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Polishing off Polish Pierogi…

Several things are guaranteed to bring a tear to my eye: the episode of ER where Mr Mark Greene dies, posters for lost stuffed animals and family pets and the thought of ever having to go low carb and stop eating potatoes.

I really don’t care how big an Irish cliche I am. I love spuds with all my soul. What other foodstuff is so versatile, so easy to work with and to grow yourself? There is just no thing as too many potatoes in my life and that is why I love pierogi so much. A dumpling stuffed with mashed potato? Hello there! Dumpling is the magic word in my world, especially when you can fry them in butter to add even more of my favourite things to one dish.

There are as many recipes for pierogi as there are types of spuds and Polish families, but I used this one from Post Punk Kitchen as I wanted a dairy free recipe for a friend with intolerances. (I find specifically dairy free sites seems to rely heavily on soy or nut ‘milk’ based products and I would sooner die than use soy cheese. Vegan sites tend to seek other options and skip the processed stuff most of the time so I prefer them.)

I cannot pretend to have solved the eternal dilemma of translating American potato recipes to our varieties and found a total replacement for Yukon Golds, but find that if all else fails, a Maris Piper is the answer, although I used the last of my own Pink Fir Apples from the veg patch. I also won’t lie to you. This recipe is time consuming, but actually very easy to make. So stick Radio 4 on, roll up your sleeves and get pottering in the kitchen this weekend.

First up, choose your filling. Pierogi can be stuffed with anything. You can do some with spud and some with just about anything of your choosing. Sauerkraut is popular. I fancied pumpkin and sage to be seasonal. Black pudding would be brilliant. But feel free to use anything you desire. Leftovers would be perfect here. I went for sauteed mushroom with tarragon and mashed potato. Just cook as you normally would, but make your spuds are nice and dry before you mash them.

Once the filling is decided on, you’ll need to get going with the dough. This is dead easy. An American cup is approximately 240ml which equates to about 110g of flour, but if you’ve got measuring cups, stick to those. I used plain flour here and needed to add all three full cups of flour to stop the dough being too sticky to get out of the bowl. I added another two or three handfuls to it as I was kneading too.

After about ten minutes of kneading, the dough will be smooth as anything and lovely and elastic. This requires little skill, just some concentration and a bit of time. At this point, you can either store the dough overnight covered in the fridge until needed or get on with making dumplings.

Flour the surface and dough well and roll it out as thin as possible. Mine needed to be a tad thinner than they were, but I still got 45 pierogi out of them so be prepared to have an invasion of dumplings! Cut out circles of dough with a cutter or glass and then get filling. I put about a dessertspoonful of mushroom and potato in each one, brushed the edges with water and pinched shut, making sure the ends are nicely closed. That’s it. Super simple. Easy enough for little hands to do too.

Once I’d cut, filled and pinched half the dough, I boiled six or so pierogi in a big pot of water for about four minutes or til they float. You can served them simply boiled or you can take it up a notch by frying them off for a golden crunch. Drain them onto kitchen towel if you’re doing that and then pop into a pan of hot fat. While they fry, deal with the other half of the dough. I used up the full 500g of spuds I mashed and half a punnet of chestnut mushrooms to fill all of them, but could have done with twice the amount of fungi.

Once your dumplings are fried, pop in the oven to keep warm and keep going in batches until you’re ready to eat. I served for dinner, sprinkled with truffle salt and fresh tarragon to keep them simple but dairy free, although they’d be great with sour cream too. The other half went onto lined baking tray to cool and go into the freezer until needed.

So after all that time and pinching, were the pierogi worth it? Oh yes! With bells on. Surprisingly light dough with the smoothest creamiest mashed potato possible, despite not a drop of butter, oil or milk in it, all made better by frying them off. I managed 9 of them before passing out in a carb coma, but managed to go back for more for dinner the next night, adding some pan fried breadcrumbs for extra crunch.

A super easy, surprisingly relaxing recipe to make, I urge you to get your dumpling on as soon as. You’ll have a great meal that will impress anyone straightaway and enough to do several quick dinners when you can’t be bothered to cook another night. Dumplings don’t get better than this!

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!

