Pete and I and a couple of friends spent the weekend feasting with Uyen Luu. And she wasn’t even there!

Instead, we cooked up a storm from her beautiful cookery book, My Vietnamese Kitchen. Over the weekend we made a dessert for our first dinner, another recipe for breakfast, one more for the next dinner and yet another for Sunday lunch. While the rain and wind lashed outside, we stayed warm and busy cooking and eating – what better way to spend a weekend with dear friends?

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Uyen Luu was born in Vietnam into a close-knit, food-loving family – her maternal grandmother opened a noodle soup shop in her front room to help make ends meet during the tough times following the Vietnam War, and some of Uyen’s earliest memories are of her grandmother making and serving her fragrant bún bò huế to customers. Times were very tough during that period and Uyen’s parents made the decision to emigrate to London. Here, her mother continued to raise her family on a traditional Vietnamese diet, as best she could with the ingredients available here.

I came to know Uyen’s story and her cooking via her food and travel blog, where she shares a mixture of old and new memories and tasty recipes, all beautifully illustrated by her creative photography and styling. Since moving to the UK, she has returned to Vietnam often, and her travel journal posts are a particular pleasure to read.

Uyen and I met in person several years ago via her supperclub – she is one of the pioneers of the UK supper club phenomenon – and I couldn’t fail to be captivated as much by her gentle and complex character as by her food; she’s shy but riotous (and occasionally fiery), vulnerable but strong, superbly creative but genuinely modest, a social butterfly but also quite private. I love to sit in her kitchen, following her instructions to stir the stock, chop some vegetables, rub salt and oil onto the meat, and talk about life, the universe and everything. She has a knack for bringing out a protective feeling in me, and I’m always so happy to learn of her successes and joys.

So I was delighted when she announced her book deal, which resulted in this truly beautiful book. Her food is authentic, delicious and achievable and she’s taught many, many people how to make it during the cookery classes she also runs out of her East London home. Those numbers include greats like Raymond Blanc and Jamie Oliver, who are quick to acknowledge not only her skill with flavours but also her ability to teach those skills to others.

I was one of the many friends who helped Uyen with recipe testing when she was still writing the book, and when I saw the finished book, I felt very proud to have played a (very very tiny) part in it.

As I always knew it would be, the book is a visual feast. The team she worked with to style and photograph the book have captured Uyen’s very personal and quirky style amazingly well. First and foremost, the images showcase the food itself, but they also create a very warm and rich tapestry that tells Uyen’s story beautifully.

My Vietnamese Kitchen starts with an introduction to key ingredients. The recipe chapters are then divided into Breakfast, Soups, Snacks, Noodles, Lunch & Dinner and Sweets. Many of the recipes need only what you can find in a well-stocked UK supermarket, but of course there are some that require specialist ingredients. In this era of online shopping, these are no longer difficult to source.

Here is Uyen’s recipe for Caramelised Sardines in Coconut Water (cá mòi kho). As we couldn’t get sardines, we switched to mackerel as a similarly oily fish; we also doubled the recipe (given in its original quantities, below). It was beautifully simple, worked perfectly and we all really loved it! I’m already planning on making this one again and again.

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Recipe: Caramelised Sardines in Coconut Water (cá mòi kho)

Serves 2

Ingredients
1 tablespoon cooking oil
Half a red onion, finely chopped
350 grams whole sardines, scaled and gutted
150 ml coconut water (or use fresh water plus one teaspoon sugar)
1 Bird’s Eye chilli
1 pinch black pepper
1 teaspoon coconut caramel (see note)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
cooked rice, to serve

Note: As we didn’t have any coconut caramel, we followed Uyen’s tip to melt and caramelise some brown sugar instead. Make sure you let the sugar get reasonably dark so it can add colour, sweetness and bitterness to the dish.

Method

  • Heat the cooking oil in a frying pan over medium heat and fry the onion until browned.
  • Add the sardines to the pan and fry for about 2 minutes per side.
  • Add the coconut water, chilli, pepper, coconut caramel, sugar, fish sauce and vegetable oil. Bring to the boil, then cover with a lid and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.
  • Serve with cooked rice, or a palate-cleansing soup and fried greens.

As you can see from the images, we served this with a simple egg and peas fried rice made by following my friend Diana’s tutorial on quick and easy egg fried rice and a salad from another of my current favourite books, Everyday Harumi.

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Other dishes we made from Uyen’s book during the weekend were:

  • Frozen Yoghurt (kem da-ua) – an outrageously simple recipe combining tangy natural yoghurt with condensed milk before churning in an ice cream machine. We had this with a clafoutis of whisky-soaked dates and the match was excellent. I loved the balance of tart and sweet and will definitely make this again.
  • Omelette Baguette (bánh mì trứng ốp lết) – we switched baguette for other home made loaves but we loved the core recipe for sweet sharp pickled shredded carrot and herby omelette. The chillis we added were so hot that my eyes watered, my lips were still tingling ages later!
  • Fresh Rolls with Mackerel Ceviche (gỏi cuốn cá thu sống đầu phộng ớt) – rice paper summer rolls filled with herbs, beansprouts, a pineapple dipping sauce, rice vermicelli noodles and mackerel ceviche and we also added leftover pickled shredded carrot. This was our least favourite of the dishes we made with the texture of the rice paper wrappers and the ceviche cited as difficult textures / tastes.

I’ve also made the Tofu and Tomatoes in Fish Sauce (đầu phụ sốt cà chua), which I first had at Uyen’s house, so it was a great test of whether I could achieve the same flavours and textures by following her recipe. I could and I liked it just as much the second time around.

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Frozen Yoghurt with whisky-soaked dates clafoutis

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Omelette Sandwiches

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Fresh Rolls with Mackerel Ceviche; A game of Carcassone

Kavey Eats was sent a review copy of My Vietnamese Kitchen by publisher Ryland Peters. As I’ve made clear, Uyen Luu is a friend, but all of us genuinely enjoyed cooking and eating from her book and I recommend the book wholeheartedly.

