"It's not much but it's ours"

Monday, March 21, 2011


Of all the London restaurants I’ve visited, I find the interiors of Russell Norman’s mini-chain the most interesting. He seems to have a knack for sniffing out rooms that once done up just feel and look so right – something that takes a good eye for detail and no little effort I imagine.

The Soho locations of his joints are pretty unique as well: a little 18th century bacaro on Beak St; a bijoux boîte above The French and now, a discarded G-string’s throw away from the old Raymond Revuebar, comes Spuntino, a small-plate operation styled after the sort of places you might find in say Greenwich Village or Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

In common with sister restaurants Polpo and Polpetto the keyword at Spuntino is conviviality - from the friendly staff behind the large bar, the old-school Country music and R&B on the PA, to the eclectic neo-diner food, the sense of fun and informality is palpable. You can sit where you want, stay as long as you want (there’s no bookings) and order anything you want, any which way.

Start off with free popcorn served in enamel coffee mugs (also doubling up as receptacles for the strong filter coffee which will tail end your meal) or some spiced nuts – although these could do with kicking up a notch or two - but even better with terrific fat green olives which have been stuffed with a sort of Ital trifecta of Parmesan, Anchovy, Sage then deep-fried. As addictive (and enjoyable) I suspect as slapping Giles Coren repeatedly about the chops.

House Pickles had a pleasing crunch but weren’t over assertive or acidic: a good foil to the richer items elsewhere on the menu. Transparent slices of Lardo were draped over grilled bread and served with caperberries.

Comped bowls of crisp aubergine frites with a fennel-spiced dip showed that at Spuntino even vegetarians get to join in the fun the same as us normal folk.

Soft-shell crab which didn't impress at Polpetto (soggy batter) was aced here. It came in a light, greaseless, tempura-like carapace with another perky dip this time a Tabasco aioli.

Sliders - a sort of fun-sized burger - come in three varieties. I liked my Beef and Bone Marrow variety which came medium rare although the texture of the meat seemed a tad over-processed. A good meaty mouthful though.

The more carbaliscious dishes didn’t quite rock my world (but obviously they did enough for me to scoff them all). Truffled Egg Toast suggested some variation on a eggy-bread theme but the gloriously messy topping gave way to a thick wodge of bread which even with my greedy-guts appetite I found hard-going.

Zucchini, Mint and Chilli pizzetta was pretty as a picture but tasted dry and the slightly chewy dough didn’t impress as much as similar ones I’d eaten at Polpo and Polpetto. The impact of a big bowl of shoestring fries was diminished by them being a bit limp.

To finish, a PB&J sandwich while intriguing would have just been de trop (with age comes much wisdom, grasshopper) but I didn’t feel like I was missing out with a combo of waffer-thin slices of pineapple with a Liquorice Ice Cream of great taste and texture.

Service from the hip young gunslingers behind the counter was cheerfully efficient - nice to see people who appear to actually enjoy their work - and despite the booze list majoring in Bourbon, they actually popped out to find me some Grappa to finish off my meal. A very nice touch.

Honestly, in the currently moribund London dining scene somewhere like Spuntino is a breath of fresh air. It’s not perfect (where is?) but the brio with which the whole operation is executed won me over. Go there, eat too much, drink too much, have fun and leave the nice staff a big tip.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011


A few days ago, I posted one of my all too regular rants on Facebook and Twitter, this time about the fact that too many recipes now seem to be bastardized “quick & easy” takes on the classic.

Almost inevitably, I got responses from people who said “there is nothing wrong with quick & easy recipes, some of us don’t have the time to spend all day cooking”. Of course, if they had taken the time to actually read what I had written, they would have noticed that I never said there that all cooking had to involve slaving over the stove for hours on end. I merely pointed out that there are certain recipes that are meant to involve a lot of effort and that quick fix versions do them a disservice and produce an end result that is a pale reflection of the real thing.

Yesterday, I thought I should put my money where my sizeable mouth is and prove to myself that not only are some dishes not meant to be rushed, but also that the effort involved is more than repaid in amazing flavours.

I had a lot of choices, but for the last few weeks I have been seriously craving Mole, the deep, savoury, smoky sauce from Mexico. Mole is legendary for the amount of effort required in its preparation and for the wide variety of styles in which it can be found. As I discovered when I started to research recipes on line, just about every person will have a different take on the sauce, using different chillies and different methods of preparation.

In the end, I took notes from dozens of different ones and constructed the recipe below before heading out to buy the ingredients from my local Mexican market here in LA.

