Thursday, February 26, 2015

Rhubarb & Ginger Cake

The vegetable that everyone loves to use as a fruit, rhubarb is simply wonderful. Special whenever it's about it's a real treasure now during this bleak end of February. Deep into the 'hungry gap' - named for the lack of fresh new produce yet to mature whilst the last of the winter crops and storage of root veg and brassica's is running out - the prospect of another week of turnip mash or leek soup, boiled carrots and roasted beetroots to finish the month is less than delightful. I love these veg - along with parsnips and swede, celeriac and cabbage, mushrooms and kale - but it's been the backbone of the veg bag for months. Into the midst of the gloom early forced rhubarb appears at the market, the slender pink stalks a harbinger of spring and the very definition of joy.

Rhubarb grew first in Asia, the cold climes of Mongolia and Siberia were ideal. It was traded along the Silk Road into China and was taken into Italy sometime around the 16th century, from where it arrived in England in the early 1600's. Initially it was mostly medicinal - some strains are useful in the treatment of lung and liver ailments but it seems the wrong strain was introduced to England so cultivation as a source of drugs failed to thrive. Then in 1817 there happened one of those freak accidents that changed the fortunes of rhubarb completely. A gardener at Chelsea Physic Garden unwittingly covered the rhubarb in soil during the winter and later, when the dirt was cleared, rather than finding all the plants to be dead there were tender shoots that were far superior in flavour to the outdoor variety. So the idea of 'forcing' was born. Commercial growers in London began deliberately covering the plants with soil or manure in order to produce the blanched stems, some going further by lifting the roots and moving them inside heated sheds to simulate the arrival of spring.

In the 1870's forced rhubarb began to be grown in Yorkshire - the area now so famous for it that in 2010 it was awarded the Protected Designation of Origin by the European Commission. In perhaps the second lucky accident for forcing, the frost pocket holding Leeds, Wakefield and Morley combined with local conditions proved to be ideal. Sheds were specially constructed for the first time, the local heavy clay soil was particularly well suited, cheap coal from the local mines made heating the forcing sheds viable, there was plenty of horse manure and 'shoddy' - a by product of the local wool industry - was a perfect mulch for the young crowns. Warmth and moisture tricked the young plants into thinking it's spring, and so it grew its lovely bright pink stems; apparently you can hear the rhubarb crackle as it grows, something I would love to witness. Picking was done by hand in candlelight, pretty much the method still used today.

So much rhubarb was produced each day and sent to market that the Great Northern Railway Company ran a special train - the Rhubarb Special! It ran nightly from just before Christmas till Easter to transport the crop to London Spitalfields and Covent Garden Markets, at its peak taking 200 tonnes of rhubarb a day. Imagine that.

It's a much smaller industry now but the forced rhubarb grown in Yorkshire is still very special indeed, its elegant sourness a lovely match for the delicate pink of the stalks. The care that goes into its production is well rewarded by showcasing the stalks. Rather than simply stewing them down to make crumble - my favourite way of using the later outdoor varieties - I really wanted to make cake. This recipe comes slightly adapted from Band of Bakers. The rhubarb is a perfect match with stem ginger, for both its sweetness and the tiny prickle of heat.

Rhubarb and Ginger Cake

You really need to use forced rhubarb for this cake, as the outdoor grown stuff would be too bitter

140g unsalted butter
200g soft light brown sugar
200g wholegrain spelt flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 eggs, whisked in a small bowl
5 pieces stem ginger in syrup, chopped fine, plus 2 tablespoons of syrup from the jar
Rhubarb stems, bright as you like, cut into 19cm lengths to fit the cake tin
Caster sugar for dredging

Preheat the oven to 180 C/350 F/gas 4. Grease and line a 20cm square cake tin, I used a loose bottomed one for ease of turning out.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat, then stir in the brown sugar till fully combined, this takes a few minutes until the sugar melts properly into the hot butter. Leave to cool for a few minutes.

Sift the flour and baking powder together and stir into the butter and sugar mixture, along with the eggs and chopped ginger, until well combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake tin and level it off with the edge of spatula.

Lay the rhubarb stems onto the top of the cake - try to squeeze in as many as possible as they shrink a bit during baking. Bake in the centre of the oven for around 45 minutes until the cake has risen and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

As soon as the cake comes out of the oven brush the top with generous amounts of ginger syrup from the stem ginger jar and dredge with caster sugar. Leave the cake to cool in the tin for about 20 minutes then turn it out onto a wire rack, rhubarb side up.

Serve warm with thick cream or ice cream as a dessert or else cold, sliced generously for afternoon tea.

