Saturday, 27 February 2010

A year in meemalee's kitchen

meemalee's kitchen

My name is meemalee and I write about food.

That first part's a lie. "Meemalee" is just a nickname my best friend made up for me at uni. My real name is MiMi which virtually no-one can spell correctly (that's two big M's, thanks). I do, however, write about food.

I always wanted to be a writer. My mum still has a book in which I scrawled my first ever offering at the tender age of three. I'm reproducing it verbatim as a world exclusive:
"A long long time ago there was a man and a wooman. They went to Beflehem. A long long time ago."
At the age of five, I wrote a Blytonesque six-chapter extravaganza about a kindly grandfather, his adorable grandson and a magical rocking horse. I was meant to write about what I'd done that weekend.

At the age of eight, I typed up a sequel to the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary. I illustrated it and everything.

Dragons in the House (cover)Dragons in the House (pop-up)


At the age of ten, I wrote a storybook called "Dragons in the House" for children (well, for children younger than me). It had a pop-up, firebreathing dragon and little envelopes just like Janet and Allan Ahlberg's The Jolly Postman.

At the age of 14, obsessed with PG Wodehouse, I entered a school contest with a short comic novella called "High Society" about a young toff seeking fame and fortune. I won.

High Society (cover)

And then, and then, I put away my childish things. Decided I had to be a grown-up. I stopped writing altogether.

I met my husband at university. He was a creative type - short stories were his forte. He got published in the May Anthologies. He was this close to winning a BBC writing competition. He wrote a proper novel. And I looked on, wistfully. My muse had long flown.

I kept myself entertained though. I took photos of everything, and especially of food. I even began to write a Burmese cookery book, figuring that no-one really knew anything about Burmese food in the West. I got a fair bit done, and then became demoralised and decided no-one would be interested, especially as, rather than concentrate on recipes, a lot of it descended into whimsical rambling.

And in the meantime, I'd read food blogs. Not the big, famous ones about restaurants I could never afford in places I would never go to and which were often incredibly earnest, worthy and self-important.

No, I liked the ones that managed to have a sense of humour, that were not afraid to poke fun at an establishment or at themselves, and were written by people who I thought I would get on with in real life. All of these blogs can be found on my blogroll.

By far my favourite blog was noodlepie, by a guy from Newcastle Rugby who lived in Vietnam and faithfully documented his eating experiences out there. Intelligently written, funny, so passionate about food it bordered on geekiness (though he denies it), this to me was exactly how a blog should be written.

But I'd never write a blog myself. I mean, who'd be interested?

The years went by. I watched a lot of telly. Food shows were my personal pr0n - Come Dine With Me, The Restaurant, Great British Menu, The Supersizers, god, even Eating with the Enemy. All grist to my TV-viewing mill.

And then there was MasterChef. How I love thee, MasterChef. In 2009, a loveable Kiwi guy called Mat Follas managed to reach the grand final and if I had been the gambling type, I'd have bet on him to win. And lo, he did.

And I jumped up and down on the sofa and I ranted to my husband about how great the final had been. And my husband gave me a look and said "Why don't you blog about it?"

And I looked back at him and said "Don't be silly". But then I thought about it for a while.

Finally, I realised that it didn't matter that I was no longer inspired to make up stories. Write what you know, they say. Well, I know about food.

And that was that.

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It's now exactly a year to the day since my very first blog post on that MasterChef final (my blog's first anniversary) and there's been a few changes. I originally tried to write every other day, but that way madness lies. I used to catalogue every post with an R word at the start like "Review", "Rant", "Recipe" but decided that was just dumb. I even asked a few people for reciprocal blogroll links before realising that's a stupid, stupid, newbie faux pas (apologies to anyone I did this to).

The biggest change is that I bought my own domain name - I don't know if anyone noticed but you're now looking at http://www.meemalee.com/ rather than http://meemalee.blogspot.com. This in itself is tremendously exciting for a nerd like me.