Thanks to Monica for additional images, as per copyright text. And cheers to Monica, Marie and Pete for another fabulous weekend!

 

Following a recent invitation to discover some of the food and drink highlights available at St Pancras International station, Pete and I had a lovely morning visiting Benugo’s Espresso Bar, Searcys Champagne Bar and Sourced Market.

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Unlike the downstairs branch of Benugo, the upstairs coffee bar (near the Martin Jennings sculpture of poet John Betjeman) is much quieter and cooler. An original tile floor leads to the service counter; the seating area next door has been designed to evoke rail travel of old; gentle jazz music completes the retro feel. During our morning visit, we tried coffee and cake (the shop has one coffee blend for espresso and espresso-based drinks, and another for drip filter coffees). Manager Ondrej was on hand to give further information about all the options, including some good quality loose leaf teas, for those who aren’t in a coffee state of mind. I particularly enjoyed my chocolate, pear and rosemary tart and the biscotti served with coffee.

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Searcy’s champagne bar might seem like an option better suited to summer, given that the concourse is open to the elements at both ends. But booths have little heaters at foot level, and guests are offered blankets and hot water bottles too, so it’s actually rather cosy as a winter destination. I found my hot chocolate excessively sweet but Pete enjoyed his rose champagne tasting trio (£19 for 50 ml each of Henri Giraud Esprit Rose, Besserat Cuvee des Moines Rose and Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rose). It’s also a lovely spot to admire the beautiful architecture of the station.

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Sourced Market, downstairs, was a revelation. This little store has crammed in a lot of great products into their wide but shallow floor space. As well as delicious lunch options such as a variety of pies (with mash, gravy and peas), sausage rolls, scotch eggs, charcuterie and cheese platters, soups, sandwiches, salads and more you can also buy ingredients to take home. Pete was particularly impressed by the excellent selection of bottled beers, with small London breweries particularly well represented. I loved the cheese counter and the bakery table. There were lots of delicious treats and I’ll certainly pop in again before long. My only gripe about this lovely place was that all the seating provided was stool-style chairs and table, which are really challenging for those of us with hip, back or mobility problems, not to mention difficult for small children.

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Kavey Eats were given a guided tour of the above venues at St Pancras International.

 

Sticks N Sushi is a stylish sushi and yakitori restaurant that recently made the leap from its native Denmark to London. The Wimbledon branch opened its doors in 2012, soon followed by the Covent Garden location in November last year. Founded 20 years ago, the chain took inspiration from the Rahbek brothers’ half-Japanese, half-Danish background – their restaurants feature stylish and modern interiors (each one quite distinct from the others), welcoming staff and beautifully presented Japanese food.

Given the existing popularity and prevalence of sushi restaurants in London, we may, perhaps, be a harder market to crack than Denmark but the combination of sushi and yakitori in one place is, as far as I am aware, unique and the attractive and spacious venue in the heart of Covent Garden will surely appeal to locals and tourists alike.

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Exterior and interior images provided by Sticks N Sushi

Because Japanese cuisine was not that well known in Denmark, Sticks N Sushi menus were designed to be extremely visual, so that customers could see exactly what they were ordering; this remains the case today. There are two menus – one showcases a long list of set plates featuring different combinations of sushi, yakitori or both. The other allows customers to pick and choose à la carte. I find the menus rather beautiful and a pleasure to browse through, though the sheer number of choices means it takes longer than usual for me to compare the options and decide what to order.

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The drinks menu also offers a lot of choice – as well as the usual range of soft drinks, there are beers, sakes, shochus, whiskies, ciders and a variety of wines.

The cocktails are particularly appealing, being as they are mostly unfamiliar and rather inventive. Japanese spirits such as sake, shochu, umeshu and whisky feature regularly and I’m happy to see ingredients such as yuzu, jasmine tea, honey and ginger. I like how simple icons in the menu make clear which cocktails come in tall, short and martini glasses. My (alcoholic) Yuzu Lemonade (£7.50) is refreshing but I like my Hanoko (£8.50) even more – jasmine tea-infused shochu with elderflower, honey and fresh lime is an inspired combination.

There are beers from Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo in Japan, plus Meantime here in London. But Pete tries the Sushi N Biiru White Beer (£6.40) and the Sticks N Biiru Black Beer (£6.80) made by Nørrebro Bryghus, a Danish microbrewery in Copenhagen. The two beers are mango-juice orange and a more restrained copper respectively. Chatting to our waitress, we express surprise at the colour of the black beer in particular, only to have her suggest that there isn’t such a thing as a properly dark beer. When we look slightly nonplussed and remind her of Guinness (and all the other popular stouts and porters available) she replies that “those are all made with coffee aren’t they?” I’d say a little staff training on the beer list wouldn’t go amiss!

Pete remarks that the White Beer, described as a wheat beer with yuzu, looks like a glass of Um Bongo. On the nose, it’s a fairly standard wheat beer, a little sweet and grassy but no citrus. In the mouth, it has quite a generous body. It’s on the sweet side with a touch of honey and a little sourness underneath, but still no yuzu that he can detect.

Putting aside its colour, the Black Beer has a caramel malt and slightly earthy hops aroma. In the mouth there is toffee and a decent underlying bitterness that’s deep and pleasing.

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Hot flannels are provided shortly after we are seated and, as is common in Japan, we’re encouraged to keep them throughout the meal. It’s a nice touch when finger food is involved.

We are asked a few times if we’d like to order some nibbles to start, with beef tataki being one of the suggestions, so we’re surprised when the mains come out first; our intended starters arrive some time later. Our waitress explains that she placed the order to “come when ready”; I suggest you make a specific request to have starters first if you’d prefer.

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Beef Tataki £9.50) doesn’t quite resemble the neat beef rectangles of its menu photograph but the beef is decent enough. The spicy gome (sesame) dressing is super but neither of us like the smoked cheese and chives and we can’t detect the promised yuzu koshu, a spicy condiment made of citrus and chilli. We are divided on the salted almonds, but they’re completely impractical to eat in any case, whether you use chopsticks, fork or fingers, and most are therefore left behind on the plate.

