Food


About a week ago, I made my way across the city to Old Street – to Tramontina Brindisa – to feast (invited) at their first calçotada of the year. If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s a Catalan celebration of the calçot, a long onion shoot that’s served grilled with a sauce made with peppers and nuts. Apparently it’s only in the last decade that the calçotada has become a big deal, even in Catalunya. The city of Valls is particularly known for their calçots and their calçotades (as well as their castells).

I’d never been to this particular Brindisa but I liked the slightly industrial style space – to my surprise though, I was shown through to the glowing red covered terrace out back. The red glow was due to a copious number of outdoor heaters turning a frigid January in London into a much warmer January in Barcelona!

There’s enough seating for at least 30, I reckon, and those heaters really did make things cosy.

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Now, in case you’d forgotten what the event was, the space was full of calçots and other Catalan vegetables not typically found in this city. Those dried chillies are nyoras, used to make the romesco sauce for the calçots. Do you recognise the tomatoes?

Catalan Vegetables

While everyone mingled and sipped on cava, we watched as head chef Leo Rivera started grilling the long onions over a portable gas stove – very handy! It does seem more convenient to bring out the portable butane rather than go to the trouble of charcoal whilst it’s cold and windy.

Grilling Calçots

We were then invited to find our seats (what beautiful table dressing!) and the calçotada started in earnest.

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Well, almost in earnest! First were a couple of less traditional calçot preparations that are currently featured on their a la carte menu. Fat orange stuffed olives were a nice tangy foil to rich tempura calçots, served with romesco.

Olives with Orange

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My preference was for the calçot croquetes, only because I really cannot turn down a croqueta. These large marble sized nuggets were perfectly creamy and oniony.

Calçot Croquetes

Before we got much further, Leo gave a demonstration on how to drink from a porró – a Catalan device for pouring a thin stream of wine directly into your mouth. Soon there was plenty of red wine splashing down everyone’s chests!

How to Drink from a Porró

Bundles of grilled calçots wrapped in paper were handed to us along with dishes of romesco sauce (or technically salvitxada, a thicker romesco sauce specifically for eating with calçots). After grilling, the calçots were wrapped in newspaper, allowing them to keep warm and steam a little, separating its layers.

Grilled Calçots

Romesco

Another demonstration! How to eat a calçot: Peel the charred layers of calçot skin off to reveal the tender, translucent slips of grilled calçot. Dip this into sauce and drop its length into your mouth from above. Oh, and ensure that your bib is on. I went through my pile in minutes.

How to Eat a Calçot

A massive platter of meat (to be shared between two) was then set in front of us. Grilled meats are the traditional second course after calçots; it seems natural to make use of the grill since you’ve got it fired up! Grilled botifarra (a Catalan sausage), presa iberica, lamb chops, and chorizo were accompanied by a grilled artichoke, roasted red peppers, a baked potato, plenty of toasted bread and aioli.

The Grilled Meats

Everything was of the quality we’ve all come to expect from Brindisa. Extra artichokes were brought out for us as well and I’m not ashamed to say that I managed to have an extra artichoke and an extra botifarra as well! (Botifarra are rare in London as the shops don’t tend to stock them as they perish quickly.)

For dessert, it had to be crema catalana! We were shown how a hot iron is used to burn the tops of the creams and then we stuck in. Brilliant – these were creamy and not too sweet, the sweetness provided by the crunchy caramelised tops.

Crema Catalana

It’s not too late to book a seat at one of Brindisa’s calçotadas – they take place on Saturdays and Sundays in February and March only at lunchtimes and at both Tramontina Brindisa and Morada. All the food plus a glass of cava is £35 per person. I can definitely recommend it; it’s a comfortable space and a calçotada is great fun. Book your calçotada here!

Thank you very much to Brindisa for the invitation!

Tramontana Brindisa
152 Curtain Road
London EC2A 3AT

I’m starting to like the format of these short little posts that allow me to quickly expand on my thoughts of a place or a dish I’ve had recently. I like the instant publication of Instagram but something about it doesn’t allow me to wax on as I do here. One recent meal whose photo I posted was my lunch from Mother Clucker, who I encountered in the monthly KERB street food market in Sheldon Square, Paddington.

