Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Phở - Veggie Vietnamese goodness

I absolutely love food, every aspect of it. I love reading about it, I love cooking, and I love eating in restaurants. Hushed and rarefied temples to fine dining? Hell yeah! Slutty takeaway grub, pawed at while I’m stumbling along the pavement on the way home bladdered? Tres Je’taime. I love that too…. I love it. I love it all.

And that’s the problem readers…I have too much love to give, far, far…. far too much. Often when I’m left feeling particularly bloated and corpulent after yet another week of loving excess, my thoughts turn to simpler, healthier pleasures.

It’s at these times I change into asymmetric natural robes of my own design that are soft, feather light and flow around my body like silk. I then spend hours in silent contemplation. Afterwards I like to exercise on a bamboo mat in the living room in my own freeform version of Tai Chi (involving lots of forward and backward rolls, slow motion ‘voguing’ with some particularly emotional mime action, all conducted to a custom soundtrack of wind chimes and monkey mating noises)*

As you can probably imagine, getting myself all Zen is extremely tiring and leaves a fella feeling particularly ravenous and sharp-set. What then could be more healthy and filling than a bowl of gorgeous Vietnamese noodle soup, pho?

I adore pho, particularly with slices of beef in it, but as ‘E’ is a pescetarian and…

A) It’s felt like too much like hard work to make a meaty version AND a non-meaty version

B) A non-meat version has to be healthier right? And the whole point is I’m trying to eat healthy here.

I set about throwing together a veggie pho.

I found a recipe online, and bastardised it a bit. The results were bloody good. Admittedly it’s probably not religiously authentic. I wouldn’t really know. I haven’t been to Vietnam. My only experience of eating pho is in the Vietnamese restaurants that line Kingsland Rd in London and in the eponymously named ‘Pho’, the small and rather excellent London and Brighton chain. You just can’t get decent pho at all in Bristol.

But the main thing is that it’s healthy and filling and tastes like it’s actually doing you some real good, cleansing your innards and leaving you both content and virtuous. (Which, lets face it, is a combination of feelings that is generally alien to most of us).

Veggie Pho

Serves 4

The recipe comes in two parts, which sounds more of a pain in the arse than it actually is. First you make the vegetarian broth, and then the second part is just a bit of slicing and assembly, basically slinging it all in a bowl. Start to finish; you can easily have the whole thing on the table in 30 mins. Oh and if you have an Asian grocery shop or supermarket near you, get all the ingredients there – it’ll cost sod all.

Veggie broth

You’ll need:

2 litres water
2 scant level tsp Marigold Veg bouillon (Unless you have 2 litres of decent veg stock knocking around – if so, definitely use that).
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
8 medium garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 small onion, diced
One-thumb size piece of ginger, unpeeled.
Two 3-inch cinnamon sticks
2 star anise
2 large bay leaves

Add water, veg bouillon or stock, soy sauce, garlic, and onion to a large stockpot and bring to a boil over medium heat.

Meanwhile, char the ginger on all sides over an open gas flame or in a small frying pan and add to the stock. (This is a completely new technique to me, not entirely sure what the point is, but suspect it adds a subtle ginger smokiness. The finished broth didn’t taste burnt at all, so just go with it).

Add the cinnamon, star anise, and bay leaves to the broth. Reduce the heat to low. Simmer, partially covered, for 20-25 minutes.

Strain the broth through a fine sieve. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Return to pot and keep hot until ready to use in Pho.

Vegetarian Pho

You’ll Need: -

2 Litres Vietnamese style broth (recipe above)
200g Rice noodles (I like the thicker ribbon type)
2 handfuls bean sprouts
4 Bok Choi – Leaves left whole, stems finely sliced.
1 handful of Basil leaves
1 handful Coriander, coarsely chopped
3 Spring Onions, finely sliced.
3 Tablespoons chopped, roasted, unsalted peanuts.
1 lime, cut into wedges
3 fresh red chilli peppers, sliced into rounds
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Whilst you’re making the Veggie broth in the recipe above, you can cook the noodles. Use the timings on the packet (normally soaked in boiling hot, but off the heat, water for 10 mins or so) drain and divide the noodles among four warmed bowls.