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Adam (£18.50), from the set menu, includes 1 salmon nigiri, 1 tuna nigiri, 1 yellowtail nigiri, 1 salmon New York (with garlic) nigiri , 1 tuna tataki nigiri, 1 shrimp nigiri, 1 tamago nigiri, 1 inari sushi, 1 black Alaska uramaki (inside out roll), 1 sparkling tuna uramaki, 1 mamma mia uramaki, 1 dreamy California uramaki and 2 gypsy futomaki (big rolls).

The quality of the fish is very good with a nice fresh taste and texture. All of the rolls are very tasty but we particularly love the gypsy futomaki which (so the à la carte menu reveals) contains seared fish, spicy sauce, avocado, cucumber, chilli, red onion, ginger and unagi sauce. The disappointing let down of the plate is the sushi rice which both of us find strangely dry and firm, like it’s been left out for far too long after cooking and mixing. I also find it a touch over-vinegared.

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On ordering, I ask the waitress if there are any other items from the sushi à la carte which aren’t part of Adam and which I absolutely mustn’t miss. She suggests the gunkan trout roe (£3.20 a piece) and I ask for one, with the quail egg yolk on top. Sadly the ikura (salmon and trout roe) doesn’t have the intensity of flavour that I’m used to – good ikura bursts in the mouth with a sharp, salty fishiness that is completely missing here.

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From the Sticks sets we choose Man Food (£19.50) which consists of 1 skewer of goat cheese in dried ham, 1 skewer of pork and basil, 1 skewer of beef with herb butter, 1 skewer of chicken breast with sasami chilli, 1 skewer of chicken tsukune, a bowl of plain rice, a pot of kimchee and a portion of edamame beans with salt and soy.

Asking the waitress if there are any other sticks she feels we simply must not miss results in an addition of 2 skewers of Miso Marinated Black Cod (£14.50 for 2 skewers). The little pot of Japanese Pickles – cucumbers marinated in ponzu (£2), that we ordered with the beef tataki as a starter, is served with the sticks.

Man Food is a deeply delicious set of sticks; but if you’re looking for more traditional Japanese flavours, it’s probably not the set for you. I’d find it hard to resist ordering this set again on my next visit though! The goat cheese in dried ham and skewer of pork and basil remind me of Italian (and I love them both). The soft and tender beef with garlicky herb butter is straight from France. The sasami chilli chicken and tsukune (chicken meatballs), both of which are moist and pack a flavour punch, are more traditionally Japanese. Excellent cooking!

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Edamame is edamame, much as you’d expect. However there is so much salt sprinkled over them that I have to wipe some off before sucking them out of their pods. The kimchee and pickled cucumbers are both decent, though the portions are small for the price. The black cod is undeniably tasty due to the excellent marinade, but the flesh is too pappy-soft, and I don’t think they are good value at over £7 a single skewer.

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Lemon, Yuzu and Meringue (£6) is a martini glass of yuzu sorbet, segments of orange, pieces of lemon meringue, lemon curd, small lemon and lime pearls and mini marshmallows. Oh, and a crispy shard of sugar with black and white sesame seeds. The marshmallows are a little stale and the tiny green pearls don’t contribute anything more than a funky appearance but oh my this dish tastes good – a satisfying citrus showcase!

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Four Tasters (£8) is just what its name implies – a small taste of four Sticks N Sushi desserts. Vanilla crème brûlée is excellent – a soft and loosely set custard full of vanilla with a crunchy sugar topping. Matcha green tea ice cream has a rich deep flavour and I’m happy it’s not too sweet, but the texture isn’t as silky smooth as I’d like. Chocolate fondant with caramel and hazelnut brittle is fabulous with a properly gooey centre of chocolate and caramel and a super nut and sugar crumble. Only the white chocolate with sweet miso and popped rice is a disappointment; the popped rice is soggy like a stale rice cake and there is no discernable flavour of miso in the white chocolate shell or milk chocolate centre.

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Some of the menu items seem a little too pricey, even taking quality ingredients into account. Sets are better value, though still a touch dear. But the food is, on the whole, very good and I do enjoy the combination of yakitori and sushi on the menu. The balance between traditional Japanese and European innovation is also very appealing.

It’s unfair to comment much on service, since we’re here on a pre-organised review visit, but certainly all the staff are friendly and enthusiastic. One of them assumes my picture-taking of our meal means that we must be on holiday and sweetly insists on taking our picture. I start to say no and think, what the hell, it’s been a good week and a lovely lunch, why not record our happiness?

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Sticks N Sushi.

 

Japanese consumers love limited editions so there was a lot of advertising and press interest when Burger King announced their Kuro (Black) Ninja burger in October. And this special edition was given its own mascot in the form of a cute cartoon ninja complete with black outfit and… a tongue stuck cheekily out! (No, I don’t know why, either…)

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I love BK Whoppers so when I learned that the Kuro Ninja was being launched during our recent holiday in Japan, I really wanted to seek it out.

On a day of eating that a hobbit would be proud of (during which we stopped for multiple breakfasts, multiple lunches and an enormous dinner), we finally tracked it down in Osaka.

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Most striking, of course, is the black bun, coloured with bamboo charcoal. It’s impressively black and with no discernible oddness of taste that we could detect.

Inside is a whopper patty, a round hash brown and a ridiculously long slab of thick bacon that lolls lewdly out from two sides. The regular lettuce, onions and sauce are complemented by Chaliapin sauce – this onion and garlic sauce is named for Russian opera singer Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin; during a visit to Tokyo in 1936, a steak and sauce dish was created for him by a hotel chef and has been named in his honour ever since.

