A Question for the Imagination

tumblr_m7ohjcw94B1qjcl1qWhy do we cook what we cook? Some cook for love, comfort or to impress, others don’t cook at all. Ultimately we all need to feed ourselves, so why is what we cook so important?

These last two weeks have been rather surreal for me. My dad, 5000 miles away, was in and out of hospital with various worrying ailments. He and my mother were, as opposed to hanging out in a hospital having copious scans and tests, supposed to be on holiday, with a visit to London tacked on at the end. I had been thinking about what to cook for their visit for months prior; a favourite pastime for a planner like me. It is also my mother’s 64th birthday on what would be their first evening with us, so I have been thinking a great deal about what to make. I wanted to do something that was special to mark the occasion, but it is also a family tradition that the meal is chosen by the birthday boy or girl in question.  When my brother and I were little, we could have anything we wanted. My health-obsessed mother allowed us a once-a-year free pass to eat the things we were never allowed to have. When I asked her what she wanted for this birthday meal, she said “surprise me”. Indeed.

My mother is a good cook and we were well fed when we were growing up. Now that I’m an adult I appreciate even more how much she tried to feed a family of four, healthily, on a supremely tight budget. She grew her own vegetables, teaching my brother and I along the way the art of the vegetable patch. She mastered cooking with inexpensive ingredients like tinned tuna and her tuna casserole and tuna muffins are still family classics, which, even though my parents are far more solvent than they were when we were children, are still requested on the rare occurrence that the four of us are in the same place at the same time.  She would also shop at local farms for seasonal produce, take us berry picking, make preserves and can the vegetables we grew at home; she was more progressive than I realised. This now seems an idyllic way of living.

All that went out the window, however, when it was our birthdays. I can never remember the meals my brother or father would choose, but to my adult shame, I very often asked for KFC for my special dinner. We’re not just talking a cheeky Zinger burger here, oh no, we’re talking the family bargain bucket with “mash potatoes” and “gravy”, if that is what you could call rehydrated powder. And it was heaven.  All the salt and fat my little high-hipped 10-year old body could take. After that, it’d be my mother’s unbelievable homemade chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, and I would collapse into a hypoglycaemic coma. Brilliant.  Of course now I would never choose KFC for a birthday meal; KFC is clearly now reserved for nights when I’ve over-imbibed. The last birthday elicited dinner at St John; times have definitely changed.

And so what to cook for my mother for her birthday? Of course, it is a moot point now, but I still love to plan, even if it isn’t going to happen. Planning menus is a wonderful way to pass the time, especially when much of my time at the moment is spent at a job that requires little or no action or thought on my part.

First, as it is July and we can get local-ish tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes, I thought I’d do a simple bruschetta, a nod to my mother’s Italian heritage. I’d chop and leave them to stew in their own juices with some of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, crushed garlic and lots of fresh basil. I’d serve it on some fabulous sourdough from Wild Caper in Brixton, which I’d slice, brush with olive oil, grill, and subject to a good rubbing of fresh garlic.

Next, I’d have gone to William Rose in East Dulwich and picked up a wonderful piece of flank steak. I associate this cut with my mother so much. She would make it often during the summer for the barbecue, marinated in a blend of soy sauce, honey, garlic and other ingredients, which I’ve still never managed to recreate.  My own favourite marinade is made up of honey, garlic, olive oil, freshly cracked pepper, a good dousing of wasabi teriyaki from the Japanese supermarket, cut with soy sauce, and chilli flakes. After letting the meat soak up these umami flavours for a good 3-6 hours, you can cook the leftover marinade down to create an unbelievable drizzle for the meat.

On the side, I would serve grilled artichokes hearts with melted butter, as she was the first person to teach me how to peel back the petals, dip them in butter, and scrape them with your teeth. Once we’d reached the centre, she showed me how to scrape off the little furry insides and my first taste of this creamy vegetal flower, shrouded in warm salty butter, was burned into my brain.  And of course there would be a salad too. No family meal, in my mother’s opinion, is complete without a green salad.

Finally, it would be homemade chocolate cake, with chocolate frosting, with healthy scoops of vanilla ice cream on the side. What else could it be, really? There would be lots of wine and of course, my mom would say “don’t let me drink too much because it affects my sleep”, but she would have a couple glasses and hopefully get a bit giggly and maybe a little hiccup-y.

That is what I would have cooked and why.

An Unexpected Education: Burger Monday (a review)

tumblr_m69zm8cPI71qjcl1qI have a confession to make: I have never been to Moro. Admitting this is a little embarrassing. It has the potential to put me into a pariah hinterland in certain foodie circles. For those readers who are not London- or UK-based, it is widely accepted that Moro is one of the best restaurants in London. Not the most expensive, mind, but one of the best. It is totally one-of-a-kind. And I have never been. It is hard (and expensive) to have a food habit, as we all know, and in my defense I have been easily distracted by my own local (and exceptional) restaurants here in Brixton, new pop-ups, the influx of street vans and their exciting food being produced. Add to this a personal obsession with my own general cookery and, well, at the risk of sounding a bit glib, I just haven’t gotten around to it.