My £10 was exchanged for their lunch deal of 3 chicken strips, Cajun fries, and a can of soft drink.

Chicken strips and Cajun fries from Mother Clucker. They are freaking excellent.

Those chicken strips were huge! These tea-brined, buttermilk soaked and twice battered (that’s what their website says) chicken strips were utterly fantastic, very moist and tender and with a great crust. You know I love me some fried chicken and these were hands-down the best Southern-style strips I’ve had in a long time. As you can see, I also put good use to the proffered squeeze bottles of homemade lime mayonnaise and hot pepper sauce. Two thumbs up.

These guys are definitely worth seeking out.

Mother Clucker
All over London – check out their website for details.

Most of London woke to a light dusting of snow this past Sunday morning but while there are Narnia like scenes outside, we’ve got a bit of the Mediterranean inside. We’ve still got a handful of so of tomatoes grown in our garden and harvested last autumn.

Tomacons

Now what kind of tomato keeps for months like that?! Hanging tomatoes do – let’s ignore the fact that I haven’t actually hung mine. These thick skinned tomatoes are the kind to use for the famous Catalan pa amb tomàquet (literally ‘bread with tomato’) and are generally not available outside Spain, maybe not even outside Catalonia. In Catalan, these go by the names tomàquets de penjar (hanging tomatoes) or tomacons.

Have you tried making pa amb tomàquet at home with regular tomatoes? There’s not much to squish out of those fleshy salad tomatoes, is there? Many Spanish restaurants here, either unable to get the original tomatoes or who need to make lots in advance, tend to puree tomatoes and premix the puree with olive oil and salt and when it’s time to serve, brush this mixture onto toast. It really doesn’t taste the same.

These tomacons have lots of liquid and seeds inside their thick skins, making them absolutely rubbish for eating like a salad tomato but perfect for rubbing onto bread. Cut them in half around their equator, and rub their flesh vigorously onto a slice of gently toasted bread. You’ll find the tomato flesh give and release itself all over the bread, leaving empty skins between your fingers. Drizzle with olive and a bit of salt (and you could also rub a little garlic on the toast before the tomato) and you’re feasting.

We've gotta eat pa amb tomàquet while watching the Catalan election results! These are our home grown tomacons - the usual tomatoes used for this. I'll write a blog post about them one day.

And here's our pa amb tomàquet! #27s

Here’s a photo of another variety in a market in Barcelona. Oh look, they’re being properly hung for storage!

Hanging Tomatoes

You’ll notice that they look a little different than the ones I grew. Ours were tomacons of the variety mallorquí, which are quite distinct with their pointy bottoms. I’m growing a different variety next year – Domingo.

If you’re looking for seeds to grow them, you can, of course, get them in garden shops in Catalonia but I’ve also found them at Real Seeds – they’re listed as the variety De Colgar (Spanish for ‘hanging’). Ignore what they say about them being nearly extinct as that may be the case in the rest of Spain but it’s definitely not the case in Catalonia; you can buy them from pretty much any grocers. I believe those are the correct seeds!

I like fried chicken. No, I love fried chicken. And I’d been meaning to try Ma’Plucker after passing it one evening on Beak Street (ha!) and stopping in for just desserts – I knew I’d be back for their main menu and we got that chance one evening in late December. One or two of the tables were occupied that evening – perhaps its the bench seating in the front that encourages people not to linger too much after their meal. We grabbed a relatively quiet table in the back and contemplated their quirky menu. There’s a formula for their chicken meals: choose your chicken style, your carbohydrate or salad, and your sauce. There are other set chicken dishes available and sides too.

They had two or three flavoured iced teas available that evening and both those we tried (lemon and cranberry) were refreshing and tasted very natural. Thumbs up from us!

Iced Teas

We had to have some fried chicken of course and it was to be in the form of Crispy Coated Buttermilk Dipped Wings and a Waffle (£6). MP chicken skin gravy for this one. The fried chicken wasn’t exactly the buttermilk friedness that I was expecting (the coating bit threw me a bit) but y’know, it was pretty good fried chicken. Fried chicken. Yeah. The waffle already had some maple syrup embedded in it and with the savoury gravy, well, that went down a treat.