Apparently, various of these elements have been seen before in some of Burger King’s earlier limited edition specials – the black bun also featured in 2012’s Kuro Burger, essentially a regular whopper but served with black ketchup (flavoured and coloured with garlic and squid ink); the bacon “tongue” was at the heart of Big Bacon Whopper, just a month or two before Kuro Ninja was available; and the Chaliapin sauce was a key component of the XT Steakhouse, a 2011 creation.

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What did we think? We liked it!

The balance of flavours and textures worked well enough. I found the hash brown made the burger a touch too big to eat easily; Pete had no such problem. The bacon tongue we folded inside, though that made the burger even bigger. Personally, I’d still choose a regular whopper over the Kuro Ninja… but I would really like to try the Kuro Whopper (no longer available) with its garlic and squid ink ketchup!

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Although the Kuro Ninja was advertised as ¥ 680 (burger only) / ¥ 830 (burger, fries and drink) the branch we went to in Osaka had increased the meal deal price to ¥ 1040 (about £7). But hey, we did get cute Kuro Ninja stickers for that too!

Read more of my Japan content, here.

 

When Gloucestershire company Selsley sent me some of their syrups to try, I was keen to think of some different ways to use them.

I played it safe with the mulling syrup, using it to create warming winter drinks. It combines beautifully not only with red wine but with apple juice, cider and even beer. And because the flavours are already infused into the syrup you can either mix and serve cold or heat gently and quickly. The vanilla syrup is lovely in coffee. I want to try it in a fruit smoothie too and in a rich ice-cream based milkshake.

Although the ginger syrup with lemongrass works wonders in a whisky toddy, I wanted to use its delicious flavour in a dessert. As I’ve never made panna cotta before, this seemed a great opportunity to give it a go.

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This very simple ginger and lemongrass panna cotta came out beautifully, the syrup giving a distinct but not overpowering flavour to the panna cotta. I love a properly wibbly wobbly panna cotta in which the flavouring doesn’t overwhelm the subtle taste of the cream. The balance here was good!

Of course, you can use this recipe with other flavoured syrups, keeping the ratio of liquid to gelatine the same and varying the flavours.

I served some of these with candied baby tangerines (made in the same way as these confit clementines). I think fresh tart berries, such as blueberries or raspberries, would also work nicely.

 

Ginger & Lemongrass Panna Cotta

Serves 4-6

Ingredients
3 gelatine leaves
small dish of cold water
240 ml (1 cup) milk
240 ml (1 cup) double cream
30 ml (2 tablespoons) Selsley ginger syrup with lemongrass

Note: If you don’t have Selsley syrup, substitute with 30 ml of syrup from a jar of stem ginger and infuse panna cotta with a little fresh lemongrass or lemon zest while heating, straining as you pour the cooked cream into the dishes.

Method

  • Place gelatine leaves in cold water to rehydrate.
  • Gently heat milk, double cream and syrup in a pan, stirring occasionally, until it reaches a simmer (with small bubbles appearing on the surface).
  • Lift gelatine leaves out of water and squeeze to remove excess liquid.
  • Remove pan from the heat and stir in the gelatin leaves until completely dissolved.
  • Pour mixture into ramekins, small bowls or small cups and leave to cool.
  • Once cool, refrigerate until set (about 1-2 hours).

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  • Either serve in the cups or turn out onto plates. Warm the cups in a shallow dish of hot water for a few moments to help them slip out more easily.

As you can see, a wrinkly skin formed on the panna cotta as it set. This wasn’t a problem when we served these turned out onto a plate, and the skin wasn’t unpleasant in the mouth. But if you want to serve your panna cotta in the cup, you may like a more attractive flat surface. Once you’ve poured the cream into the cups, carefully lay a piece of cling film over each one so that it’s touching the surface, and leave to set. This should stop a skin from forming.

Kavey Eats received sample products for review from Selsley Foods.

 

As with most addresses in Tokyo, Zenyaren is difficult to find. When your overnight but sleepless flight from London landed only a few hours ago, and you’ve had a scant 1 hour nap since checking into your hotel, it’s doubly challenging. Luckily, Pete and I are with two Tokyo friends, Masamitsu and Voltaire, who manage, with the aid of smartphones, to track down my chosen venue.

How did Tokyoites navigate their city before the era of online maps and satellite navigation?

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Zenyaren is down in the basement of an office building, about 10 minutes walk from Tokyo Station. We are late for lunch and far too early for dinner, so much of the large space is empty. We are shown a large table in one of the cosier side rooms that break the space up.

The key attraction of Zenyaren is that it gathers together in a single place cooking from seven yakitori restaurants across Japan, giving you the chance to try regional yakitori favourites.

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Indeed, our waiter tells us that in his home region, yakitori is commonly made with pork (even though the word itself means fried or grilled poultry).

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With our drinks (umeshu for me, beer for the rest) come minced chicken balls, given crunch by the addition of finely chopped cartilage. Fabulous, and oddly reminiscent of Swedish meatballs!

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We order various mixed platters of yakitori, our waiter explaining the condiments that are intended for each. It’s a good selection, with each of us favouring different skewers, nothing lasts too long. We also try a chicken skin dish, which is very tasty but I’d like better if the skin were crunchy rather than flacid, and some whole fish that are a particular favourite of Masamitsu’s.

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With another round of drinks, the total bill for four is ¥10,220 (just under £70 at the exchange rate during our visit). For those planning to make a night of it, the menu also includes some reasonable drinks plans (where you pay a fixed price for unlimited drinks from a specified selection). Zenyaren is a great place to go with a group and I can imagine it becomes far buzzier when busy, during lunch or dinner hours.

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Although it’s been around for many years, the technique of cooking food sous vide (under vacuum) in a carefully temperature-controlled water bath has mainly been the preserve of chefs. Professionals have long appreciated the accuracy, consistency and sheer ease of a method that allows them to do the prep and (most of) the cooking of many dishes in advance. For example, they can portion, pack and cook steaks ahead of service, leave them in the water until needed, then quickly finish in a very hot pan to create an appealing brown crust, confident that the interiors will be cooked exactly as expected.

More recently, as the line between professional and domestic kitchens blurs, home cooks are investigating sous vide too.

