Gastrobabble

A quest for gastro-liberation, an excuse to buy more cookbooks…


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Victoria sponge with Union Jack decoration

Not so named after the troublesome behemoth of a rail, coach and tube station. Rather, the London Victoria Sponge is so monikered because the Union Jack merrily flutters, bedecks and drapes every corner of London at the moment. The heady combination of the Jubilee, the Olympics and Eurovision (okay, that last one might just be me) has inspired me to embrace the flying of the flag in a rather more edible way.

(I’m a devotee of Nigella Lawson’s recipe from How To Be A Domestic Goddess which substitutes 25g of the flour for cornflour. It gives the cake a pleasing springiness and makes it lighter than the average Victoria Sponge without losing the beautiful butteriness of the sponge. It’s not available online, so if you don’t possess a copy of it (and why not?), this is pretty much it.)

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Lemon curd & blueberry layer cake, adapted from Sweetapolita

Lemon curd. Marvellously easy for how impressed people are by it. Juice and zest of two lemons, two eggs and one egg yolk, 100g sugar and 50g butter. Melt the butter and sugar together on a gentle heat in a small pan. Once melted, add in the eggs and lemon juice and zest. Keep whisking on a moderately gentle heat until it thickens to custard consistency. Should take about 10 minutes. Lasts in the fridge for two weeks. If you’re restrained.


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Kho blimey

That pun doesn’t really work unless you know what this is:

Thit kho, is what it is. And what it is, is caramelised pork belly, stewed with spices in coconut juice.

There’s nothing in that preceding sentence that I dislike (apart from the slightly odd syntax.)

This is yet another dish which is redolent of my childhood. It’s the sort of everyday cooking which is an unsung hero of Vietnamese food. Like congee, this is the sort of recipe which you find variants of across South-East Asia. Like any other stew, this is an adaptable recipe. If pork belly isn’t your thing (well, if pork belly isn’t your thing, frankly, we can forget being friends) substitute for chunks of fried tofu; mackerel; salmon steaks; or chicken wings and thighs. Add some hard-boiled eggs in if you’re feeling saucy.

Thit kho

A few notes: like all stew recipes, the variations are endless. If you can’t get hold of coconut juice (which is the clear liquid from the middle of a coconut), plain water will do nicely. Don’t be tempted to substitute with coconut milk. These are different beasts entirely. I’ve specified brown sugar which imparts a deeper, more complex note to the caramel but white sugar works just as well. I’ve opted for cinnamon as my spice of choice but any combination of szechuan peppercorns, star anise, cloves or five spice would do as well. Finally, Chinese rice wine is the traditional choice for this dish but any white spirit or wine will do just as well.

pork belly slices, chopped into large chunks

brown sugar

1 can of coconut juice

nuoc mam (Thai fish sauce)

rice wine

bird’s eye chillies

a cinnamon stick

an onion

a few cloves of garlic

two spring onions, sliced into large pieces

olive oil

Finely chop the garlic and slice the onions and gently fry in some olive oil until golden and caramelised. Remove from the pan and put to one side. In a large pan or wok, heat up two tablespoons of oil and add in two tablespoons of sugar. Once the sugar has melted and browned, carefully add in the pork belly. The idea is to coat the meat in the caramel and seal to get a lovely brown coating. Drain off any excess oil and add in the pre-fried onions and garlic and the spring onions as well.

Cover with the coconut juice (or water), add in one or two bird’s eye chillies (according to taste and bravery) and your spices and simmer on a gentle heat for 45-60 minutes. Keep checking and adding more liquid if needed. The result should be a dark brown, treacly sauce and meat which falls apart on the fork. Serve with steamed rice and either slices of pineapple or cucumber.


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Pho sure

Procrastination. It’s the devil in a shoddy disguise, isn’t it?

I’ve been procrastinating and putting off writing this entry for a few weeks now but that’s nothing when compared to how long I’ve been putting off being a Good Vietnamese Girl.

Come closer gentle reader. I’ve a confession to make.

I don’t know how to cook pho.