It took most of the day to prepare and involved more rendering, toasting, grinding, blending, stirring and sieving that any man should ever have to put up with on a pleasant Saturday. But, was the end result worth it? Did it support my theory that some dishes should never be made the “quick & easy” way?

Well, I can say hand very firmly on heart that the end result, my “Pollo Con Mole” easily takes its place in the top ten of dishes I have ever prepared and, as an added bonus, I now have a big tub full of the stuff in the freezer for future use.

It’s not quick and it is definitely not easy. In fact, it is a bit of a pain in the arse to make. But, some dishes are just worth the effort and if you don’t have time or inclination to make them, it is probably God’s way of telling you that you are not meant to eat them.

So there.


Chicken Thighs (2 Per Person)
4 Dried Guajillo Chillies
4 Dried Pasilla Chillies
4 Cups Chicken Stock
2 Cups Boiling Water (for soaking the chillies)
1 12oz Can Tomatoes
6 Tomatillos
8 Cloves Garlic
1 large White Onion
½ Cup Raisins
1 Corn Tortilla
½ Cup Raw Skinned Peanuts
½ Cup Raw Skinned Almonds
½ Cup Sesame Seeds
½ Cup Mexican Drinking Chocolate (or 80% Dark Chocolate)
4 Cloves
4 All Spice Berries
1 Stick Canela (Cinnamon)
4 Black Peppercorns
1 Tbsp Dried Oregano
1 Tbsp Dried Thyme
1 Tsp Salt
1 Tsp White Pepper
¼ Cup Lard (I rendered my own from some pork skin, but you can use shop bought)

Split the dried chillies. Remove and retain the seeds.
Place the chillies on a dry frying pan or griddle and toast them on both sides until they colour but do not burn.
Cover the chillies with 2 cups of boiling water and leave to soften for thirty minutes.
Blend the chillies with a little of their soaking liquid until the form a paste.
Pass through a sieve to remove all the skins and leave a smooth paste.

Roast the onions and garlic in the skins. Peel and set aside to cool.

Dice the tomatillo and add to the tomatoes in a saucepan with a little oil.
Add the oregano and thyme.
Add the salt & pepper
Add the raisins.
Cook this until almost all the liquid has evaporated.
Add the peeled onions and garlic.
Blend with a little of the soaking liquid from the chillies and pass through a sieve to make a smooth “tomato” paste.

Toast the Allspice, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns in a dry frying pan and then grind to a fine powder.
Toast the chilli seeds in a dry frying pan.
Toast the peanuts, sesame seeds and almonds in a dry frying pan.
Toast a torn corn tortilla in a dry frying pan.
Add the toasted chilli seeds and tortilla to the nuts and grind them all to a fine powder.
Add the spice mixture to the nut/seed/tortilla mixture and mix to a fine paste with the remaining soaking liquid from the chillies. You may want to blend this one more time to make a really smooth paste.

Add three tbsp of lard to a large saucepan.
When it begins to smoke, add the tomato mixture.
Reduce to a low heat and cook slowly until it begins to darken in colour. This may take about ten minutes.
Add the nut/seed/spice mixture and combine thoroughly.
Cook on a low heat until you see the spices begin to release their oils on the surface of the liquid.
Add the chilli paste and combine well.
Cook for a further ten minutes until the chilli paste is totally combined.
Add the chicken stock and cook on a low heat for twenty minutes or until the sauce has reduced by at least half.
Pass through a sieve one final time to make sure you have a silky smooth, glossy end result.
Place the sauce back in the pan and add the grated Mexican chocolate.
Cook on a low heat until the chocolate has melted.

While the Mole is cooking, skin the chicken thighs and bake until cooked.

When ready to serve, place two chicken thighs on each plate and cover totally with Mole.

Serve with rice and lots of hot corn tortillas.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011


One of the real benefits of working from home is that, in between writing articles, working on proposals for new books or firing off answers to the plethora of e-mails that have filled my inbox every morning, I get to cook.

I get to cook a lot.

Oddly enough, Sybil does not seem to mind returning home to find the scent of a hot supper filling her nostrils, particularly when that smell emanates from something that once went “oink”. She is definitely a fan of her porcine products and anytime I suggest a pig centric supper the offer is greeted with a nod of enthusiasm.

Today, it was rib time. Butchers in L.A are, if I am being brutally honest, a bit ropey and, although it might surprise people to hear it, I have found much of the quality of what I buy to be well below what I can find in London, even at a supermarket.