The History of Sous Vide Cooking

Food historians attribute the idea of cooking under vacuum to Sir Benjamin Thompson, an 18th and 19th century physicist and inventor. Although he invented many items including a double boiler, an insulated drip coffee percolator and a new design of fireplace, he never actually created a sous vide machine, but he did document the idea of cooking under vacuum back in 1799, albeit using air as the heat transfer medium rather than water.

In a related development, the French navy prompted Parisian confectioner and chef Nicolas Appert to develop an industrially viable canning process in response to their competition, launched in 1795, seeking new methods of preserving food. Appert observed that food cooked inside a jar did not spoil unless the seal leaked. Boiling the jars in water killed harmful bacteria and yeasts; it also created a vacuum seal that kept jars airtight and stopped recontamination. After almost 15 years of work, the process he submitted won him a substantial 12,000 francs prize. Later, the method was applied to food sealed in tin cans, hence the process became known as canning.

Modern sous vide has been around since the 1960s, when French and American engineers mastered the process of making food-grade plastic films and pouches. Ingredients could be vacuum-sealed at sufficiently high pressures to compact textures and concentrate flavours. Sealing into such plastic is sometimes referred to as cryovacking after American company Cryovac Inc.

French chef Georges Pralus made the leap to using a sous vide water bath as a cooking technique when he was asked in 1974 by 3-Michelin-starred chef Pierre Troisgros to help find a way of cooking foie gras without losing so much of its weight during cooking. The foie gras, vacuum-sealed in food-grade plastic and cooked at a consistently applied specific temperature, not only loss far less fat during cooking, but had a more even texture too. The technique spread quickly and is now a common tool of many professional chefs.

Since then, there has been much more research and documentation of the effects of different cooking temperatures and times on different foods, with particular attention to food safety and food preservation. A pioneer in the food science of sous vide cooking is Bruno Goussault who presented a study on this very topic back in 1974. He and Pralus both went on to provide professional training in the technique for top chefs from around the world.

How Does it Work and What’s the Point?

Detractors often dismiss sous vide as nothing more than boil-in-the-bag in an attempt to associate it with those dreadful ready-made dinners of decades ago. Of course, there’s more to it than that: for sous vide cooking, raw food is vacuum-sealed in the bag – the removal of air allows heat to be transferred by the water outside the bag directly to the food inside, far more efficiently than when air gets in the way. The cooking temperature is far lower than boiling; accuracy of temperature is critical. Boil-in-the-bag food has already been cooked and pasteurised (at high heat) so the consumer is simply reheating by immersing in boiling water. Sous vide cooking involves cooking in a bag, in water, but it’s definitely not boil-in-the-bag!

When cooking food in a conventional oven (or in a pan on the stove top) the usual method is to set the temperature to high (we typically bake things at about 180 C) and leave the food in the oven (or on the stove) until it reaches the required internal temperature to transform from raw to cooked. The internal temperature the food needs to reach is far less than 180 C so the risk is that leaving the food cooking too long results in a continual rise in temperature, to the extent that the food becomes dried out or burnt. Of course, it’s also possible to underestimate the time needed, and remove a large item such as a roasting joint too soon, when it’s still raw at its centre. Temperature probes can help with this, but the cook still needs to ensure that the food is taken out at just the right time. Experience makes that less hit and miss, as does a temperature probe, but it’s still not an exact science given the different size and shape and moisture content of ingredients.

When cooking sous vide, the temperature of the water bath is set according to the internal temperature required to transform the food from raw to cooked. Of course, it’s still possible to remove the food too quickly, before the heat has transferred to the centre of the food. But the converse is not a problem – leaving the food in the water bath for longer doesn’t cause it to overcook, as it cannot become any hotter than the temperature of the water itself. This can benefit the home cook as much as the professional, as it allows the cooked food to be left in the water bath until such time as other elements of the dish are ready, or diners are ready to eat.

The accuracy of temperature achievable in a water bath means that meat can be cooked at precisely the right temperature to allow tough collagen to break down into soft gelatin, whilst avoiding the higher heats that denature protein and can make it tough. Choosing the right temperature allows the cook to target their preferred finish, whether that’s rare, medium rare, medium… Additionally, all the moisture is retained in the meat as it can neither evaporate nor drain away during cooking. When cooking fish such as salmon in a frying pan, it can be hard to apply heat evenly enough that the outer edges do not dry out before the centre is done, especially as this is a fish that is so good when it’s a touch under- rather than over-cooked. Using lower temperatures makes it easy to cook salmon evenly all the way through, and also avoid the unpleasant streaks of dried white albumen that are excreted when cooking fish at higher temperatures. There is less advantage over traditional methods when cooking vegetables, however adherents appreciate the intensity of flavours that cooking sous vide achieves.

Lastly, vacuum sealing the food means it can be stored (sealed and refrigerated) for longer after cooking, protected against oxidisation.

Limitations & Food Safety

The advantage of cooking, say, a steak or joint of meat in a hot oven or pan is that the exterior develops a caramelised brown crust, as the sugars and amino acids react to high heat – the Maillard reaction, as it’s known. And we love it – a beautifully seared chop with a tender, pink interior is surely the epitome of meat cooking!

Sous vide cannot achieve this, because the entire piece of meat, from exterior through to the centre, is heated only to the temperature needed to take it to medium rare, for example. So, a sous vide steak really needs to be finished briefly in a very hot pan, to sear the exterior and give us the crusted appearance, texture and taste we yearn for.

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That’s not an issue with all ingredients – salmon fillets are beautiful served straight out of the sous vide, evenly cooked all the way through. And foie gras, the ingredient that inspired the development of the modern technique, needs only to chill in the fridge before it’s sliced, plated and served.