Okay. I actually don’t know how to cook ANY Vietnamese food. (Though in my defence, I have got the art of making nuoc cham down to a fine art. Too many people don’t get the balance of sweet, sour and hot right. Oh and garlic. Don’t be shy. Everyone knows it’s not date food.)

So, gripped in the self-perpetuating misery and wallowing that only being pathetically ill can induce, I became gripped with a yearning for comfort food. For the food of my childhood. Whenever I was ill when I was a child, my dad always insisted on feeding me a bowl of steaming hot, aromatic pho. He insisted (still does, as a matter of fact) that a good bowl of pho does wonders to make you sweat all the toxins out. (The rationalist in me disagrees. The glutton nods along and overpowers the rationalist.)

Now that I’m no longer within a stone’s throw from my dad’s pho, the procrastinator in me has been edged out by primal need for the gastronomical equivalent of lying down and having my hair stroked. Knowing that traditional beef pho is rather involved and includes sourcing oxtail, I opted to master chicken pho first.

Cleaner and brighter than its bovine relative, chicken pho consists of a simple consomme flavoured with the heat of smoky chargrilled onion and ginger and bolstered with aromatic cinnamon, star anise and cloves. Silky rice noodles, tender chicken breast and verdant coriander make this sing on the palate and in your heart.

Chicken pho

My version of chicken pho requires chicken bones (something ever present in my freezer due to my stock-making mania). However, I’m aware that not everyone keeps a ready supply of carcasses in their freezer. It’s traditionally made with boiling a chicken really, so go forth and do it properly. Unlike the Bad Viet that I really am.


a chicken (either the bones or a whole raw chicken)

two chicken thighs or breast (if not using a whole raw chicken)

a large white onion

a generous lump of ginger

a stick of cinnamon

star anise

cloves

nuoc mam (Thai fish sauce)

pho (flat white rice noodles)

To garnish

lime wedges

red onion, finely sliced

spring onions, finely sliced

coriander

mint

fresh chillies

Sriracha chilli sauce

hoi sin sauce

Start by halving the white onion and ginger in half and place under a medium-heat grill (skins on and all). You want the edges to catch and brown to impart a smoky note to the broth. Place in the largest saucepan you have with the chicken bones (or whole chicken if using), a cinnamon stick, two star anise and four or five cloves. Cover with water and bring to the boil.

Note: you will notice that you’ll get a greyish scum rising to the surface whilst the broth boils. Let the broth boil for a few minutes so that you can skim this off. Skimming off the weird foam will ensure that you get a lovely clear consomme. Don’t be freaked out, it’s just a thing that happens when you boil up a chicken carcass. Don’t think about it. Trust me.

Transfer over to a low heat and let it simmer for an hour and a half to two hours with a lid on. Periodically check to see if it needs skimming (it shouldn’t do after the first half an hour or so).

In the meantime, you can prepare the herb garnish by finely slicing a small red onion (paper thin as you possibly can); two spring onions; a bunch of coriander and mint (if you can get Thai sweet basil as well, add this into the mixture too). Mix this all together in a bowl. It looks like a lot but I guarantee you that you’ll want a generous helping of this later. Wash your beansprouts and cut up your lime into wedges.

To prepare the noodles, boil up a kettle of water. Meanwhile, place the noodles in a saucepan of cold water. Let them soak for about 15 minutes before draining and soaking in hot water for 5-10 minutes (they should be pliable and silky without being overcooked. Think al-dente.)

By this point, the broth should be ready. Strain if you want to do it properly. If you are lazy like me, you’ll use a slotted spoon to scoop out the bones, onion, ginger and spices. If you are using a whole chicken, strip the carcass of the meat. If you’ve gone the lazy route with the leftover bones, now’s the time to throw in your chicken breast or thighs to cook through. Either way, make sure to season the broth with four or five tablespoons of nuoc mam. 

To assemble: place the noodles in a large bowl, top with a generous handful of the herb garnish, some finely chopped chillies and shredded or sliced chicken pieces. Finally, ladle in the broth and serve with a selection of sauces and a general feeling of contentment.