Crispy Coated Buttermilk Dipped Wings and Waffle

We also tried their Hickory Smoked Pulled Chicken in a House Bun (£7.50 for 250g pulled chicken) with Kansas BBQ sauce. Surprisingly, this may have been the winner that evening. 250g of pulled chicken turned out to be quite a bit (a 150g portion is also available for the less greedy) but it was tender and delicious and the barbecue sauce included was very good.

Hickory Smoked Pulled Chicken

We had Seasonal Greens and Fries (£4 and £3.50, respectively) on the side. Both were fine – the seasonal greens were lovely tossed in a slightly spicy butter but I wish they had been a more generous with the portion size.

Seasonal Greens and Fries

No desserts that evening but their cherry pie was lovely the first time we tried it while their apples and dumplings were alright in the past. It’s a good spot to pop into in the area, well, if you’re craving chicken of course!

Ma’Plucker
75 Beak Street
London W1F 9SS

Happy new year! This is an end-of-year update from our vegetable garden! Since my introduction to our vegetable garden, we’ve had quite a good summer and autumn of harvests. Of course, things are relatively dormant now but with the current mild winter we still have some chard going strong as well as a few carrots still in the ground. The cavolo nero still looks good and the rocket keeps putting up new leaves. The broad beans I’ve planted for overwintering are already almost 30cm tall!

Let’s see what’s been harvested! Chard. Lots of it and of the rainbow sort so that still tickles me.

I ran out in the rain to gather my first harvest of rainbow chard for brunch

Cherry tomatoes. A million.

I'm still in shock at how many cherry tomatoes can be produced from two plants.

Carrots. I planted way too many but they’re good to have around.

Pulled out these carrots this morning...

Cucamelons. I also planted way too many of these.

First harvest: 1 cucamelon. Second: 2. Today: 4. I see where this is going.

Near daily harvests.

This morning's harvest. The courgettes are winding down but everything else is going strong!

Even friends come over and help you harvest!

Hold a barbecue and your friends will do the harvesting for you!

Cavolo nero! Well, my plants are a little on the small side but they taste good.

Cavolo nero from the garden!

Then of course there was all the cooking with the vegetables. Most of it went into every day cooking and eating. There was a brief stint of bringing couscous-based salads to work.

Alright, let's see how long this packing lunch for work thing lasts. Probably until the veggies stop.

There were vegetables aplenty for having on the side with everything.

Steak and homegrown vegetables. This was our first proper green/runner bean harvest!

Most of the time the vegetables became the focus of our dinner. We made lots of truites (Catalan for tortillas) and soups.

Our garden has fed us and continues to feed us well. Swiss chard truita (omelette) with courgette soup.

Courgette carbonara.

The courgettes keep giving! They are monster plants now. Courgette carbonara tonight.

More vegetables, this time served with eggs.

Sautéed courgettes, fresh tomatoes, and sobrassada eggs for brunch! 🍳🍞🍅

This was one of our favourite meals which we called pasta de l’hort (garden pasta). This was hot pasta tossed with a chopped salad with many things from the garden: tomatoes, rocket, cucamelons, etc. Oh, and we’d toss in an avocado too and maybe some cheese.

Pasta de l'hort / garden pasta

Baby courgettes are good in instant noodles.

My favourite vegetables in our garden are those that pass the 'can I throw them into my instant noodles' test.

Some of those endless carrots were turned into a salad.

... And turned most of the carrots into this salad.

I’ve now learned to freeze some of the vegetables but lots were cooked as soon as we harvested them. Lots of things were cooked into various dishes here that we had with rice: runner beans with miso butter, egg and tomato, courgettes with Lao Gan Ma sauce, and purple bean omelette.

We used up the vegetables (and random stuff in the fridge) at dinnertime. Clockwise from top left: runner beans with miso butter, egg and tomato, courgettes with Lao Gan Ma sauce, purple bean omelette. All served with rice.

