Saturday, 27 March 2010

Why I Love MasterChef

I was going to make a video like this myself, but then someone did all the hard work for me.

Thanks CopeandDalton!

A source
claims to me that the worst/best innuendo actually gets edited out, but I'm not sure I believe them ...

At any rate, MasterChef seems to be haunting me - I was browsing Facebook yesterday and I suddenly noticed a certain advert appearing on every page.


Can you tell what it is yet?

Look a little closer:


I'm also being thoroughly tantalised by this:

Facebook MasterChef Ad (Roux)

I am
this close to placing an order. This close.

Facebook knows me too well.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

La Cucina Caldesi


When I was 19, my college held a Charity Slave Auction and I foolishly offered myself up as a Maid for a Day. I got up in front of all my fellow students wearing a pinny and rubber gloves (as well as my normal clothes, I hasten to add) and was delighted to go for a respectable sum.

Then I found out that sixteen of the b*stards had banded together to bid on me and as a result I was beholden to the lot of them.

There's only so many shirts you can iron in one day.


My very last chore was to make supper for all sixteen of them, so I decided to cook up an enormous vat of spaghetti, told the buggers to bring a bowl each to my unfeasibly small room and then dished up - half pleased that I was getting to feed so many people, and half wanting them all to choke on the stuff.


The point of this is I've always like cooking Italian food. But I've never really known too much about it other than what I've gleaned from the odd cookbook or TV programme.

So when I was invited with some other bloggers to take part in a cookery class at La Cucina Caldesi, I was champing at the bit to have the pros show me how it's done.


La Cucina Caldesi is a little cookery school attached to the restaurant Caffe Caldesi in Marylebone.

We were lucky enough to have chef-patrons Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi themselves as our tutors.


These guys are good - Katie is no-nonsense and clearly knows her stuff, but she's encouraging, making even the most nervous of us feel at ease, and Giancarlo is very funny, but very professional - the speed at which he deboned a poussin almost left me cross-eyed.

And now I can do the same, although not remotely as fast as he can.


The three course meal that we helped to prepare (and then wolfed down at the end) was as follows:
  • Gnocchi nudi di spinaca con burro salvia e pinoli
  • Polletto al mattone
  • Patate e cipolla al forno
  • Cioccolata in tazza


The gnocchi nudi were a mix of spinach, egg, ricotta and parmesan which we pressed into quenelles and then gently poached to form a much lighter version of the tradional potato gnocchi. These were then tossed with butter and wilted sage leaves and were beautifully delicious and pillowy - probably my favourite dish of the night (and I'm an unrepentant carnivore).

As for the polletto al mattone (ie chicken under a brick), after deboning the baby chickens, we stuffed them with chopped garlic, rosemary and raw chillis, seasoned and rolled them up again before roasting for about 20 minutes.


These came out wonderfully moist, spicy and extremely delicious. I've always held the view that bone-in meat is sweeter, but for once I could see that there might be something behind deboning after all.

I was also surprised to find out that chillis are used quite a lot in parts of Italy, assuming stupidly that it began and ended with aglio olio pepperoncino and puttanesca.


The Cioccolata in tazza was a drinkable molten pudding of dark chocolate, double cream, eggs, sugar, milk and brandy - the recipe had in fact been precociously extracted from a chef by one of the Caldesi sons.

All these recipes can be found in Katie Caldesi's book The Italian Cookery Course, a hefty tome filled with 400 recipes and 40 masterclasses, the result of three years' travelling and studying Italy's regional cookery.


As well as the Caldesis themselves, the courses at La Cucina Caldesi are run by a range of chefs and experts such as Valentina Harris and cover subjects as diverse as regional Italian cuisine, pasta-making, food for friends, and sweets. They're also pitched at different audiences such as busy mothers, couples and even teenagers. With durations varying from a one-off evening class to a seven-week course, the cliche that there's something for everyone is eminently applicable.

The evening I'd just spent may have only been a taster, but it was great fun, especially getting to sit down together at the end to enjoy the fruit of our efforts and I left there feeling inspired (and with a new skill to boot). And you can't say fairer than that.


La Cucina Caldesi
118 Marylebone Lane
London W1U 2QF
0207 487 0750/6/8

Friday, 19 March 2010

Le Wei Xiang, Lewisham

Pig Blood Curd & Beancurd Soup

My favourite restaurant in the whole wide world was a curious beast. It wasn't beautiful - the tables uneven, the wallpaper flaking. The service was shambolic - dishes were sometimes forgotten or mixed up, one time a guy appeared with a soapy washing-up bowl and chucked everything in, including our tip. We were almost always the only customers in the place, the other occupants being friends or family intent on playing poker.

But the food was glorious, proper Vietnamese grub including the usual suspects like pho and bun bo hue and goi cuon but also slightly more unusual dishes like bánh bèo and bun oc and fried "fat ends" (crunchy intestines - like posh pork scratchings). The juices, in most joints a Tetrapakked afterthought, were all blended to order from fresh fruit (the apple juice being particularly good), and the whole thing was almost embarrassingly cheap.

Best of all was that, though the service wasn't professional, it was marvellously charming. Whenever we walked in, for a split-second they'd look incredibly shocked, as if wondering who we were and why we'd appeared and then they'd smile and rush to look after us.

Our favourite waitress was an Oriental Stacey Slater, the adorable resident children would come and grin at us, and one time the manager gave us a bottle of wine just because it was her birthday. We always felt like we'd intruded into their home and yet they welcomed us as friends nonetheless.

This little oasis was called Hong Van and then changed its name (but not owners) to Canh Buom. The other day though, I noticed it had changed names again - and this time I was fairly certain it had changed hands too, as this time its name was written in Chinese.