Guaranteed to brighten your week.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ha Noi Food Tales

It's the mopeds that are the surprise. Before we got to Hanoi in December I'd read a couple of bits on they net about how to cross the road and smirked. I can already do that! Then you're confronted with a seeming unstoppable river of thousands of mopeds and what you want is on the other side of the road. No lights or if there is no one pays them much heed. One way streets have bikes coming at you both ways as do the pavements. The essence of the instruction is walk out confidently and consistently into the road and you will get to the other side. I was jet lagged, hadn't slept for 30 hours or more so I wasn't entirely convinced.. But made it over had some bun with grilled pork made it back and had a little sleep. Out later that night we walked and crossed vastly busier roads and it struck me that we were all sharing the road - if you move at a considered pace and do nothing unexpected the moped riders factor that in and swerve around you as well as each other and everyone keeps moving.

After the flight there is the humidity and the scratchy eye tiredness. I booked a table at Cau Go so we could eat well without too much challenge. The room is lovely, five flights up above the lake and the manic river of traffic, gently lit and delightfully cool. Busy but not full with a fairly even split of locals and tourists. The proffered menu is long and broken into sections and it's so hard to make choices. In the end we start with deep fried tofu with ginger and lemongrass and fresh beef rolls topped with shrimp and a slightly too sweet dipping sauce.

We moved on to a slightly sour salad of morning glory and marinated beef, prawns sautéed with garlic and chilli, BBQ pork on sticks - meat on sticks is always a winner for me and a bowl of steamed rice with a separate bowl of ground toasted sesame seeds and peanut which is sensational, and will be emulated chez nous upon our return. Looking around it was clear that what the tables of tourists were ordering was different to the tables of locals who all had hotspots and soups, noodles and salads. But I have to say our inaugural dinner was very enjoyable, service was warm and helpful and the food was very good. Slept the sleep of the undead till dawn and woke to a cooler day.

Was excited for day 2 - we had a street food tour booked for a couple of hours in the middle of the day and I was hoping for great things - not just to eat well but also to understand how to eat here. Our fabulous guide Tu picked us up at the hotel around midday and we set off along a street of love hotels - inter generational families coexisting makes for little privacy, specially for couples wanting to be loved up. Rent by the hour, happiness all round. We jumped into a taxi and headed to 105 Quan Than for bun ca - fish noodle soup. I admit to being less than overjoyed at the idea, not a big fan of strong fish but I was nonetheless very curious to try. First we were taught how to sit on the tiny little red stools that are used everywhere at street places in Vietnam. You must crouch low then sit directly onto the stool to stop it collapsing. Don't wriggle about or the legs will break - this is not the furniture of my fat white western arse! The caff was busyish, just a concrete shell with the tiny table and chairs combo that I last sat on in infant school scattered about topped with plates of lime quarters, little bowls of fiery chilli paste and mugs of wooden chopsticks.

Tu grabbed a lime and rubbed the ends of the chopsticks hard, this is the way to be sure they're clean. He was trying to reassure us I think but Hanoi seems fairly clean generally and these little food stalls everywhere equally so. Mix everything everything everything says Tu, handing out bowls full of flat rice noodles, steamed fish and deep fried fish, lots of green herbs and sprouts, chilli and garlic and an astonishingly intense flavoured broth, then grabbing them back to demonstrate with chopsticks, mix mix mix like this. Knees up under our chin we slurped away till, two thirds of the way through Tu called enough! Onto the next or you'll never make it to the end.

We crossed a few roads, walking with conviction and no sudden movements, and up a few backstreets to a local market, quiet for lunch so most of the traders were stretched out behind their stalls having a little siesta while the fish swam in buckets and the great mountains of fresh greens sent out their gentle smell. Here you use herbs in great generous handfuls like the equivalent of spinach or cabbage not in the mimsy little snippets for garnish that we are much more used to in the west.

Tu explained what some of the unfamiliar ones were, breaking off sprigs and rubbing hard with his finger and thumb to release their different smells, all variations called mint, though some are redolent of fish or aniseed and not something I'd ever know as mint. We emerged out the other side of the market, past the fresh meat which you buy in just the quantity you need for the meal you are making, the stall holders prepping everything before you pay so you have only to cook when you are home.

Next stop was Pho Cuon Vinh Phong at 40 Ngu Xa Street for not cold beer to go with Pho Cuon - fresh rice wraps which I liked and Pho Chien Phong Xao Bo - puffed rice cakes with greens and marinated beef which was glorious - a brilliant mix of flavours and just fabulous textures of chewy crisp edged rice puffs, silky greens, juicy meat - highlight of the day for me.

We snaked along a few small streets, mopeds coming from all directions, beeping horns till we made it to Yen Phu Cafe,43a Pho Yen Phu, a coffee (Ca Phe) and yoghurt place. Fresh cows milk is not much in evidence in Vietnam but the family that own this place use it make some seriously great yoghurt - we tried both the passion fruit, best I've ever had, and one topped with fermented rice which I thought may well be disgusting but was in fact a great match of flavour with the sourness of the yoghurt and the moment before becoming alcohol intensity of the rice. We climbed a narrow staircase at the back then walked hunched over to the window under strings of party lights to sit again on tiny stools and had local coffee - thick and rich, topped with sweetened condensed milk over ice for a great pick me up. Recommend it for a coffee fix.