I feel a bit more settled now. I'm still not sure who reads this blog apart from charitable friends and family and the odd fellow blogger - it delights me that anyone bothers at all, and the other day I was left speechless when I read this:

noodlepie

Yep, that's from noodlepie, my favourite blogger ever. My mind is truly boggled.

Soooo, I guess I'll keep writing for now. I'd quite like to be paid for it one day if poss, but at any rate I enjoy being rude about food. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as me.

And I'm still writing that Burmese cookbook.




(pic of me at top copyright Kavita Favelle, composite created with Photofunia)


Sunday, 21 February 2010

A Fry-up at Smiths of Smithfield

SOS frontageAlign Centre

I'm wandering around Smithfields at 8 in the morning in search of sustenance. I can still smell the blood from the market, but that does nothing to quell my appetite.

I've narrowed it down to two choices: The Hope and Sir Loin or John Torode's Smiths of Smithfield. Daddy or Chips? My heart is saying the H and SL, renowned for its legendary breakfasts of double egg, double bacon, double sausage, liver, kidneys, mushrooms, black pudding, baked beans and fried bread, all washed down with a Bucks Fizz or pint of Guinness (lax licensing laws in this neck of the woods). My head is saying that my heart must be on some kind of kamikaze mission, and so SOS it is.

The room

Industrial warehouse chic aside, Smiths is surprisingly welcoming. I pick a table in the window and look at the menu. And then kind of wish I hadn't - they've used that schtick of pricing everything in "pounds and 1/2 pounds" which jars me immensely - why not say "2/6" or "4s.3d." while you're at it?

I plump for the Number 3 Breakfast of "Bacon, Egg, Beans, Sausage, Mushrooms, Black Pudding, Tomatoes, Bubble & Toast" for "7 1/2 pounds" or £7.50 as it's known to us less rarefied folks, and try to ignore their coy abbreviation of bubble & squeak.

SOS menu

There's a good complement of condiments on the table, which is reassuring, although I'd quite like a bottle of Tabasco as well.

There are also postcards promoting Torode's new gaff in Spitalfields, The Luxe. Stupid name. And are we meant to pronounce it "Loox" or "Lux"? Grrr.

Condiments

Shortly, my Number 3 Breakfast arrives and, apart from the "bubble", I'm not terribly impressed by its looks. The sausage and bacon seem noshworthy enough, but the cross-section of black pudding is a bit bigger than a poker chip and the egg is the size of a golfball. What manner of stunted chicken laid this one?

Worse still are the slightly shrivelled but still patently raw tomato, and the bread which may have been shown a picture of a toaster at some point. I'm grumpy before a morsel has reached my mouth.

Full Breakfast

I slice into the poached egg. Smallest yolk in history. I take a bite and suddenly I feel immeasurably sad.

The whole thing's waterlogged; it's clearly not been drained properly and it tastes like brackish melancholy.

A very small egg

Next to me there's a couple - the girl calls the waiter over and says "My fried egg is hard. Can you make me another?" The waiter apologises and goes to take her offending egg, but she blocks him and says "No, I'll finish this one - just bring me another". I'm half-awed, half-appalled by her chutzpah and glumly swallow the other half of my dinky egg.

The sausage at least lives up to expectations, the bubble and squeak and beans are a squishily comforting combo and the black pudding is a brief meaty pleasure. The bacon is salty and flabby, I don't bother with the bread and tomato, and the mushrooms make no impact at all.

Did you know he wrote books?

Despondent, I look around me. Strange tomes accost my eyes proclaiming that "John Torode's Chicken". Part of me itches to topple the stack, but ennui has set in.

The staff are lovely and cheerful and you couldn't ask for better service - but I feel like I need to pay up and get out before I dissolve into disappointment.

Smiths of Smithfield frontage

I think I'm beginning to understand why else this place is called SOS.

