley on the odd occasion I’m in a supermarket. But since I live in a area with a big Jamaican population I feel a bit guilty buying something that is probably highly inauthentic and mass produced. I decided it was time to try making my own version.

But how to get that almost difficult to eat super sticky feeling in a cake without the use of commercial levels of oil and played about with sorts of sugars? I always find that adding vegetables to a cake really up the moisture levels and adds a depth that sugar and fat alone cannot achieve. But what you achieve in moisture can often be overwhelmed by a vegetal taste that jars somewhat with me. Even the sweeter veg like beetroot and carrot can be cloying.

Independently of this cake dilemma, I kept seeing strange kermit-green items that looked like a pear crossed with a sock puppet’s mouth on the stalls in Brixton Market, but never known what they were. Having had my head bitten off once or twice for asking questions at the market, I’m now reluctant to buy unknown items. So when I flicked through a beautiful Caribbean cookbook and finally realised they were Christophenes or cho chos, I picked a couple up immediately and following a recipe, blanched and fried them with chilli and garlic. As a side dish they were odd. Incredibly crisp and fresh like a Chinese Pear but fried, they were incredibly succulent but didn’t taste of much.

Instead of being disappointed, I realised I had found the perfect vegetable to add to a cake. Especially a ginger cake where one can’t risk a clash of flavours without a risk of your baked goods coming up more like a curry when in fact you want a dark, sticky and grown up cake. I looked around for a recipe to fit the bill and couldn’t find one, so for the first time I decided to bake fairly freehand.

I did take some tips from this Ginger Cake at The Caked Crusader, but completely omitted the evaporated milk, fresh ginger and the icing and added in the cho cho to give some serious squish. I boiled it until tender, mashed it and left to drain with a weight on top to get rid of excess water and got on with winging the rest of it. One whole cho cho is about 200 grammes raw.

To make this cake you need:

225g plain flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground ginger
180g unsalted butter
100g light brown sugar
half a jar of stem ginger in syrup
a cooked and mashed cho cho or christophene
125g black treacle (or molasses)
2 eggs

100g plain flour
100g cold butter
50g sugar
cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 180°C and prep a loaf tin (preferably a 2lb or 900g one. But if like me you’ve forgotten what size it is, prep it anyway.)

Boil and mash the christophene (also known as chayote or mirlitons) and drain well. If you can’t get a cho cho, use some mashed courgette instead.

Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, allspice, nutmeg and the ground ginger into a bowl and mix together. I would use half the amount of baking powder as the original. Mine exploded like a my hair on a drizzly day with double.

Blitz the stem ginger, the entire jar’s worth of syrup and the treacle together to make a heavenly smelling puree. If you’ve not got any syrup left in the jar, make your own with dark sugar, water and double the ground ginger or add some freshly grated ginger root.

Beat the butter into the dry ingredient until well combined. Beat in the sugar. Pour in the elixir of ginger and treacle and beat in the eggs with a folding motion. It’s actually much easier than the usual all in one sponge method, saves on washing up and creates an amazing light fluffy puffy batter that smells divine. I didn’t find mine runny at all, quite robust in fact, but The Caked Crusader warns that ginger cake can be a thinner batter.

Mix the remaining cold butter, plain flour and sugar to make a crumble crumb and line the base of the loaf tin with it. I decided I didn’t want an icing or I feared the cake would be teeth itchingly sweet, but this would hopefully make it look more exciting than a bit lump of loaf.

Pour the batter into the tin and bake for approximately 45-50 minutes or until a skewer comes out cleanly. But bear in mind that this cake is so moist, even when it’s perfectly cooked the skewer might still be sticky. I turned the oven off and left it for 5 minutes more to be sure.