Assemble the soup by placing the bean sprouts, cabbage, greens, basil, coriander, spring onion, and peanuts on top of the noodles.

Ladle the hot broth onto the noodle mixture.

Eat it straightaway, whilst boiling hot. If you like a bit of heat, sling in the chillies. Definitely add a squeeze or two of lime and maybe a dash of soy or fish sauce if you think it needs it, scoff it down and feel that virtuous healthy feeling expand within you.

The great thing about a recipe like this is, it’s so adaptable, you can throw any fresh greens in really – spinach, chard, Savoy cabbage, finely sliced carrot whatever you have knocking around, it doesn’t have to be authentic, as long as it tastes good. Oh, and if you don't care about it being veggie, the following additions would all work well; cooked prawns, cooked shredded chicken or finely sliced roast beef.

*My own design asymmetric natural flowing robes, freeform Tai Chi program and wind chime/monkey shagging soundtrack are all available to purchase. Drop me an email at the usual address for a pricelist.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Best of 'The Basement'

It’ll come as no surprise to the readers of this blog, that as well as taking photos of pretty much everything I eat in restaurants, I also take photos of the food we cook at The Montpelier Basement, a Bristol supper club I run jointly with ‘E’ (well, photos of most of it, when it’s not too hectic in the kitchen…which, invariably it always is).

Sadly we had to let the official ‘Basement’ photographer go in a recent round of entourage cutbacks, along with the personal manicurist, hairdresser and stylist. (but you’ll be pleased to know we kept the all-important Feng Shui consultant. The upshot of this is we now look like absolute shit, but our dining room is orientated in a way that pleases the gods immensely).

But I was recently struck by the thought that I write a food blog and I hardly ever write about what we’re cooking at the supper club on it, which could be considered something of an oversight perhaps.

So, time to remedy it, with a selection of some of the best things we’ve cooked at ‘The Montpelier Basement’ in the last few months (errr…and that we have pictures of, and were reasonably happy with). Snatched pics in bad light, as we’re trying to frantically get food out to the diners, before it gets cold isn’t a recipe for great snaps, but here goes…in no particular order….

The end of May saw us serving up ‘chilled cucumber & horseradish soup with Cornish crab’ (or Homewood Ewe’s curd for the veggies). Cold soup has never really appealed to me much, but I’ve recently discovered that on a hot balmy evening, there’s nothing more refreshing. I was quite pleased with this, the horseradish giving a surprisingly subtle punch despite loads going in.

A dessert of ‘elderflower posset with deep fried elderflower fritters, drizzled with local St Werburghs honey’ was bloody awesome, even if I do say so myself. The contrast between the cool, fresh, silky posset and the hot, crisp elderflower fritters worked so well. As with anything that’s deep-fried at the supper club, it was incredibly messy churning these out for 18 people with tempura batter alles uber da platz.

‘Cornish smoked haddock fishcakes with watercress and hollandaise’, possibly one of the most substantial fish courses we’ve served up. The smoked haddock was fantastic quality, really subtle procured by our fishmonger Joe at Source in St Nicholas market. Absolutely cracking combined with my favourite sauce of all time, hollandaise (which is always fun to make when you’re making it for a crowd…how much butter!?)

An ‘egg & bacon salad’ was basically a locally sourced take on the classic French dish. ‘Soft boiled pheasant egg with Devonshire dry cured bacon, frissee and sourdough croutons’. Our diners were amazed when we got 18 just soft boiled eggs out of the kitchen in no time at all. To do this we used a cheffy trick of pre-boiling the eggs so they were just underdone, then plunging into iced water to stop the cooking and then refrigerating. To re-heat we plunged them back into boiling water for 30 seconds. We were really pleased with how this turned out, as it’s such a simple dish, but easy to cock up.