Moro is run by Sam and Sam Clark, of course, which is why, when Daniel Young (of Young & Foodish) announced his next Burger Monday was hosting them, I jumped at the opportunity and managed to score tickets before they sold out in record time. I confess that I booked without even really looking at what was being served. I caught sight of the Hindu Kush Burger but that was all, and even so, had no idea what it was. Frankly, I didn’t care what the Clarks made, at this point I was getting my first foray into the Moro world and it was, in all likelihood, going to be spectacular. Turns out it was.

They were going to take us on a trip across southern Europe to Asia; the ‘burger’ the tableau. Starting in Spain, heading east into the exotic flavours of Afganistan (the Hindu Kush is a mountain range that runs between central Afganistan to northern Pakistan) and then finishing in western India. This was going to be awesome.

This particular Burger Monday was hosted at Ozone Coffee on Leonard Street in Shoreditch, instead of the cafe near Chancery Lane where I’d been to my first Young & Foodish event: Spag Wednesday (with Stevie Parle).  I’m not sure if this is a permanent relocation but hoping it will be. The designer, Lou Davies of Box-9, has a knack for stripped back but chic design which incorporates exposed brick with reclaimed tables, chairs and lighting, so whilst the caff on Greys Inn Road had a certain charming grittiness in its own way, Ozone is a vast upgrade (and has amazing coffee too).

And so on to the food…

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Two plates of tapas arrived at our table shortly after we did, accompanied with cool glasses of sherry. I missed the waitress telling us what everything was and that, in essence, became the rest of the meal for me. I spent a fair portion of the evening running through my internal flavour thesaurus looking to match words with what I was tasting.  Oh, I caught some cumin here and fresh coriander there, and perhaps a bit of parsley but all of a sudden here I was, crashing head-on into a taste combination bonanza – slightly bitter, sweet, warming, salty, lemony, peppery, fresh…

Luckily we live in a world with internet so I was able look up what was on the menu to start. Specifically:

Prawn Tortillitas, Broad beans and Jamón, Salt cod and green pepper tortilla, Vegetarian koftes.

tumblr_m6a32mrQL01qjcl1qIn the tortillitas, the lovely little baby prawns were coated in a light chickpea flour-based batter, then deep fried. Delightfully fishy, complete with a bit of a crunch. Fantastic. Next to them were nicely cured slices of jamón with the broad beans as their partners in crime; it really was a winning combination. Just totally fresh in character, no pretense. Obviously, I didn’t have to stretch the brain too far to work out what these were, what a relief!…

Next we tried the salt cod & green pepper tortilla (pictured above). Tortilla is a favourite of mine in the tapas gamut, and this one was truly special. In the first bite, the flavour of the green pepper sang…yes, you heard me correctly, and no, I can’t believe I just said that either. The salt cod was not the main feature, quite rightly, as it would probably have been too over-powering, but it happily played second fiddle to a normally very pedestrian vegetable, and boy, did that vegetable dance. I was impressed that something so simple could taste so incredible. The “meat” in the vegetarian koftes was bulgur, and I may be showing some ignorance here, but it seemed a bit al dente for my tastes. Even so, wrapped in lettuce leaves, they were fresh, light, spicy and completely tasty.

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The Hindu Kush burgers arrived after what was, for me, a welcome moment of reflection, and the first bite intimated a heady and fragrant lamb mince, seasoned with a combination of herbs and spices which married and created new wonderful and unidentifiable flavours. We learned later there was, along with the lamb mince, mature beef mince, tomatoes, fresh coriander and coriander seeds, garlic, and most fascinatingly to me, pomegranate molasses, something I’d never heard of.

The burger came with chips with sprinklings of… was it sumac?…whatever it was, the combination of salt and heat and spiciness was enough to warrant a few licked fingertips to pick up rogue flecks. It also came a wonderful raita salad – a clever nod to traditional coleslaw and of course, a fresh compliment to the burger. Sides of red onions and chillis were given to us if we wanted a bit more flavour (the irony!), but as my dining companion said, anything the chef didn’t already intend to be on the plate was going to be given a miss. None of us were going to pretend we knew more than either of the Sams.

tumblr_m6hon5qwqZ1qjcl1qWhilst we finished with thick and creamy Alphonso mango lassis, (Mr) Sam talked about visiting Moorish Spain, North Africa and Asia and specifically, travelling to the Hindu Kush where he became familiar with the unique flavour combinations from the region. These, and others they picked up in their travels, are the inspiration and the foundation of his and (Mrs) Sam’s reputation as truly remarkable chefs. 

This ‘kebab in a bun’ turned out to not only be an introduction for me to the Clarks’ abilities and exceptional use of herb and spice combinations, but also their continued quest to teach us about regions for which the food is lesser known (or appreciated). On this evening, Burger Monday and the Clarks played Henry Higgins to the fast-food world’s Eliza Doolittle. The burger, that ubiquitous beefy delight that permeates most cities in its ‘fastest’ food format, and in London specifically as a heart attack in waiting, was turned into an exotic starlet from an otherwise repetitive and humdrum existence.  Perhaps I’ve tasted the Clarks’ cooking the wrong way around, but it can’t matter at this point – my booking at Moro has been made, and I’m on a quest for pomegranate molasses.

Burger Monday £36pp (for this particular event), which included one glass of sherry

http://youngandfoodish.com/

http://www.moro.co.uk/

http://www.ozonecoffee.co.uk/