That being said, I do have a semi decent butcher within walking distance and one thing that he always has on offer is a great selection of ribs. There are meaty spare ribs, chunky beef ribs and, best of all, my personal favourite baby backs. I buy these more often than my cardiologist might advise and have any number of ways to prepare them.

Today, for some reason, my thoughts turned to Char Siu, that bright red pork preparation that is such a favourite in Chinese restaurants. I had tried to make it a few times before, but usually using pork loin, which is my least favourite park of the pig. I can’t help feeling every time I eat it, that I might as well be eating the paper it was wrapped in for all the flavour it gives out.

Ribs on the other hand are a different animal (well, part of the animal, but you know what I mean) altogether and I decided to pick up a couple of slabs of baby backs from Denny, my butcher at Victor’s and give them the char siu treatment.

The results were, I am delighted to say, a huge success as we polished off one thick slab with another left to feed us both for tomorrow. Just in case anyone is vaguely interested in giving it a go, the recipe is below.

2 Slabs of Baby Back Pork Ribs (ask the butcher to remove the membrane)

3 Cloves Garlic (Peeled & Minced)
2 Inches of Fresh Ginger (Peeled & Minced)
2 Tsp Cayenne Pepper
1 Tbsp Chinese Five Spice Powder
1 Tsp White Pepper
3 Tbs Honey
¼ Cup Dark Soy Sauce
¼ Cup Brandy (Optional)
¼ Rice Wine or Dry Sherry
¼ Cup Vegetable Oil
½ Cup Hoisin Sauce
3 Tbsp Sesame Oil
1 Lemon (Juice & Zest)

¼ Cup Tomato Ketchup
¼ Cup Hoisin Sauce
3 Tbsp Honey
¼ Cup Brandy (Optional – use orange juice of you don’t want to use alcohol)

Combine all the ingredients for the marinade in a saucepan and heat through until the honey has melted and they have all combined together.
Allow the marinade to cool and then massage well into the ribs.
Place the ribs in a Zip Loc bag and allow to marinate for at least four hours (better over night)
Line a large baking tray with foil and place a wire rack on top.
When the ribs have marinated, place them on the wire rack and pour a little water underneath. This will create steam as they cook and keep the ribs moist.
Place two layers of foil over the ribs and fold to create a complete seal. Again this will keep the steam in and keep the ribs moist while cooking.
Cook the ribs at 400F/220C for around two hours.
While the ribs are cooking, prepare the glaze by heating all the ingredients in a pan over a gentle heat.
After two hours, remove the top layer of foil to reveal the ribs.
Glaze each slab and return to the oven.
Cook at 450F/230C for ten minutes, being careful they do not burn.
Glaze once more and cook for a final ten minutes, again making sure they do not burn.
Give the ribs one final glaze and serve with white rice and lots of napkins.

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Sunday, March 06, 2011


There are very few mornings when I don’t wake up to at least one invitation to go on a press trip. I am very grateful that anyone thinks I might be worth spending their client’s money on, but the truth is that precious few of the offers have much appeal and I turn nearly every one down with a polite e-mail.

A few weeks ago however, I received a mail from one of my favourite writing clients,, to whose site I contribute a weekly column. The mail asked me if I was interested in representing them during a press trip to Avery Island, the home of the McIlhenny Co. producers of Tabasco Hot Sauce.

For once I was definitely interested. Not only am I a bit of a fan of Tabasco and use it in many recipes but, I had also already marked down a visit to their factory on my wish list for my new project. Fed, White & Blue is a journey that will see me travel around the USA finding out what it means to become an American through the food they eat, part of my own move towards first residency and then citizenship of this remarkable country. It was a perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and a week or so later, I found myself boarding a plane for one of my favourite cities in the world, New Orleans.

Avery Island is situated about 2 ½ hours drive to the west of The Big Easy. It is not strictly speaking an island, more of a raised dome of salt surrounded by marshes, swamps and the famous Louisiana bayous. The salt is the reason that Avery Island was first inhabited by the local native American tribe and provides all the salt used in the production of Tabasco right up to today.

Tabasco was first produced in 1868 by Edmund McIlhenny. His chain of confederate banks had failed during the American Civil War and he returned to the family island to find other ways of making a living. He began making a hot sauce for his own use, using local peppers, salt from the island’s mine and imported vinegar from Bordeaux. The name of the peppers “Tabasco” was taken from the local Indian dialect and meant “place where it is hot and humid”. It was the perfect climate for growing the peppers and Edmund’s hot sauce soon began to become a regular addition to the bland food of post war Louisiana. It soon began to gain wider popularity and, thanks to Edmund’s assiduous record keeping, we know that its fame spread rapidly to the rest of the United States and, in 1874, even across The Pond to Britain.