Next stop was a little place selling a local speciality - sounded unlikely when Tu suggested it, and one I won't be repeating at home. Called egg coffee and egg beer it's basically egg white whipped with sugar, and the used to top hot coffee - not a good idea - or poured into the bottom of a glass and topped with beer - a truly awful idea. Anyone makes you the offer - just say no.

We wandered through the enormous wholesale market - lots of pound shop style tat in bright colours in tiny shops tucked up under the railway line. Everything is packed away in the eaves every night using ladders then brought down and displayed again next morning. The alley ways are narrow and mostly the mopeds are slower, and every few metres someone is burning one of the solid blocks of fuel and cooking noodles or meat on sticks or simmering soup. Our final stop was for Pho Tiu - another bowl of noodles, thicker this time and topped with pork and chilli and more garlic. Tu explained that garlic too is used as a vegetable, and I know that for the first few days at least I woke every day feeling like my entire head was made from garlic so much did I eat.

Was a great tour, saw many streets I'd never have been down otherwise and got a list of recommendations for other places to try as an added bonus. We tried the first one that night, not really hungry it has to be said - we took a taxi to the Sofitel Plaza up to the summit bar for cocktails and the most stunning view. 

Even that high the traffic looks busy and the horns keep beeping but the mood is relaxed and the service charming. It's not far from Quan Kien Restaurant, 143 Nhgi Tam Street, which Tu said is his current favourite place in Hanoi. Take your shoes off and go up a couple of stairs to an expanse of polished wood dotted with low tables and a scatter of cushions. There's not much English spoken but there is a good translation of the menu so we sat on the ground, giggled a little at the Insect Menu but didn't order from it, choosing instead rice sticks deep fried with chicken skin, grilled pork on skewers and the lovely young waiter who was pushed forward by the others whenever we needed help - I'm guessing he was the only one with any English, checked we liked spicy before he added tofu to our order and then pointed at some greens when I asked which were best so we added them too.

Soon we got lots of great food, and a couple of beers, the greens were like a cross between bok choy and broccoli and came lightly steamed with shreds of ginger - perfect. The chewy bits of pork were smoky and moreish, the rice, surprisingly, came as big fat logs, hotter than hell to start with but crackly textured and a little bit dry to eat. Liked the tofu, it all seems to be made in house wherever you end up in Hanoi, but was less keen on the sauce, but together it made for a great meal and a really enjoyable evening. Just a wonderful day all together.

Next day the last of the jet lag caught up with a sleepless night and acclimatising to the  local conditions meant I felt a bit queasy but well enough later to see the water puppets.

What a delight! Puppeteers stand behind screens in water three feet deep and, with puppets manipulated on the end of long poles, tell all manner of magical tales across the water while a small group at the side of the stage above accompany the with music, singing and a brilliant collection of sound effects. 

A good nights' sleep heals many things so I started the day with pho bo, which I slurped down with gusto, much to the  consternation of the man. Seems he really does believe soup should never be eaten earlier than lunchtime - but he's wrong. Had an interesting morning at the Fine Arts Museum, fascinating collection and the building was entirely empty except for us and another man with his young son, bliss indeed. After a tour of one of the many temples we had a fairly abysmal lunch at Au Lac, set up by Imagine Asia, our equally abysmal tour organiser. Waste of a good food opportunity. Spent a total tourist afternoon, wandering by the lake and into occasional shops before cocktails at Madame Hien in their lovely garden. The menu looked interesting so we returned there later for dinner. We ordered far too much, the food came in very generous plates, but it was interesting collection of food from the different areas of the country. North, central and south Vietnam are quite distinct culturally and food wise - the north being most savoury and quite straightforward, the centre is more complex and spicy and the south has the strongest tendency to sweetness in all things.

We started with rolls but unlike the ones we'd had so far these were very thin, cooked rice crepes stuffed with greens and prawns, so an interesting mix of cooked and raw, with the crepe particularly making it a more substantial dish than the fresh rolls we had the first night. I thought it was an Indian influence but in fact turmeric is used in Central Viet cooking and it was this that made the juice that went with tofu wrapped in banana leaf and deep fried. We were presented with a small package to unwrap to release the great smell of turmeric and all of it atop a raft of steamed greens, a lovely and very substantial dish. We had another version of grilled pork - yes I am addicted and this is proving a delightful country to get my fix which too was a generous serving so the final dish of morning glory with garlic was simply too much, a shame as it tasted great.

And that's it, Hanoi done apart from eggs sunny side up for breakfast before the four hour drive to Ha Long Bay.