I’ve learned a few things along the way. When we returned from our summer holiday, we found our purple beans had fallen over – the supports we had used for them had got soaked in the rain and then the winds blew them over. The runner beans succumbed to the same a month later – lesson learned, never use these supports again! And then our tomatoes were struck down by blight – argh, what a terrible stupid disease! We had to pick lots for them to ripen indoors but some of the larger ones were turned into fried green tomatoes. They’ve all been eaten now except for a few Catalan hanging tomatoes that can keep all winter – I’ve been meaning to write about them in a separate post.

This is our tomato ripening station - and it's working!

Uh oh. Our green tomatoes are looking a touch blight-y. 😩

Our sunflowers were brilliant. We grew three and one flower head fell off after a fat bird or squirrel got to it. The other flowers survived though their seeds were attacked by pigeons, squirrels, parakeets, etc. We just managed to save most of the two remaining heads, enough to toast and snack on. They were fabulous!

Tonight's in-front-of-the-telly activity

Anyway, it’s time to start planning for next year. Things I’ll change? Perhaps not so many cucamelon plants. More green beans – I love them. Maybe I’ll try corn and maybe melons. The broad beans are already new.

One thing that’s been driving me stir-crazy all year are the stupid cats that come along and dig up my poor seedlings – it’s very difficult to raise any winter lettuces and cabbages if the young plants keep getting buried! Does anyone have any tips for detracting cats please? Should I just get garden hoops and cover everything with fleece/netting? Is there a cat repellent spray you can recommend?

It was Christmas in London for us this year and it was our first proper Christmas in our house! We have family visiting us and I’ve been cooking for the past couple of days.

Christmas day started with a massive brunch of scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, sausages, croissants, hams, jams, etc. Oh, and hashwaffles. I’m not sure if that’s its correct name but I saw somewhere online that frozen tater tots could be cooked in a waffle iron. Well, it was just one step away from tater tots to frozen rosti from Waitrose and boom – I can vouch that they do indeed cook brilliantly in that multi-tasking device. Place them frozen into a hot waffle iron, apply constant pressure until the soften and the waffle iron closes fully and then let cook until done. They cook very quickly and are fabulous.

Christmas day brunch

Dinner was unconventional but it’s what we love doing for special occasions: hotpot!

The Hotpot Spread

Pork and Beef

All the Balls

Mushrooms

Vegetables, Tofu and Spam

After cooking all those ingredients, the broth is brilliant to drink afterwards. If you’re looking to host your own hotpot party, I’ve written general guidelines for it previously.

Boxing day is never an afterthought. The day started with brunch again – Catalan pa amb tomàquet with fried eggs and bacon.

Boxing day brunch

Dinner was steak!

The Boxing Day Dinner Table

Let’s zoom into my plate. There’s a ribeye steak covered in a black pepper, mushroom and brandy sauce, served with mashed potatoes and sauteed Brussels sprouts. The sauce is a family recipe, similar apparently to a pepper sauce served in a restaurant in Fraser’s Hill in Malaysia – we bring it out at every special family steak meal!

Steak with a Black Pepper Mushroom Sauce, Sauteed Brussels Sprouts and Mashed Potatoes

And now that Christmas is over, I’m looking forward to heading out in London to eat! Hope you’ve all had a fabulous holiday season!

Right, this might be the quickest I’ve ever written anything up. But at lunch yesterday, I got to try the street food purveyor Bian Dang, specialising in Taiwanese lunch boxes (the name means that in Mandarin). I actually sought them out when they came yesterday as part of KERB Paddington – when I heard someone was serving Taiwanese lunch boxes, I knew I had to try it! I loved the lunchboxes that I’d tried in Vancouver (I’ve not been to Taiwan) and I adore Taiwanese pork chops.

Anyway, for £7.50 I got The Beast – a lunch box with everything. Everything was their usual rice, minced pork sauce, stir fried vegetables, pickles and half a slow cooked tea egg topped with all their available toppings: fried pork, fried chicken and fried oyster mushrooms.

The Beast from Bian Dang at KERB Paddington

This was brilliant. Of particular note were the fried oyster mushrooms – these were the best fried mushrooms I’ve ever had – and the slow cooked tea egg. But everything in box was excellent. It’s definitely worth trying them out!

Bian Dang
At various locations. Keep track of where they are with their Twitter feed.

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