And it isn't just because the website tries to bury you in livestock.

sos web animals

Smiths of Smithfield
67-77 Charterhouse Street
London EC1M 6HJ
020 7251 7950
www.smithsofsmithfield.co.uk


Smiths of Smithfield on Urbanspoon


Thursday, 18 February 2010

Zilli Green, Soho - Not Just For Veggies

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Lord knows that I'm not a vegetarian, though I'm not averse to the odd meat-free day. But when it comes to eating out, vegetarians generally get a pretty raw deal, with one to no options in most cases.

This vexes me particularly as I'd been tasked with organised our works Christmas lunch, which turned into a New Year lunch, which turned into a Chinese New Year lunch, and two of our party are strict vegetarians (rather than wishy-washy "I
am a veggie, though I do eat fish" types). For once I want us to go somewhere where they'll be able to choose anything off the menu rather than be stuck with the one pappy risotto.

Vanilla Black seems an obvious candidate, but to be honest is too close to our office for comfort. In the end, someone suggests Zilli Green in the heart of Soho, a new vegetarian restaurant from Aldo Zilli (on the site of Signor Zilli), which is opening just this week. Perfect, I think and so I book.

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It's tipping it down when we get there, but we see Signor Zilli himself on the steps chatting to a girl before going inside.

The nine of us shake off the rain and walk through the door, where he greets us all briskly and tells us to "follow our noses" to the room downstairs.

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There's a long wooden trestle table laid out for us in a surprisingly small basement, and we're sandwiched between the kitchen and the loos. Half of us are on chairs, the other half on a bench. I already feel a twinge in my back.

As we sit down, we see Signor Zilli appear again and personally serve a neighbouring table with aplomb. I explain to my colleagues that he's the Zilli of Zilli Green and one of them asks me why he isn't dressed in whites. I say "A lot of celebrity chefs haven't seen a kitchen in years" and she grumbles and says he ought to be wearing a toque at least.

There are bottles of olive oil on the table, apparently made on Aldo Zilli's own estate. No bread appears for dipping however, and one of my colleagues asks jokingly if we're meant to drink it.

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What we do drink is the fresh juice of the day, which happens to be apple and strawberry. It's obviously blended to order and incredibly delicious, but at £4 a pop, so it should be (bear in mind that the food is at Wagamama prices).

As for the food menu - it's attractive even for a meat freak like me, so it's no wonder my veggie colleagues are bubbly with anticipation - for the first time in a long time they're stricken with choice paralysis.

For starters, we plump for Quinoa & Wild Mushroom Mediterranean Sushi Roll, Goat's Cheese & Jerusalem Artichoke Tart, Rustic Minestrone with Pastina and Marinated Tofu & Asian Salad. I resist the urge to tell everyone it's pronounced "keen-wa" - I'd only get withering looks. Some Organic Bread & Extra Virgin Zilli Oil is also requested; the name of the latter amuses and squicks me out in equal measure.

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Reassuringly it turns out the EVZO is just EVOO, in fact a smaller version of the bottles that already adorn on our table. It's lovely though - strong and grassy with a punch.

Everything else also arrives promptly. The hearty-looking minestrone is "good and generous", although its recipient is slightly surprised by the lack of tomatoes.

The sushi rolls really aren't sushi rolls - although rice is swapped for quinoa, I'm at least expecting some nori, but instead the Andean grains are bound with aubergine and courgette strips. Laughably, the
loosely packed assembly comes with disposable chopsticks; wisely, my colleague uses her knife and fork. No complaints flavourwise, however.

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I have never liked marinated tofu, but pure masochism prompts me to order it. However, when it arrives it smells rather appealing and the seared crust breaks satisfyingly.

I'm pleased to discover that it's actually flavoursome, well-spiced with a touch of sweetness. The accompanying bed of Asian coleslaw provides nice crunch and balance to the softness of the tofu.

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The tart looks delicious, but I shy away as Jerusalem artichoke and goat's cheese are no friends of mine.

The colleague who ordered it approves though and polishes it off.