‘Braised shoulder of salt marsh lamb with peas, broad beans and potato’. This is a Jason Atherton recipe and is fantastic because most of the preparation is done in advance. The lamb shoulder is braised slowly for hours in a combination of chicken and beef stock, and allowed to cool, then taken out and ripped up, discarding all fat and gristle. The resulting meat is then rolled up into clingfilm cylinders and refrigerated, where it firms up. To serve, it’s cut into portions and fried off last minute. It’s already cooked really, so you’re just re-heating and browning the outside. I think this is a really impressive dish. A sprinkling of chopped rosemary to finish, and that’s it.

The beginning of July and for dessert we served ‘Homewood ewe’s curd cheesecake mousse, Wye Valley raspberries & spiced shortbread’. We pinched the mousse recipe from Tom Kitchin’s cookbook, but used the excellent local artisan produced Homewood Ewes curd to make our own version. It’s almost a deconstructed cheesecake. We were really pleased with this.

The end of July, and this was the vegetarian option, offered instead of the treacle cured salmon, ‘Beetroot mousse, horseradish crème fraiche, pea-shoots and Harts Bakery bread’. A striking colour, horseradish and beetroot are a classic combination and it seemed to go down well.

This is one of my favourite dishes ever, ‘Gloucester Old Spot pork belly, black pudding, gooseberry chutney & potatoes’. It’s another one of those recipes, like the lamb shoulder, where it’s mostly prepared in advance, which is perfect for a supper club. The pork belly is rolled and tied, then braised in stock, removed and laid out flat, it’s then weighted down to press it and refrigerated. To serve, it’s portioned up, and fried to order. We made the gooseberry chutney in advance, the tart sharpness cutting through the fatty pork nicely…. and the potatoes…mashed. The best mash I’ve ever made in fact, sheer silky creaminess, lets just ignore how much butter, full fat milk and double cream went into them. Just to finish it all off, we crumbled some black pudding over the pork.

Another chilled soup, tomato in this case. Ok, technically it’s gazpacho (even more so as it’s Spanish chef Jose Pizzaro's recipe), but as all the ingredients were perfectly in season in England at the time, it’s too bloody good and there were so many fantastic tomatoes around, we had to make it. The recipe is simplicity itself and it astounded me that it tasted so fantastic for seemingly such little work. We used locally grown Radford Mill organic tomatoes, and served it with something else pinched from Tom Kitchin; a dollop of Basil Sorbet (which tasted incredible by the way).

Finally, right up to the most recently held ‘Basement’ one of the best desserts we’ve made, ‘Mirabelle plum & thyme tart with cinnamon ice cream’. The plums were also from Radford Mill and were organic. Plum and thyme went together incredibly well. The cinnamon ice cream was also one of the best we’ve made so far, but it’s always a pain to make enough for 18, as our machine is one of those small, cheap ‘freeze for 24hrs before using’ jobbies, which means much scheduling and planning in order to knock up the required amount.

So, there you have it. Some of the better food we’ve cooked in recent months at The Montpelier Basement (that we have photos of). I’m proud of all it to be honest. To knock 18 of any of those dishes out, from a small domestic kitchen, under pressure, with a room full of expectant guests and no practice run… it's always going to be massive sighs of relief, cheesy grins and back slaps all round, I reckon. At the very least, we haven't poisoned anyone...yet.


On Sunday September 25th, we’re bringing the whole Montpelier Basement dog and pony show to London, at Farringdon’s The Coach and Horses pub, for one night only. It’s already fully booked up, but if you fancy being added to the waiting list, or want to come along to any future possible Basement On Tour dates, or any of our regular Bristol ones for that matter, drop us a line at montpelierbsmt@gmail.com and we’ll add you to the mailing list.