Pane frattau, of sorts

Raise your hand if you find recipes daunting. Yep, me too.

I mean, when it comes to baking, recipes are my bible. I cling to every word, obey even the most menial of instructions, weigh ingredients obsessively, time the exact number of seconds needed to whisk eggs and sugar. Baking is like cooking blind – you have no idea what the dish will actually become. You have runny, sticky dough and have to pray that it will turn into a dense pancake or fluffy bread.

But cooking, man, I don’t know. I can’t follow recipes. I stray. While I take comfort in religiously obeying my cake recipes, cooking ones always seem so… long. Just too long. It may be the never-ending lists of ingredients, the confusing measurements (a quarter of a ginger root, chopped. Three whispers of crushed garlic), or maybe just the fact that I can see and taste the food transforming in front of my eyes, which gives me false sense of control. I don’t know.

So while I observe the wonderfully shot, polished recipes of Lady and and Pups, frowning at a list of ingredients that I wouldn’t even know where to find, wondering if I do have time to marinate my chicken for six hours while the bread proves and I knead my hand smashed noodles – also do I need an ice cream bucket in my life? – I just want to make something that involves a few ingredients and a few steps. I’ll just bookmark that turmeric butter chicken recipe and never click on it again.

So this is a take on Pane Frattau, a Sardinian dish which I first tried in a little cafe in Ealing (figures). It’s layers of Carasau bread, softened, with tomato sauce and a poached egg. Well, in my case, fried, because I don’t understand how anyone could choose poached over fried. It’s beautifully simple, if a little lazy, but somehow the bright passata and the sticky egg old on soft, chewy bread just make for a perfect meal.

I know, I speak about obscure ingredients and then I make something with Carasau bread? I know, I know. But you can find this moreish, thin crispy bread in any M&S and some larger supermarkets.

Pane Frattau

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Ingredients (serves 2):

3 or 4 leaves of pane carasau

a little hot water

half a bottle of good tomato passata

2 eggs

olive oil

some grated pecorino cheese

 

Pour some hot water onto each leaf of bread and let it soak for a a coupe of minutes, until soft. Move to a skillet or any oven-safe tray, spoon over some tomato passata, add a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Crack the eggs into the dish and bake in the over at 180° for 10-15 minutes, until the eggs are done. Sprinkle with pecorino and, if you have spare burrata, throw that in there too (why not?).

 

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A perfect trip to Maltby Street Market

It all starts before twelve, just before most Londoners will show up, sluggish from too many drinks the night before and seeing the early hours of the day, and crowd the narrow ropewalk.

My perfect trip to the market starts when it’s still relatively quiet, so I can grab a thin, somewhat fragile jamon sandwich from the Tozino stall, a gentle reminder that the simplest food can be the most perfect, the bread crusty but soft and chewy; salty, marbled slices of jamon iberico, so thin they’re translucent, and a fresh, bright tomato puree. I could choose to sit inside, a sultry Spanish bar, and pick at plump green olives while sipping on sweet, thick sherry, but when it’s too nice a day to that, I eat the small sandwich standing. I also get some jamon for later, and on that note, I pop into St John’s to buy a perfectly round sourdough loaf, and of course a a couple of doughnuts, the vanilla-speckled custard almost spilling out.

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At this point, my mood normally decides the next stop: it could be a Stilton, Pear and Bacon Toastie, impossibly rich and decadent, sharp with blue cheese and sweet with pear chutney; I could have hearty tartiflette, cheese oozing on soft potatoes, especially on a cold day. Today, a warmer day, Hansen&Lydersen‘s jewel-hued smoked salmon on sourdough somehow hits the spot, again as uncomplicated as a Saturday afternoon. The small tamales stall also offers the most plain-looking, comforting little rectangles of warming corn husk and bright tomatillo chicken, spicy enough to keep things interesting.

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It’s now past 1 o’ clock and I can just about squeeze through the crowd, and that’s how I know it’s time to grab a coconut coffee from the Asian coffee place, handcrafted, which I’m not entirely sure what it means as I normally tend to steer clear of coffee – but the deep richness of their take on it, spiked with coconut milk, creamy, sweet and somehow exotically scented makes it the perfect companion for a rainy day.

It’s a short walk to Druid Street market, much smaller and quieter. There’s a stall selling Japanese knives with a man proudly telling stories from his trips to Osaka. A girl is arranging painfully beautiful pottery, hand thrown bowls and mugs painted in muted hues of blue and grey.