Another issue to keep in mind is that of food safety, particularly for those with compromised immunity. The bacteria that is commonly found in food can be categorised into three groups – pathogens (which are harmful to us), spoilage (which, as the name implies spoil the taste and texture of food but are not, on their own, harmful to us) and friendly (which confer health benefits). Pathogens such as Clostridium botulinum (which produces the deadly toxin that causes botulism), Clostridium perfringens (one of the most common causes of food poisoning), Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes are all capable of growing in a vacuum. They can be eradicated by the application of minimum temperatures for sustained periods. Of course, for some ingredients, the temperature required to achieve a desirable texture in the food is not high enough to destroy any pathogens. In this case, it’s crucial to consider the source and quality of the raw ingredients and to observe strict hygiene practices. If storing food after sous vide cooking, it’s also advisable to reduce the temperature quickly, by immersing the sealed pouch into an iced water bath. Read more from sous vide expert Douglas Baldwin, here.

Sous Vide in a Domestic Setting

There are a number of brands that sell sous vide equipment to commercial kitchens. These are generally too expensive, and potentially too bulky, to be of interest to, or in the financial reach of, home cooks. Many have resorted to jury-rigging contraptions using digital thermometers and rice or slow cookers. Some even manage with the tap, a kettle and an insulated cool box! And a few have even attempted sous vide cooking on the stove top, necessitating constant addition of hot or cold water and minor adjustments of the heat level, to maintain the required temperature.

But for home cooks with a serious interest in the technique, and the budget to afford it, appliances aimed at the domestic market are now available.

One such brand is SousVide Supreme, founded by Doctors Michael and Mary Dan Eades. They were motivated to investigate the technique after enjoying a particularly excellent pork chop served by a Las Vegas hotel’s room service team, during a visit to attend a medical conference. The nutritionist couple promote a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet and also have a background in the restaurant trade, so when they realised there was a gap in the domestic market, they resolved to jump in and launched their domestic sous vide products in 2009.

Their range includes two vacuum sealer machines, two (different sizes of) sous vide water ovens and accessories including plastic pouches and cookery books.

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The SousVide Supreme Water Oven is currently available on Amazon for £354, the Vacuum Sealer is currently £99. Alternatively, a Promo Pack of water oven, vacuum sealer, basic sous vide cookery book and 50 vacuum pouches is currently £450.

Our SousVide Supreme equipment arrived shortly before Christmas and we’ve had it out a few times already since then. Thus far, Pete and I have made a foie gras terrine (our first project, in deference to the role of Georges Pralus) and we’ve cooked steak (plain) and chicken (with flavourings). We’ve been very pleased with how all three came out and we found the vacuum sealer and water oven very straightforward to use. I’ll be sharing some recipes and feedback with you going forward.

Do take note that the oven is large, and needs some strength to lift when full of water.

 

Kavey Eats received a SousVide Supreme Promo Pack in exchange for sharing four posts about SousVide Supreme and my experiences with the equipment. This is the first such post with more to follow in coming months. As usual, I will be 100% honest about my opinions, whether good or bad.

 

We cook a lot of very simple meals in our house. We like dishes that don’t require long lists of ingredients, complicated preparation or a lot of hands-on cooking time (though we are a fan of slow cooking which lets the oven, stove or slow cooker do all the work).

It’s no secret that better quality ingredients create tastier end results; spending a little more often pays dividends. We like to buy a really good chicken and stretch it to several excellent meals rather than eat bigger portions of a cheap, hormone-pumped, water-logged bird that fails to excite the taste buds. A few impressive but not outrageously expensive king oyster mushrooms upgraded a regular mushroom dish to a fantastic one. Just 25 grams of smoked cheese completely lifted the flavour of feather light cheese gnocchi. And I am certain my home-made walnut brittle was even better because of the sweet and tasty walnuts, collected and dried in the grounds of a friend’s home in France.

But today, I am not talking about fresh produce. On my mind are ready-made ingredients that can be used to make simple dishes into amazing ones.

Our latest such dish was a simple pasta dinner which took only minutes to make, used just four ingredients and was utterly delicious:

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One of these was a flavoured mustard from famous French brand Maille. Pete and I visited their original store in Dijon, Burgundy a few years ago and were excited to see quite how many flavours were available. Maille have now come to the UK and have an attractive two-story shop in Piccadilly. Staff are happy to guide you through tasting samples and choosing products to purchase. Maille also sell online, but reserve many of their flavours for sale only in their stores.

Their “Bleu” mustard is a smooth and mild French mustard flavoured with blue cheese and white wine, both perfect accompaniments to mushrooms and cream.

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Pasta with a Mushroom, Cream and Maille Blue Cheese Mustard Sauce Recipe

Serves 2

Ingredients
Dribble of vegetable oil, for cooking
300 grams white cup mushrooms, sliced
25 grams (1 small pot) Maille Bleu (mustard flavoured with blue cheese and white wine)
100 ml double cream
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pasta of your choice, amounts as per your usual portions
Salt and oil, for cooking the pasta

Note: We used fresh penne rigate – a perfect shape for the creamy sauce to cling to.

Note: It’s definitely worth experimenting with different mustards; if you use English ones, reduce the amount as they have a much fiercer kick. Of course, you can always add actual blue cheese and a splash of white wine to plain mustard if you aren’t able to find Maille Bleu.

Method

  • Put a pan of water on to boil, for cooking the pasta. Add salt and a small splash of oil.
  • Fry the mushrooms in a dribble of oil over a medium heat until they release their juices and then a higher heat until the juices are absorbed / evaporated. Stir regularly, so they don’t catch. We usually find this takes 15 to 20 minutes, depending on size of mushrooms and pan used.
  • Take the mushrooms off the heat, add the mustard and cream and stir well. Put back onto a very gentle heat to warm the sauce through.
  • Season to taste.
  • As we were using fresh pasta, we put it on to cook once the mushrooms were cooked, just before adding the mustard and cream. However, if using dried pasta, start cooking it once the mushrooms have been on for 10 minutes.
  • Drain the pasta thoroughly, then add the mushroom sauce to the pasta and combine thoroughly.
  • Serve immediately.
  • We seldom worry about presentation when cooking for ourselves, but if you want to make the dish look a little more interesting, you could reserve a few cooked mushrooms to one side before adding the mustard and cream, and use them as a garnish on the finished dish.