Meanwhile, kitchen staff are rushing to and fro past our table - at one point
a chef dashes past us with a huge exploded can of tomatoes. We try not to smile.

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Mains next - we order Spinach & Mozzarella Souffle, Aubergine Milanese & Spaghetti Arrabbiata, Leek & Almond Ravioli with Artichoke Sauce, and Black Truffle Lasagne.

I'm rather sad to find that the Cheese Burger with Chips & Salad featured on the online menu is missing - I was hoping someone would order it and it would turn out to be a slab of cheese in a bun.

In fact there aren't any chips at all on the menu, save something called Artichoke Chips with Harissa. So we order those too, along with Rosemary Roast Potatoes and Roman Caesar Salad & Grilled Halloumi.

The waiter clears away everyone's used cutlery save mine. I pout a little at this and as I fret I suddenly notice that Queen's "Thank God It's Christmas" is playing in the background. I mention this in the waiter's presence and he says with embarrassment "Oh, it's because it's an iPod on shuffle - I'm very sorry". We say "It's okay, this was meant to be a Christmas lunch" but it's still a tad weird.

He returns and puts down fresh cutlery for everyone, except me - he just takes my old knife and fork and puts them either side of my place setting. I pout some more and consider complaining and then worry about my carbon footprint and decide I can cope.

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Oddly, the side dishes arrive first. Artichoke chips is a complete misnomer as these are much more delicate than that name would suggest. They're lightly battered and fried like tempura, and are the most delicious thing I eat all day.

The "harissa" dip I could do without, as it just reminds me of eating dodgy merguez at Rock En Seine.

The rosemary potatoes are flabby but more-ish, but the salad no more than functional with flavourless squeaky halloumi.

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The leek and almond ravioli is a winner - deftly made pasta with a deep, savoury filling and intense artichokey sauce (yes, I pinched some).

The portion may seem a mite stingy, but the flavours are rich enough to compensate.

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The souffle is apparently tasty, and seems accurately risen and fluffy.

It's such a dreadfully sludgey shade of green though, I daren't even ask for a bit.

My own truffle lasagne is fantastic - like a decadent macaroni cheese. The truffle may not be visible, but its heady flavour and aroma punctuates every bite.

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As for the spaghetti, the pasta is the perfect texture and the sauce has clearly been made with flavoursome, ripe tomatoes. The aubergine just makes me snigger though, as they look just like chip-shop fishcakes.

In the background, the playlist has moved onto Michael Jackson's Greatest Hits, interspersed with the odd bit of Coldplay. I briefly wonder whose iPod it is and whether I can smash it.

A colleague pops to the loo and comes back looking rather hunched. I ask what's the matter, so she says "See for yourself" and I find myself in a Hobbit hole with a curved ceiling almost grazing my head - and I'm only 5' 4". Even less conducive to a peaceful bio break is the sign on the door entreating me to "learn to cook with celebrated Chef Aldo Zilli".

Dessert seems essential and so we ask for the menu. We peruse the intriguing offerings, but when we're ready to order, there's no-one to be found.


We make small talk and wait for a bit, before a colleague asks "What's happened to our service?" A member of staff appears, but he's wearing his coat and clearly about to leave. This is not good.

Finally our waiter returns, and
we order Dairy Free Tiramisu, Organic Tofu & Limoncello Cheese Cake and Warm Pecan & Chocolate Chip Brownie - all listed as vegan.

When they arrive, I'm taken aback by how authentic my cheesecake is and I urge everyone to try some. The base is strangely coconutty but I quite like that and, although any limoncello is overpowered by the sharp berry sauce, it's still seems a sound interpretation. After a while however, maybe it's psychological but the intrinsic, spooky tofu-ness begins to creep through and I struggle to finish.

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The chocolate brownie is a little too dry, but rich and cocoa-ey, and the "ice cream" is pleasantly velvety.

As a whole, the dish works well together and I suffer a bit of plate envy.