Leave to cool in the tin for 30 minutes or until you can be bothered to take it out of the tin. i was so overcome with having baked off the cuff for once (I am usually rigid on anything involving flour) that I couldn’t face the fear it wouldn’t come out and left it for any hour. I inverted it and it slid out beautifully. I’m glad I’d been warned it might dip in the middle or I’d have panicked. I let it cool completely and then wrapped tightly in a tea towel overnight.

It was so moist, it crumbled a bit when I unwrapped it and it was a slightly bedraggled looking loaf cake. But this one is all about the taste not the looks. But I could forgive its shabby exterior when I tasted the spicy ginger flavour and enjoyed the sponge pudding like texture. It was as sticky and moreish as I had hoped and went down well with others who tried it. I felt the crumb added nothing to it in the end except a vaguely greasy aftertaste so I’d skip that again.

But for a great sticky treat that would go with any cup of tea (and keep well) you can’t beat this cake. Perfect to bake on a Sunday. It means you can bring back the much missed tradition of elevenses this week!

Negril, Brixton Hill

Despite a legendary Caribbean heritage, I don’t find Brixton the best place to eat Caribbean food, especially in the evenings when the vans in Brixton Station Road are closed. Bamboula isn’t bad, but it doesn’t make me excited about jerk like the good stuff should. The only place that does that for dinner is Negril.

Well worth a walk up the Hill, you must remember to book as this unassuming spot gets packed out in the evenings. In summer this is partly because they have a lovely patio out front to while away a sunny evening, but mainly because Negril is simply great.

From the friendly welcoming reception when I phoned to book for a Friday night to the very end of the meal, I couldn’t fault anything about Negril. And by the look of it, the packed out patio, full restaurant and queue at the door all agreed with me. An unusual place in that it is equally good for non meat eaters and carnivores alike, Negril specialises in ital food and jerk chicken, along with many other Jamaican favourites served in healthy portions with a home made feel while feeling like a bit of a night out. It’s BYO, but also does a great selection of soft drinks and juices and doesn’t baulk at all when you ask for tap water, bringing us a jug of the stuff when we each asked for a glass. This thoughtfulness and willing got the meal off to a great start!

After checking we knew our way round the menu, our friendly and helpful waiter took our order for a half jerked chicken each with festival and coleslaw for me and plantain and rice and peas for my mum and provided glasses for our wine as the place filled up steadily and we got to listen to the world’s most irritating woman at the table next to us ponder why her date hadn’t called her again.

Before we both lost patience with her and told her the answer to her query, the food arrived and distracted us. A mound of crisp skinned flavoursome free range chicken appeared. On my plate there were two enormous pieces of festival, a dish of the best home-made coleslaw around and some rich glossy chicken gravy while my mum had heaps of fried plantain and rice and peas along with some fiery scotch bonnet sauce and barbeque sauce to accompany it.

The food was fantastic. You can really taste the difference that being free range makes to the chicken. Dark, flavoursome meat is complimented by a fantastic jerk rub filled with thyme, allspice and scotch bonnet that tingles nicely on the lips without making the eyes water. The rice and peas were subtly coconut infused and well spiced. The coleslaw is worth the trip alone and the festival made me very happy with its vanilla fragrance and crispy outer and was the perfect way to soak up the delicious gravy. The sauces tasted home-made and added a good kick if you like your chicken on the lively side.

Portions are generous, but that didn’t stop me clearing every scrap off my mine in record time because it was all just so good. My mum struggled more due to the more carb intense nature of her sides, leaving some of the plantain. Our waiter automatically offered her a doggy bag and despite every table now being full, appeared back straightaway with a cardboard carton of leftovers bagged up and ready to go. We couldn’t even think about the selection of desserts that included rum and raisin bread and butter pudding and tropical fruit salad, but lingered to finish our wine before settling the very reasonable bill.

A half chicken with two sides comes to £12.95 each which to me is great value and more worthwhile than the £22.95 sharing platter that comes with a 1/4 chicken each and a smaller, but wider variety of sides. But skip the chips and salad it offers and get stuck into the proper Jamaican offerings like the rice and peas, hardo bread or roti instead as they do them so well. They also do great sounding breakfasts at the weekend such as coconut French toast and Eggs Callaloo that I can’t wait to try.