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The blue cheese and mustard flavours both came through wonderfully and married well with mushrooms and cream.

I’d love to hear your ideas for using plain and flavoured mustards to lift a recipe – are there any recipes you can suggest? And are there other ingredients (such as the ones I mention above) that you like to use to make an ordinary recipe extraordinary? Please share your ideas!

With thanks to Maille for review samples of some of their mustards, dressings and oils.

 

Luton doesn’t have many good restaurants. It had even fewer when I was a kid. But we went out to dinner regularly as a family, either to the local Beefeater or, in later years, to our favourite local Chinese restaurant, long since closed.

Nearly without fail, my sister and I would order prawn cocktails to start and big fat steaks, cooked medium rare and woe betide the chef who thought he knew better and sent them out medium well. Pops would delight in our weekly horror as he not only ordered his steak well done but egged them on to make sure it really was. Mum was never a big red meat fan and switched between the fish, chicken and vegetarian options.

As teens, we frequented the pub side of the Tavern instead of the restaurant, it’s probably where I had my first pint of beer, southern comfort and ice, tia maria and coke!

Until recently, I’d not been back for more than twenty years.

But recently, my sister and I decided to drag Pops out of the house for Sunday lunch while mum was away birdwatching. Since he fell off a horse in Nepal a few months ago, broke some ribs and fractured his back (he ain’t ever gonna age gracefully, not that we’d have it any other way), he’s been forced to stop his daily gym workouts and hasn’t really been able to do much walking either. We left the choice to him and he suggested the Tavern; still being a regular and knowing many of the staff by name.

Of course, it’s been refurbished since my last visit, probably a fair few times, and it was weirdly familiar and unfamiliar all at once. It’s a Beefeater pub, they’re a chain, they all look the same, you know the style…

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Feeling nostalgic, my sister and I both chose prawn cocktail (£4.99) followed by a 10oz Rib-Eye (£16.79), medium as per the waitress’ recommendation. She rightly pointed out that this fatty cut needs a bit of extra cooking to melt the fat, which makes it much tastier to eat. We added peppercorn and brandy sauce (£1.49) and upgraded the chips to Ultimate ones for an additional 69p. (That’s £18.97 for the complete dish).

Prawn cocktail was proper old school with a basic salad, lots of fairly bland but perfectly acceptable prawns drowned under a classic cloying Marie Rose sauce. Served with brown bread (and butter on request) it was exactly what I wanted. Of course, it could be improved by big fresh jumbo prawns but sometimes chefs are so keen to add their own twist that they lose sight of the pleasure of bouncy protein covered in sweet pink goo!

The rib eye steak was surprisingly good, far better texture and taste than I expected and the cooking was just right. Accompaniments were all good and whilst it wasn’t the very best steak I’ve eaten, it was certainly better than many I’ve been charged far more for in central London. It wasn’t a bargain either, I think the price is high for the restaurant but fair – with the exception of the T-bone which is £1 more, it’s the most expensive item on the menu.

Pops did comment that it was better than usual. It’s one of his regular choices and he says it’s not consistently as good as the ones we ate on this visit. It goes up and down, though it’s always the right side of acceptable.

In other good news: somewhere along the way, in the 30 or so years since our regular family visits, Pops has gradually switched from ordering his meat well done to medium rare. But he still likes to make the joke about visiting McDonald’s on the way home!

 

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What better way to introduce you to Cocoa Runners than to ask co-founder Spencer Hyman and “Chief Chocolate Officer” Dom Ramsey a few questions from Kavey Eats.

Can you give us a brief synopsis of what Cocoa Runners is all about?

Spencer: Cocoa Runners is trying to bring our customers the world’s best bean to bar chocolates.  We do this via a monthly delivery service where we send our customers four bars picked around a theme, in a specially designed box that fits through your letter box. Every box also contains detailed tasting notes for each bar alongside introductions to their makers and growers.  And our online Chocolate Library gives our customers access to more bars and more information

What gave you the idea for Cocoa Runners and how did you develop and fine tune it?

Spencer: We all love chocolate, and we were all frustrated by how hard it was to find great chocolate.  Almost every corner store and supermarket sells chocolate.  But much of the chocolate they sell is confectionery and there is no guidance or easy way to find great bars.  So we thought about how the likes of Hugh Johnson and Tony Laithwaite made wine accessible and available – and now we are trying to use the web and mobile to do the same for fine chocolate.  We’ve a team that has been doing ecommerce since the beginning and we very much believe that online gives you great opportunities to access and learn about what your customers want.  For example, pretty much from the outset we’ve heard from our customers that they wanted a “dark only” option – so we’ve developed this.  Similarly many of our customers want to gift a subscription – so we are now rolling out this functionality

I think Cocoa Runners has come at just the right time, as more and more Brits are discovering the joys of good chocolate but so many are new to it and keen to learn more. How did you decide it was the right time to launch and what were the key challenges you faced in bringing Cocoa Runners to fruition?

Spencer: Thanks! We think it’s the right time too.  We’ve wanted to do this for ages.  And we do think that now is a great time for great chocolate – not least as we’re seeing more and more artisan manufacturers launching “bean to bar”. The UK has been blessed with Willie and Duffy, who’ve been around now for quite a few years.  And now almost every week there are new makers – for example in the UK there’s Pablo (Forever Cacao), Chris (Pump Street Bakery) and Ali (The Chocolate Tree).  The US is also exploding – makers such as Mast, Frution, TCHO, Taza and Dandelion pioneered the way and last year over 50 new “bean to bar” manufacturers launched.  And outside of this, bean to bar is taking off in cocoa growing regions – from South America and Madagascar  to Vietnam and Hawaii.  So we can really spoil our customers with a choice of makers from Brooklyn to Budapest, Saigon to San Francisco and Copenhagen to Cleethorpes.