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The tiramisu is the least convincing of the three desserts and is extremely unlikely to pick anyone up.

Stodgy and airless like a kept trifle, it appears dairy-free is definitely not the way forward in this case.

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As I'm poking at my tofu cheesecake, a colleague at the end of table suddenly asks "Why has my coat been on a journey?".

I look up and see him looking reproachfully at a member of staff who is holding said coat. The man blushes and says "We have a system for storing belongings and your coat was assigned to the wrong table". Actually, we'd hung our own coats up and it's not really surprising that we hadn't noticed the hand-numbered sticky labels:

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By the end of the meal, I'm well and truly stuffed, and despite some issues, I'm pretty much won over. And although I think the more carnivorous of my colleagues feel a little shortchanged, the
vegetarians at least seem as satisfied as I am.

As we walk away, they tell me that they really do like the place and that they'll definitely come back, but only with other vegetarians, and I protest and say to them that they can count me in too.

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Zilli Green
41 Dean Street
Soho
London W1D 4PY
020 7734 3924
http://www.zillirestaurants.co.uk/green/


Zilli Green on Urbanspoon

Friday, 12 February 2010

Reasons to love Japan #1 - Store My Ducks

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I make no secret of the fact that I'm obsessed with Japan. Obsessed I tells ya.

One of the many reasons I am a steadfast Japanophile is this little shop on Takeshita Dori, Harajuku.

I think it sells jeans and stuff, but who really cares.

I'd much rather believe it was an anatine containment facility.


Thursday, 11 February 2010

Daddy Donkey and A Tale of Two Guacamole

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One of the things I really appreciate about my job is I can take a full lunch hour - none of this dining al desko nonsense. Of course, this means I usually end up buying something stupid. My favourite place to buy stupid things is Leather Lane.

There's the French Rasta who sells fab leather bags, the two pashminas for a fiver stall, the bookseller where I got Tender for a tenner, the snack stall where I found some Bible Bread, and the Age Concern which always throws up gems - last time I was there I found a tanuki. A tanuki!

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Said tanuki


There's also some great street food on Leather Lane, like the little Thai stand, the baked potato dealer and the Curry Hut.

The most renowned of them all is of course Daddy Donkey, the burrito people. I've been aware of them since 2005 when I first started working in the area and they were still a baby Donkey - just a tiny stand run by a guy called Joel. Somehow though I never got round to partaking of their fare.

LOGO FINAL

So it was kinda weird to see how the queues got longer and longer and longer until one day suddenly there was a Daddy Donkey Winnebago with about six people hectically serving the clamouring crowds. Even madder, they started to sell their own branded T-shirts (personally I'd quite like a jute bag. Joel, make it so). They even have their own Facebook group.

Finally, finally I gave in and went with a couple of like-minded souls to try my very first Daddy Donkey burrito. There was chicken, carnitas, chile, steak and shredded tomatillo beef (there was also a veggie option but that seemed to be missing the point). I always go for the pig, so I asked for carnitas, extra hot with the works. "Want guacamole? It's extra" asked the Daddy Donkey dude, and I thought what the hey and went for it.

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The burrito was immense - a huge flour tortilla packed with tonnes of pork, lettuce, rice, black beans, spicy salsa, cheese, sour cream and guacamole. Turns out I'd been missing out for all these years - it was the dog's proverbial and that guacamole was the icing on the cake. My only quibble, which I expect no-one else shares, is that the buggers are too big - I would gladly, gladly buy a half portion a la Pret's slim sandwiches (Joel, make it so).

Anyway, the cult of Daddy Donkey has now reached a wider audience, as Joel and his team were featured on Market Kitchen on Monday making Daddy Donkey's Ultimate Guacamole. The recipe can be found on the official Daddy Donkey blog here and so I had a go at making it myself and was pleased to find that it tasted the same as the stuff I had served up to me in that mega burrito, which I guess proves that it's made fresh everyday.