A bearded man is char grilling oysters when someone from New Orleans approaches him to tell him of how he knows the family that invented the round barbecue he’s using. They discuss grilling techniques as he shucks the Oysters, with their marbled, knobbly shells. My favourite way to have them is still raw, their mineral taste reminiscent of sea water, childishly pretending to be at the seaside, but I’m in awe of the way he competently places them on the fire, a generous slab of butter on them, a spice rub, some bright red hot sauce. A squeeze of lemon and it’s time to go home.

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Maltby Street Market

Ropewalk, London SE1 3PA

Open Saturdays and Sundays

Chinese Laundry Room, London – a review

As is often the case, I discovered Chinese Laundry through the impossibly styled, polished, saturated pictures of Instagram. Seen through colourful filters, these small tables crammed with perfectly arranged plates, and just the right amount of movement (a manicured hand holding chopsticks; a cardigan-wearing arm reaching for some bread), are somehow capable of giving you food envy and a start of salivation.

Yet, by definition, this medium cannot convey in any way the flavour of a dish, its aroma, the warm feeling in your mouth and belly, its texture. Then why am I so attracted to these pictures, why do I follow these as if they were recommendation from a favourite kitchen critic? Maybe there is an element of shameless shallowness, of searching the aesthetically pleasing, of wanting to eat photogenic food. Time Out rushes in defence of brown food; and while I agree with the argument (a curry will never look particularly photogenic, unless you pile edible flowers on it; and as far as the rainbow cake/bagel/soup trend goes, if you’re eating something of a hue that does not even exist in nature, you probably need a cup of green tea), I think there is more to a picture of food.

If you know food even a little, if you love it, a photo will be enough to decide whether the tomatoes are ripe, whether the mango was stringy, if the fried batter is soggy or impossibly crisp. There is a lot you can tell from a bidimensional picture, even if its colours are artificially enhanced.

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In the case of Chinese laundry, pictures of geometrical dumpling omelettes, and sides of pale milky buns, trickling onto my Instagram feed, looked spanking fresh, and astonishingly not swimming in oil.

Things that the beautiful photos did not manage to convey: flavour. Buckets of flavours.

Chinese Laundry is a small, narrow restaurant with adorable dusty green walls adorned with retro Chinese prints – the idea behind the restaurant is to recreate the 80’s in China. The decor, as well as quirky, has a warm, homely feel to it.

Served in immaculate white-and-blue  porcelain, breakfast was wonderfully crafted: a crispy scallion pancake with egg and bacon to binge on, aromatic teas served in small matte teapots, bright-yolked soft boiled tea eggs, their back decorated by mesmerising patterns; a fiery, comforting dish of stir fry dumplings. The side of little milky buns –something extremely pleasing in the consonance of coronals – features one of my absolute favourite foods of all times, for no particular reasons: mantou, the softest, chewiest, palest bun, in two versions: a plain steamed bun served with a sharp, almost sour spicy sauce, and a golden version, I can only assumed deep fried, accompanied by condensed milk spiked with peanuts and toasted sesame.

I went again for dinner, this time a slightly less photogenic one due to dim lighting, and loved the food nonetheless. The plates are fairly small but not quite as small as they make them to be – two plates with some rice and of course mantou, still warm in its wooden basket, were quite filling. The sweet basil pop corn chicken, fried to perfection, meat soft and supple and a crispy batter laced with aromatic sweet basil, was the sort of dish that you could find yourself craving at all times of the night and day.

The aubergine, which always deserves love, was grilled until its pulp was almost creamy, with slight sour notes, and topped with chopped peppers and peanuts for texture, its subtle smokiness perfect on steamed white rice.

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Other dishes I stole bites from included cumin-rich lamb skewers, soft and juicy; aubergine with hot smoked salmon; crispy silken tofu; a delightful and refreshing starter of courgette with raspberry, all with incredibly friendly service – when our waiter was telling us of the town in China he went to college to, I didn’t ever want to leave.

So yes, I suppose Instagram may only tell you so much – but when it gets it right, boy, does it get it right.

Caprese on toast

As I write this, it’s hailing in London. Hailing in April.

I want a holiday. I need a holiday. I just need to be somewhere else for a bit, sand burning my feet and sea water between my fingers, or a little wooden cabin with a view of barren, pointy mountains, it doesn’t really matter. Things always seem so simple on holiday, as if life, stripped of all its mundain aspects – the cleaning, the shopping, the commute to work- shone it all its book-reading, epiphany-laden true glory. A holiday is as close as I get to understanding the true meaning of life.

So I make myself something that reminds me of home, of warmth, of the aromatic smell of rosemary and sage. When you live 900 miles away from the place you grew up in, you do silly things like overpaying for the brand of ricotta your mum buys, even if you can’t really tell the difference. You start craving things you never even knew you liked that much, like a specific brand of breakfast cookies that was always, always in your cupboard.