Royal China, Queensway

I seem to have got out of the way of meeting friends for tea and cake once a week and developed an obsession with Asian food and jasmine tea instead. After whetting my appetite at Pacific Plaza the other week, I’ve been craving dim sum daily. Eventually I gave in to these urges and went to visit the highly esteemed Royal China on Queensway for some of the best dumplings in town. Read more

Ba Shan: Sichuan tastes for a peppercorn rent…

I make it a slightly gluttonous habit to meet friends once a week for tea and cake. This is often preceeded by a dose of culture to make me feel more cosmopolitan. This week’s destination was The Ministry of Food at the Imperial War Museum to get a taste of rationing during the Second World War. Slightly despondant after the thought of Woolton Pie and the reliance on margarine seen at the exhibition, we left in search of cake made with real egg at Konditor & Cook at the Curzon Soho.

Yet somehow we found ourselves turning off Shaftesbury Avenue and onto Romilly Street and straight in Ba Shan, seeking little meaty dumplings and jasmine tea instead. I’m not quite sure how this change of carb craving took place so quickly, but I am very very glad that it did…

Ba Shan is lovely inside, all sleek dark wood and surprisingly airy with well sized tables that just cry out to be piled high with plates and dishes of deliciousness. It specialises in Sichuan cuisine like its sister restaurants Bar Shu and Baozi Inn along with the less oil-infused but equally spicy Hunanese cuisine and if either of those are anything to by, we were in for a real treat of spicy porky goodness like no other.

We were momentarily taken aback by the enormous gaudy menus with their slightly lurid photos of all the dishes. It seemed more in keeping with the all you can eat buffets near Leicester Square tube, but a craving for soft juicy dumplings overtook us and we got choosing. Ba Shan offers both full sized dishes and more dim sum-esque small eats on the menu at all times and it was the small eats that tempted us since you can try more that way.

First choice were the irrestistable sounding Shaanxi flatbread sandwiches or jia mo stuffed with stewed pork. I’ve never seen bread in a Chinese restaurant before and I was eager to see what the texture and taste would be like. Our dumpling craving was sated by the choice of both potstickers and boiled dumplings stuffed with minced pork. An attempt to eat some of our five a day was filled by the exquisite sounding potato slivers with chili and Sichuan pepper and dry fried green beans. The hint of spice and the cleansing jasmine tea we ordered with it were just the ticket for the heat of the day outside.

Our jia mo flatbread sandwiches arrived quickly and comprised soft, chewy slightly sweet bread like a thicker version of pitta bread well filled with tender stewed pork and crisp crunchy lettuce. They were terrific, the sweetness of the meat and bread working perfectly together in flavour and texture. The compact size stopped them from being too heavy and I could have eaten twice as many of them as we’d ordered. I want someone to open a jia mo stall somewhere so I can gorge on these regularly!

Next up were the potstickers. Crisp and fried on the top with the crust just waiting to be shattered to expose the soft succulent dumpling beneath stuffed with minced pork and herbs, they provided excellent mouth feel with the contrast of crunch and juiciness. We had the plate emptied in a trice and were very happy to see the dumpling love continue with our boiled pork numbers arrive soon after.

These were accompanied with the potato slivers and the dry fried green beans, making an excellent main course of sorts. The unbelievably fresh slivers of blanched potato with the aromatic kick of dried chili and heavily scented Sichuan peppercorns enlivened the slightly stodgy meaty dumplings perfectly while the dry fried beans had real umami flavour thanks to the finely minced salted pork cooked through them. We felt smug that we had ordered so well. But if you don’t eat pork, Ba Shan wouldn’t be so easy to navigate!

Greed got the better of me when I used my improved chopstick skills to snaffle up the last few slivers of potato and bit into a Sichuan peppercorn. This was my first experience of these little firecrackers and to say they took me by surprise would be an understatement. My tongue spent the next five minutes going numb and yet fizzing like I’d mainlined popping candy by the handful in a strangely enjoyable fashion.

I think that stray peppercorn and Ba Shan have given me the Sichuan bug. I can’t wait to come back and try some of the main dishes  such as the spiced tripe and the stewed ducks’ tongues for more savoury spicy fun very soon. Our dishes were the perfect amount for a late lunch and while I have no idea how much them came to thanks to my most generous friend who insisted it be her treat, everything seemed reasonably priced on the menu. Calm and unhurried service, along with mouthwatering food, make Ba Shan feel like a real treat in Chinatown.