Though the Ultimate Guacamole is great, I was challenged by Daddy Donkey to come up with my own spin on their recipe and couldn't resist.

Personally I like a bit more kick, so this time I tossed in some smoked paprika and red chilli instead of the pickled jalapeno. I also wanted some sweetness to balance out the astringency of the lime juice, so in went some beetroot.

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Meemalee's Beetroot Guacamole
  • 4 medium soft Hass avocadoes
  • 1 medium minced red onion
  • 2 medium raw beetroot
  • 1 medium red chilli (remove the seeds if you're a wuss)
  • Juice from 1/2 soft medium lime
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

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Top and tail the beetroot and then slice into wedges. Place in a baking tray, grind salt and pepper to taste and drizzle the olive oil over the wedges and toss.

Roast the beetroot at 200C for 15 minutes and then leave to cool.

Finally, dice the wedges into small chunks.

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Cut the avocadoes in half and deseed, and then -

If you have a pestle and mortar: scoop the flesh out with a metal spoon into a mortar and mash roughly with the pestle. Scrape the avocado mush into a mixing bowl.

If you have a stick blender
: scoop the flesh out with a metal spoon into a mixing bowl and blitz until you have a rough pulp.

Stir the beetroot chunks into the avocado mush along with all the other ingredients.

Cover and chill in the fridge for an hour before serving.

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Unlike Daddy Donkey's Ultimate offering, my beetroot version is ugly as sin, because rather stupidly it didn't occur to me that the beetroot would bleed red throughout the lovely green of the avocado.

No matter, it still tastes bloody brilliant. And goes rather well with nachos.


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Monday, 8 February 2010

Cup-A-Soup. FML

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I've mentioned before that a slightly mental part of me likes to stockpile provisions just in case. This extends to my work environment - my colleagues refer to my desk as the Larder, as the drawers are stuffed with Penguins, crisps, muesli bars and other store-cupboard staples. I guess a lot of people do the same thing, although I like to take it one step further by having stock cubes, vinegar, Tabasco and lemon juice rattling around.

The thing I seem to have most of though is Batchelors Cup-A-Soup. I mean, it's disgusting - the croutons are like toaster debris, the peas and carrots like polystyrene peanuts, but I still quite like the taste and there's something vaguely comforting about a "just add water" meal.

My favourite is the minestrone - it has these little ring noodles that bob around prettily, but literally taste of nothing. That's fine though, because the rest of it is so jam-packed with MSG, they wouldn't have stood a chance anyway.

Anyway, the other day I thought to myself "I'm running low on Cup-A-Soup" (as there were only, ooh, three boxes left in the Larder) and pootled down to Tesco. They'd run out of my usual full-fat, but they did have the low-cal version which usually goes by the delightful name of Slim-A-Soup.

I was a bit flummoxed though, when I saw the front of the box said this:

soupcaption

"My boyfriend's just found my granny pants-a-Soup"

Turns out that Batchelors are running a competition requiring punters to submit their own weird-ass versions of FML, although of course they've dubbed it a significantly less uncouth "Cup-A-Soup Moment".

The Cup-A-Soup Moment has been defined as "what makes you reach for a Cup-A-Soup".

So in this particular case study, we may assume that the paramour (let's call them Person B) of the protagonist (let's call them Person A) has accidentally become familiar with Person A's hitherto hidden voluminous undergarments, and the subsequent humiliation suffered by Person A arising from Person B's discovery has caused Person A to decide that the only possible panacea in this troubling situation is a mug of instant soup.

And they bothered to print that.

The prize for the best one (apart from Cup-A-Soup packaging immortality) is a year's supply of Cup-A-Soup. The competition closes on 1 March 2010. I'm so entering.

http://www.cupasoupmoments.co.uk/

From the Cup-A-Soup Wikipedia entry:

"Grammarians have argued as to the correct plural form of Cup-a-Soup. Some believe the correct form is Cups-a-Soup, whereas others contest that being a registered trademark the correct form is Cup-a-Soups."