There are a few things I make myself when I miss home: pasta with cherry tomatoes, with lashings of olive oil and basil, sweet and tart and happy like a warm summer evening. And my mum’s pasta with tuna, made with the canned sort, speckled with chopped parsley; or a fiery, warming arrabbiata sauce.

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But sometimes, I crave something that I never even really understood in the first place: a caprese salad. Often eaten at the seaside, when normal people seem to think it’s too hot to eat hot food (not me – happy to have lasagne in 40°-degree Rome), it also features in laminated menus of tourist-trap restaurants: perfect rounds of white, dry, bland mozzarella; equally perfect rounds of watery tomatoes, big basil leaves.

My version is served on toast, good toast, sourdough from Bread Ahead – but frankly, you could put this on any form or shape of crusty bread. It’s thin slices of ripe, colourful tomatoes, maldon salt and pepper, amber-coloured olive oil and half a burrata. Because, I mean, why buy mozzarella when you can have its creamy, velvety cousin? I thought so.

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Caprese on toast (serves two)

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a couple of ripe tomatoes

some burrata or, failing that, mozzarella

two slices of crusty bread

olive oil, salt, pepper

Slice the tomatoes thinly, arrange on the bread and place some burrata on top. You could also use the creamy burrata as the first layer of this open face sandwich. Add some olive oil, salt and pepper.

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Marmite Toast. No, really.

I’m perched on the sofa and Alex is cooking. He’s an ambitious cook, Alex; he will never whip up something quick and easy – if he wants to cook, then he will make the most complicated stew from scratch and spend hours pottering in the kitchen, the radio on, incredibly focused on endless tasks, piles of empty bowls and carrot peel.

As I write this, he feeds me thin slices of mature cheddar. The supermarket stuff, of the perfectly square sort that comes in a packet. He’s making a lentil pie and I hear the comforting sound of the gas hob, the quiet flame, the pots bubbling. The kitchen smells of soffritto, celery and bay leaves. The room is warm, filled with dense cooking vapour. Outside, it’s still winter – winter always seems to last forever.

When he leaves the room, I quietly go by the pan and steal a spoonful of lentils – even though they’re not quite cooked all the way through yet, still a little crunchy and floury, a good half hour away from becoming a silken mash. I always used to do this with my mum’s sauces, I would tear a piece of bread from a loaf and dunk it in the bubbly sauce, and then my mum would wonder why she had made so little. ‘The tomatoes must have been very watery, the sauce shrunk a lot’.

I bought some baguette from the Japanese bakery earlier. I went in for a couple of pretty, polished custard buns – their surface shiny, a faint eggy smell – but the lady begged me to take a baguette as well, someone had cancelled their order. It’s beautiful, a thick crust, a geometrical pattern on the back. I decide to make toast.

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There are a lot of things I used to despise as a kid and love now – anything in vinegar, anchovies, capers. But I was already in my twenties when I tried Marmite for the first time, and for years I would go on and on to anyone who would listen about how I thought Marmite was gross and inedible and I didn’t understand it.

Marmite is a strange, thick spread, dark as charcoal, with its aggressive smell and taste that divides couples and families and friends. Its unapologetic sincerity is even in the slogan: you may love it, you may gag (I’m paraphrasing).

And yet a few weeks ago, for some reason, I just felt compelled to try it again. And I loved it. I genuinely loved it. I suddenly understood it, I appreciated its saltiness, the yeast, the savouriness.

It was like when you a see a modern painting and it doesn’t speak to you and then someone explains the story, the painter’s intentions, their life,  their pain, and suddenly you see it all on the canvas, in the brushes and curves and splatters of colour – you just get it.

They say it’s an acquired taste. I like the notion of an acquired taste. I’m not sure it’s scientific but I do hope it’s true. I hope that when you try or read or see something a certain number of times, you can learn to appreciate it, to love it. Because if you can train yourself to love everything, then surely it will make life easier?

Alex is still in the middle of the action, I hear cutlery clanking and rattling. I cut a thick slice of baguette, toast it ever so slightly, the edges burning much faster than the soft centre. I smear an indecent amount of butter on it, so much that when it starts melting it treacles down the sides, and then a little marmite, dark and gloopy, salty and yeasty, like unfiltered beer, mixing with the milky sweetness of butter. I eat the toast still enveloped in the artificial warmth of the kitchen. The oven is now on.

Once you start liking Marmite, there’s no going back.

Where to eat in Berlin: Cocolo, Kreuzberg

This is the second installment of a series that I called ‘where to eat in Berlin’ but should really be called ‘things I like to eat in Berlin and I think you should try too if you have a chance’. To read all about the first restaurant, Tangs Kantine, go here.

