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Sichuan Pepper Cured Mackerel

mackerel

The weather has warmed up just enough and the sun has come out long enough to make it feel like summer might be limbering up to actually do something. It’s making me crave fresh bright flavours after the long cold months that have only been coped with by eating lots of stodge and stews. I’ve particularly been enjoying fish recently, visiting my favourite fishmonger, Dagon’s in Brixton Village, to try as many sorts as possible including tilapia, snapper and butterfish.

Each has been delicious, but all that newness has given me a sudden urge for something familiar. I picked up a rainbow trout and grilled it with dill and lemon, but it was the mackerel that caught my eye. I think the most beautiful fish on the counter, that oily flesh is so versatile and flavoursome and allows for lots of experimentation. I had intended to barbecue it if the weather held and serve with salsa verde, but the skies were as grey as the fish skin and I decided against it.

Mister North’s love for Fuschia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice has revived my love of sichuan peppercorns with their fabulous fizzing flavour and I immediately thought of their floral tones with the fish. Not keen to grill oily fish indoors since I don’t have an extractor fan, I wondered if I could try a cured version instead to capture those light summery flavours. It turns out to be very easy and a perfect thing to do if you don’t want to heat the kitchen up…

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BarShu

As you may have noticed before, some friends and I have a bit of a soft spot for Sichuan food. We don’t seem to be able to get enough of those amazing tingly peppercorns and chilli infused oil, so we was inevitable that when we decided to get together for a joint birthday meal, it would have to be at BarShu, the Soho based Sichuan restaurant that the queen of Sichuan cookery, Fuschia Dunlop consults for…

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Chilli Cool, King’s Cross

I have officially been bitten by the Sichuan bug. Less than a week after my visit to Ba Shan I found myself suggesting a trip to Chilli Cool to some friends to quell my new found cravings for chilli, peppercorns and pork…

Having heard great things about Chilli Cool from various people including the lovely Helen at Food Stories who voted it her joint favourite restaurant in London last week, it wasn’t difficult to round up an eager table of four fellow diners and make our way to this unobtrusive part of King’s Cross in search of Sichuan spice.

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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.

Dan Dan Noodles

Sunday morning saw me up and alert early for once and off to Brixton’s Farmers’ Market. I was hoping to pick up some rhubarb, but it might be a little early in the season for it here in London. I did however pick up some venison mince in all its rich ruby red glory. The low fat content and good quality appealed to me, but I had no firm plans on what to do with it.

I meandered home and sat down with a coffee and a fresh pretzel from the market to read the Observer Food Monthly, chuckling to myself at their amazement that people, especially chefs, ever eat alone when I espied a recipe for Dan-Dan noodles that looked like it would work perfectly with my venison mince. These could be described as the Chinese equivalent of spaghetti bolognese, since they combine noodles and meat, but with a delicious warming chili kick. I first had them at the fabulous Baozi Inn in Chinatown, but despite loving them, I had never thought to make them myself. I have no idea if this Jamie Oliver recipe is authentic or not but it gave me something to work with…

1 beef or chicken stock cube

500g minced beef

2 tbs runny honey

300g wheat noodles

4 handfuls of mixed green veg(Chinese cabbage, sprouting broccoli, bok choi, spinach)

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and very finely chopped

3 tbs dark soy sauce

2 tsp freshly ground Szechuan pepper

5 tbs good-quality chilli oil (see below)

2 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced

1 lime, quartered, to serve

Crumble your stock cube into a large pan of water and get it on the heat. Add the beef to a dry pan and, on a medium to high heat, keep moving it around until it’s golden and crunchy, which will take about 10 to 15 minutes. Pour away any excess fat, then add the honey and toss until all the mince is nicely coated. Cook for about 30 seconds, then take the pan off the heat.

Stir your noodles into the boiling stock and move them about a bit so they don’t stick together. Cook according to the packet instructions. Shred your cabbage into 1cm strips, quarter your bok choi and snap up the broccoli spears. When the noodles have 1 minute to go, throw in the prepared greens to blanch them. Drain the whole lot in a colander, reserving a mugful of the cooking water. Tip your noodles, veg and the water back into the hot pan.

Add your garlic, soy sauce, Szechuan pepper and chilli oil. Give it all a good mix with tongs and divide among 4 bowls. Sprinkle over the crunchy beef , finish with a scattering of spring onions and serve each dish with a lime quarter to squeeze over.

Once I got over the irony of the recipe being for 4 people in an article about eating alone, I used Marigold Bouillon powder to make the stock as it is easier to measure for one person than a stockcube. I left the honey out because frankly sweetened savoury dishes give me the heebie-jeebies and I didn’t have any bok choi, so I substituted some curly kale instead. Apart from the fact I also reduced the amount of chili oil hugely, the rest of the recipe was pretty similar.

The venison mince dry fried beautifully, becoming deliciously crumbly in the pan on a high heat, due to the lack of the usual watery fat you get in regular beef mince. Beef or pork mince would have needed draining and more cooking to achieve the right texture to go with the noodles. I misread the recipe slightly and stupidly only reserved a cupful (or 120ml) of the cooking liquid rather than the mugful suggested, meaning my finished dish had very little liquid, but this didn’t spoil it in anyway. It was still a delicious combination of soft slurpy noodles with crumbly nuggets of full flavoured meat, crunchy leaf vegetables and the refreshing chili kick you would expect from Szechuan food.

On top of that, it created very little washing up and is a marvellously quick recipe for using up the last little bits of cabbage or broccoli lurking in the back of your fridge. All in all, a perfect one person meal, especially as you can customise the chili to your own level each time, which is just the ticket on a cold winter day!