If Negril was closer to my house, I’d be in there every week. Well cooked, good quality food delivered with friendly efficient service that manages to be helpful without being pushy and a great atmosphere, it ticks all the boxes a good neighbourhood restaurant should. Do yourself a favour and book a table immediately!

Negril
132 Brixton Hill, SW2 1RS
020 8674 8798

All Boar, No Bore…

Up bright and early and filled with the joys of summer on Sunday I headed into Brixton to take advantage of the season’s finest. Already chuffed to bits about getting some very reasonably priced donut peaches and baby plum tomatoes at the fruit and veg stall opposite the back of Brixton Village on Coldharbour Lane by the bridge, my day was made when I discovered a stall at the Farmers’ Market selling, (amongst other things) wild boar and duck eggs. Almost before I knew it, my money had found its way out of my purse and a bag with a rolled wild boar loin and two double yolked duck eggs was nestled in my hand. Suddenly dinner seemed a long way away…

Back home, I tucked into a delicious cooked breakfast with the eggs and the tomatoes and set to reading the Sunday papers. Seeing Jay Rayner compare Red Dog Saloon and Pitt Cue Co in the Observer got me thinking that I just can’t have enough pig and pulses in my life and that slow roasting the boar loin over beans would be the perfect twist on that American classic this Independence Day weekend.

Being all organised when I made the root beer beans a few weeks ago, I soaked and cooked more haricots than I needed at the time and then froze them. So while the oven heated to the maximum temperature to blast the boar skin into crackling, the beans defrosted and I prepared a rub of salt, butter, oilve oil and home grown fennel seeds for the skin. Once the meat was at room temperature I slathered the skin with the rub, working on the premise that the only thing better than pork fat, is pork fat with butter on it!

The loin went into a very hot oven for 20 minutes to crisp up. I also chopped up fennel, red onion and some of those baby plum tomatoes and some cloves of garlic to mix with the beans as a bed for the meat to slow roast on.
I then took the meat out, set it aside, deglazed the pan with some water and then tossed the beans and veg well in the juices, put the meat on top and popped in the oven at 160℃ for about two hours. Or until I remembered about it again…

It smelled amazing when I opened the oven, but I was worried that the fennel was the wrong side of caramlised and would just taste burnt. But the meat looked so mouthwatering moist and tender I didn’t really care. Slow roasting on the bone had turned this into something really special. I left it to rest to make sure I didn’t miss those precious juices and chopped up a quick slaw of white cabbage, fennel, carrot and golden beetroot to go on the side.

If you aren’t just as fennel obsessed as I am, feel free to leave it out of the beans. But do keep it in the slaw where the anise cuts through the sweetness of the beets and carrot and tempers the mustardiness of the cabbage. The fresh crunch of the slaw is its selling point, so don’t be tempted to chop too finely or drown it in dressing like a shop bought version. I used a tablespoon of yoghurt, a dessertspoon of mayonnaise, cider vinegar, fish sauce and a tiny bit of Dijon mustard to make a light yet flavoursome dressing that coats the vegetables well without being overwhelming.

Then after all the chopping, shredding and roasting, I dug in. It was so good. The meat was so juicy and tender even compared to the equivalent piece of pork, falling off the bone beautifully. The crackling wasn’t just as shatteringly crisp as pork can be, but the slight chewiness and caramelly finish from the butter made up for that in abundance. The beans were deliciously meaty whil even the slightly burnt fennel was very enjoyable. Everything just burst with flavour, especially the boar itself.

And best of all, it didn’t feel like a heavy dish thanks to the refreshing crunch of the slaw and the fresh flavours of the beans so you could eat a hefty portion of the meat with feeling defeated. It’s dishes like this that remind me why seasonal food is so worth the wait…