I adore any cuisine that can be classed as ‘Asian’. I love plain steamed rice with glazed, sticky meat, the tender filling of dim sum dumplings, the fresh herbal notes of Vietnamese food, the crunchy, nutty quality of Thai dishes, the toungue-numbing power of Sechuan pepper,  and the clear simplicity of Japanese ramen. I love it all.

And while I adore instant ramen, of the Korean kind that comes in a red plastic cup with a sachet containing a magically savoury and spicy powder, it’s proper Japanese ramen that I find myself longing for, especially in winter.

Nothing quite like ramen to beat the cold. A beautifully crafted bowl of milky, savoury broth, silky, thin slices of pork; crispy seaweed, chewy mushrooms, starchy noodles. An this is where Cocolo comes into play.

Now, Cocolo is busy. Very busy. You may have to wait and you’ll certainly have to share long tables with strangers, but that’s ok, because Cocolo’s ramen has that shiver-down-your-spine quality which makes it all worth it.

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The meal starts with the most delicious ginger lemonade, homemade, aggressively fizzy, with droplets dancing on the surface, served in a rustic, unpolished mug. I have had a lot of supposedly ‘homemade’ lemonades in my life but nothing quite like this one.

Their ramen is just beautiful. I went for tonkatsu, the creamy and milky broth that’s both savoury and delicate, the deep flavour of meat and bones and time; marbled slices of porkiness tha fall apart in their liquor, pork belly with its crunchy crackling and a layer of unapologetically trembling fat that melts in your mouth, a soft boiled egg, its sticky yolk bright orange, and finally a piercing pink slice of pickled ginger. And the humble noodles, slippery, chewy, just hard enough, to mop it all up. Ramen is a simple pleasure but it’s so much greater than the sum of its parts when done the right way.

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Cocolo Ramen X-Berg

Paul-Lincke-Ufer 39-40, 10999 Berlin, Germany

Cocolo Ramen X-berg

 

Where to eat in Berlin: Tangs Kantine, Kreuzberg

If you have ever attempted travelling in time by merely catching a flight, you may know this already. If not, a word of warning: it rarely works.

I lived in Berlin during a hauntingly beautiful winter, with naked trees dancing in the howling wind, a cold that permeated every fibre of your being, the snow forever falling, forever white. Its beautiful, pastel turn-of-the-century buildings, with their subtle elegance and faded grandeur; and then the square, grim-looking Plattenbauen, geometrical windows and layers upon layers of grey were the background of one of the happiest periods of my life. It was a unique combination of excitement, happiness and absolute freedom that come with being very young and in such a special place.

So when I went to Berlin last weekend, and stood by the bridge I used to cross every day, imagining the river swollen with ice, and desperately trying to recreate the very feeling I was after, pretending I still lived there, I failed. I stood there for so long just trying to impress every detail in my memory and feeling melancholic at the thought that later that day I would be back in my room in London.

I made it all the way to my old flat and got very close to ringing the bell and it became clear: I could not feel the way I would have felt three years ago. Travelling through time cannot be achieved by  simply travelling. But that’s ok: I found new places to eat.

It feels a bit funny to call this series ‘where to eat in Berlin‘ because this is in no way a comprehensive guide – it’s more of a diary of places I ate in and would recommend, but surely you see how that would make a less catchy title.

Tangs Kantine

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When it comes to Chinese, it can be hard to find a middle ground.

There are the somewhat shady-looking take-aways, with their laminated, sticky menus, serving dry chicken on Formica tables; or the authentic, loud, messy joints that serve beautiful ribbons of hand pulled rice noodles and juicy meat swimming in a pool of chilli oil, or even the very elegant and very expensive restaurants with big round tables and golden centrepieces.

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Tangs Kantine has a chic, minimalistic decor that hints at Imperial China without over doing it; it has a lovely atmosphere, a quiet buzz that makes it perfect for a date or a catch up. We started a meal with some lychee wine, a beautifully floral take on fortified wine, and a warming bowl of wanton soup. Then came the baozi, pillow-soft, white, with their chewy, springy texture and a savoury and creamy filling of stewed pork.

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The aubergine (pictured above) was the star of the show, a very meaty, soft texture, a hint of smokiness, drowned in an aggressively savoury, sweet and sour dark sauce. The food was solid, but what I loved the most about the place was the carefully crafted balance between its chic, understated, atmospheric charm and the huge-portioned, generous plates of hearty food (which also come with an enormous china bowl of white rice). Prices are a little bit over the Berlin average but still very affordable.

 

Tangs Kantine
Dieffenbachstraße 18
10967 Berlin-Kreuzberg
+49 30 69814658