Tabasco is still a family business and many of the clan live on the island alongside a large number of the two hundred strong workforce. David Landry is a perfect example. He was born on the island and has worked for the company for over forty years. He was the perfect guide during our time on the island.

Our tour of the facility was not planned to take place until the next morning. So, after depositing our bags at the island’s guest accommodation and grabbing a Boudin Po’Boy for lunch at The Tabasco Deli, the staff commissary, we had chance to see much of the island.

Included in our tour were The Jungle Gardens, created by E.A. McIlhenny in the early part of the 20th Century as a place to relax and as a sanctuary for the endangered Snow Egrets which had almost been hunted to the point of extinction. We were also warned to keep an eye out for the alligators who call the local swamps their home and are not too keen to receive visitors.

All of this, plus the long drive from the city just about had us beat. But, not so beat that we could not enjoy a bit of Louisiana hospitality that evening at local restaurant Shucks. As the name might lead you to believe, it specialised in oysters. I love oysters, but unfortunately, they no longer love me and I had to watch as my companions cleared the best part of a hundred assorted bi-valves from the table while I concentrated on my duck and sausage gumbo. It’s a hard life I lead, but I soldier on.

The following morning, after a delicious breakfast of crawfish Étouffée, we finally got chance to see where Tabasco was made. Joining Dave Landry as our guide, was Harold “Took” Osborn, another family member who was now Vice President of Agriculture for the McIlhenny Co. He is a larger that life character whose main task in life seems to be giving everyone he encounters as hard a time as possible, but his love for his work and the family product is tangible.

He began by explaining that Tabasco only contains three ingredients, salt, vinegar, and of course, the proprietary species of hot peppers. Given that the facility on the island produces nearly 750,000 bottles of sauce a day it was hardly a surprise when he informed us that most of the peppers are now grown abroad on plantations in Latin America and even Africa. To maintain quality, the seed for the peppers is still grown on the island and sent to the producers with enough Avery Island salt to make the mash for the sauce.

Pepper pickers are given a stick called “Le Petite Baton Rouge” painted in the colour of a perfectly ripe pepper so they know which ones to harvest. These are mashed with salt the same day as they are picked and then packed into containers to be shipped back to the island. Once they return, they are sealed in used Bourbon barrels to allow the mash to age for three years in a vast warehouse that can house over 60,000 barrels.

After we had visited the greenhouse where the seeds are prepared, Took led us to the cooperage to meet master cooper, Hamilton Polk who has also been at the company for well over forty years. His job is to prepare the barrels and cover the lids using a layer of salt. This will harden during the ageing process to form a protective seal from bugs.

His other task was to give visitors to the island the chance to become members of the “Not So Sacred Order of The Not So Silver Spoon”. An award for those people who have been “lucky” enough to have a taste of the raw mash. It was, Took told us rather gleefully, ten times as hot as the final Tabasco sauce with which we were all so familiar.

We dutifully lined up to each dip our little fingers in the mash which Mr. Hamilton had retrieved from an open barrel. The air in the cooperage was soon filled with the spluttering of all of us and we were warned to wash our hands immediately because of the inevitable and painful consequences if we wanted to use the bathroom later on. Duty done, Took presented us with an honorary tasting spoon and declared us members of what he claimed was a very exclusive club. I have my doubts, but I am very proud of my spoon.

After the mash has aged, it is drained of the brine created by the addition of salt and then milled to remove excess solids. The remains are then mixed with vinegar and the flavours allowed to marry in large tanks for a further thirty days. During this stage of the process, the contents of the large containers are stirred. It is at the same rate as the original barrels were stirred by hand and is one of the only parts of the whole production of Tabasco that uses any mechanisation at all. Finally, the contents of the containers are strained and the result is the familiar red liquid that has become the world’s most popular hot sauce. This is then bottled and sent out to over 160 countries in containers that carry labels printed in over 20 languages and dialects.

The whole task of producing Tabasco takes five years. That’s two to germinate the seeds and grow the peppers and three to age and process the mash. I may well have been a great fan of the sauce before, but the opportunity to visit the island and to see the production process of the sauce at the source has definitely given me a whole new appreciation of what I use so often in cooking.

That little bottle with its familiar diamond label will never seem quite the same again.

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