You’ve sampled hundreds of bars to choose the ones to include in the Cocoa Runners boxes. Can you tell us a little about how you narrowed down the selection and what criteria you considered when picking the perfect bars?

Dom: Before we even taste a chocolate, the first thing we look at is provenance. We think it’s important that chocolate is traceable, sustainable and that it’s doing good for the cocoa farmer, and if we don’t think it lives up to those standards, we won’t consider it.

When it comes to taste, sometimes it’s a clear “yes” or “no”. When you’re dealing with small-batch craft chocolate, the passion and attention to detail of the maker often comes through in the flavour. More often than not though, we’ll still pick specific stand-out bars from a range rather than take everything.

I think it also helps that there are two of us doing the tasting. I taste most of the chocolate with Jennifer Earle, and although we’ve both been tasting chocolate for many years, we have different personal tastes. That helps us see past personal preferences and just choose the best chocolate.

Talk us through your chocolate profiling system and how you are using this to make recommendations that help customers find chocolate they love.

Dom: When developing Cocoa Runners, we looked at many different systems for profiling the flavour of chocolate, from flavour wheels to graphs. They were mostly difficult to decipher or just not very useful. We wanted a really simple system that would both help us classify the bars as we taste them, and let our members see what to expect at a glance.

What we came up with was a simple list of the most common attributes we find in chocolate. The list encompasses texture (smooth, coarse, etc.) and the natural flavour notes found within chocolate (fruity, spicy, earthy, etc.). We mark out each attribute that applies to the bar we’re tasting (so you can, for example, search for all ‘fruity & spicy dark chocolates from Peru’), then pick out three attributes for every bar that describe it at a glance.

Our tasting cards and website have icons these attributes, so you can see at a glance what to expect. This also means that we can build personal recommendations based on the types of chocolate you’ve liked in the past. Like a dating site, we find the attributes you’ve enjoyed the most and can recommend other bars that share those attributes.

What is it about chocolate that makes it so popular?

Dom: I think the first thing that makes chocolate popular is the taste.  It’s wonderful, comforting, and a little indulgent. But with the kind of chocolate we have eaten in the past in this country, there’s also a level of guilt attached.  We want to change that part!

We really want to spread the message that great chocolate is good for you  and makes a tangible difference to the lives of cocoa farmers in some of the poorest parts of the world.  All of the chocolate makers we feature have fascinating, uplifting stories  themselves, and we think sharing those stories is a vital part of what we do. These people are passionate about flavour, sustainability and the environment.

It’s such an exciting world to be involved with, and we just want to share that excitement with as many people as we can.

So what did I think of my box?

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I like the packaging on two levels. Firstly, it’s designed to fit through the letterbox and protect my chocolates in transit. Both of those it does very well. Secondly, it looks good – I think the logo is really attractive and I love the old-style map printed on the inside of the box lid (see below).

Of course, the name of the business is great too; a clever play on words suggesting that chocolate is the recreational drug of choice and these guys will break all the rules to get the very best of it to my front door. It’s bold and a little risqué without actually using any naughty words at all and it makes me smile.

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The tasting attribute icons are very helpful. Really easy to identify, they categorise each bar according to chocolate type, added flavourings, texture, flavour strength and flavour notes. Each bar comes with a card featuring the three key attributes for that chocolate plus more detailed tasting notes on the other side. As Dom has explained, this makes it easier to identify your preferences and find other bars with similar profiles. My only issue here is that each chocolate is summarised with just three icons, and given that one is always chocolate type, that only leaves two icons to cover the other four categories. Still, it’s a simple system and I can see it being really useful to customers. Oh and the graphic design on the icons is beautiful too.

The chocolate itself is absolutely superb. This much I expected, as the team includes some very knowledgeable experts who are passionate about great chocolate. I’ve already been introduced to some marvellous chocolate via these same experts over the years, so I knew they’d choose only the best to go into these boxes.

Each box has a theme. The first three boxes in any subscription will be Origins (which includes chocolate from some of Cocoa Runners’ favourite cocoa growing destinations), Texture & Flavour (which, as the name suggests, explores some of the wide range of both that you can find in chocolate) and Intensity (which, likewise, does what it says on the “tin”). After that, you’ll be sent boxes according to the theme Cocoa Runners have put together for that month.

The introductory offer is £16.95 per box (dropping to £14.95 if paid quarterly rather than monthly) and each box will contain 4 bars. That price includes UK delivery; they can also ship to the EU for an additional £2.50. You can specify in your profile that you wish to receive dark chocolate only, but as the FAQ points out, “there are some fantastic milk chocolates that most people have never tried. Some of them are even 70% cocoa.” Certainly the Menakao Madagascan Vanilla 44% milk chocolate in my box is delicious and something I think even those who usually eschew milk chocolate may enjoy. Cocoa Runners also offers subscribers the option of purchasing additional bars (either of chocolate they’ve received in their boxes and loved or of any other bars in the extensive chocolate library). Postage for these orders is £2.50, free on orders over £20.

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Earlier this year, one of the client projects I worked on meant long video conference meetings with colleagues in the US every week. The meetings were long and (let’s be frank) a little boring so I took to bringing in chocolate samples I’d been sent to review, to add a little joy to proceedings. I was delighted to bring at least a couple of my colleagues around to the idea of taking origin and flavour profiles of chocolate into consideration and giving higher quality chocolate a chance over the cheap, sugary brands they were more familiar with.

Cocoa Runners aim to do this on a far larger scale and with even more exciting chocolate sourced from all around the world.

I think it’s an absolutely excellent idea and it is just as good in execution. Colour me impressed.

DISCOUNT CODE

I am delighted to invite readers to enjoy £3 off their first month’s subscription to Cocoa Runners by using discount code “kaveyeats”. This code is valid until 31 January 2014.

 

Kavey Eats was sent a review box by Cocoa Runners.
I believe in open and honest disclosure; please note that I am friends with several of the Cocoa Runners team. As always, I have shared my honest opinion of the product.

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