We'd never bothered booking before, so a bunch of us decided to wander in, but we were turned away with apologies - for once it was actually full. I studied the menu taped in the window anyway, saw to my delight that it now seemed to be a Sichuan Chinese restaurant and vowed to return.

Le Wei Xiang Front

So a few weeks later, we turned up once more at this new Sichuan restaurant whose name we could not read. The insides had been treated to a nice lick of red paint and was much brighter than before, though I was sad to see the TV screen broadcasting Vina soap operas had been removed.

A smiling waiter came up to us, doled out menus and informed us that they didn't have an alcohol licence yet but we could go get our own booze with free corkage - two of our party were out the door like a shot.

Le Wei Xiang Menu Cover

LWX Soups

We flicked through the menu and I was fair jumping up and down at seeing such gems as "Blood Curd, Pig Bowel, Ox Tripe, Ham & Veg boiled with Dried Chilli and Chinese Spice", "Shredded Beef Stomach with Preserved Chilli" and "Stewed Pigs Trotters in Soy Sauce".

Offy beers purchased, along with a strangely-named bottle opener, we began to order willy-nilly, with the waiter taking rapid scribbled notes and making encouraging faces when we chose a corker and frowning a little dubiously when we picked something a bit off-piste.

Basic NeedsDSC06282

From the cold dishes, we went for "Beancurd and Preserved Duck Egg" and "Tendon Family Style", for mains, we picked "Shredded Port (sic) with Chilli and Coriander", "Beef Slices with Hot Chill" and "Sliced Sea Bass stewed with Preserved Veg", and to whet our whistle, a bowl of "Pig Blood Curd and Beancurd Soup".

Beancurd & Preserved Duck Egg

Cold dishes first. The Beancurd and Duck Egg aka Pi Dan Tofu was wonderfully light and wobbly, with a delicate soy-based sauce and crunchy fresh spring onion garnish.

The whole dish slipped down remarkably easily.

Tendon Family Style

Tendon Family Style was a tad chewy but well-seasoned and, despite jaw ache, I happily chomped my way through quite a bit of it.

The sesame seeds scattered on top also added a nicely nutty dimension.

Pig Blood Curd & Beancurd Soup

The Pig Blood and Beancurd Soup was a thing of beauty with generous chunks of blood pudding and tofu bobbing in a salty, savoury broth.

I would gladly come back just for this, and maybe a wee bowl of rice.

Shredded Pork with Chilli and Coriander

Both the pork and beef dishes were excellent - huge portions of deftly stir-fried meat and veg.

Absolutely scads of chillies too, which were spurned by the more cautious of my companions (they weren't that hot).

Beef Slices in Hot Chilli

Last but not least was the seabass stew.

This was so epic, it deserved its own Hellenic chorus to sing it onto the table.

This was so epic, Ulysses could have endlessly sailed across its waves.

Basically, this seductively sour and delicious dish came in a cauldron-sized vat.

Sliced Sea Bass stewed with Preserved Vegetable

So huge was it in fact, that I asked them to doggy bag the leftovers for us and they charmingly obliged.

And then, stuffed to the gills, we asked for the bill. Of course we couldn't fathom it out, but it seemed scandalously low for what we ordered (there was also fluffy char siu bau and meaty little dumplings with vinegar dipping sauce).

LWX Receipt

Before we left, I asked if they had a takeaway menu and i was relieved to see they'd printed an English name.

There you have it, Le Wei Xiang is the new Chinese gem in Lewisham. We'll be back for more.

LWX Takeaway Menu Cover

Le Wei Xiang Restaurant
80 Lee High Road
SE13 5PT
020 8218 3535

Full menu here and here

Edited to add: I've been advised that this is probably a Hunanese restaurant than a Szechuan restaurant as Xiāng (湘) is an abbreviation of Hunan.

Edited again to add: Okay, wrong Xiang - see comments below ... and the advert apparently says "authentic northern-style and Sichuan dishes" (thanks @Kake, @PaulLomax, @supercharz)

Edited AGAIN to add: Bottom of the menu says "Coming soon - Korean BBQ and self-service hotpot"!

AND FINALLY: My dad has just asked me if the name is meant to be a pun - Le Wei Xiang -> Lewisham ...

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Quest begins

I am
not paying £17.50 for one cinema ticket.

However, though I may not get round to seeing the Alice in Wonderland film, I did pay a visit to the Alice in Wonderland Pop-Up Shop.

I'd been to Claire's Accessories where they stocked a range of Alice gifts, and had bought myself a cute little White Rabbit brooch and a Cheshire Cat satchel.

Time can be funny in dreams

When I'd paid, the girl gave me a key and told me to go to their pop-up Alice's shop for a special surprise.

So the next day, I trotted off to Maddox Street and this is what I found ...

Meemalee in Wonderland

Alice'sThis way to Wonderland


Alice in Wonderland

Alice herself ...

Cake tower

Wonderland treats

Red Queen purse

I swapped my key for the real thing ...


A wall of locked doors greeted me - my key fit one of them and I claimed my special surprise ...

Magic key

And then I joined the Mad Hatter's Tea Party for a lovely cake and a nice cup of tea ...

What's behind the door?Tea Party Waitress

Cake tower

Glittery tea

My cupcake

Strawberry tree

But soon it grew late and it was time to go ...

I'm late

Through the tunnel

My magical prize

My prize

The Alice in Wonderland Pop-Up Shop "Alice's" was a temporary installation set up by Claire's Accessories at 18 Maddox Street, London from 26th February - 5th March 2010. See for more details.