Can Cook, Must Cook

The food adventures of Franka P, a Trinidadian journalist living in London, UK. I'll write about my forays into all types of food and cooking, particularly Caribbean food. I'll also review books and recipes by the leading food writers and talk about the issues making headlines in the gastronomic world.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Not only about the food

What constitutes a good culinary experience? It's hard to describe but I know it's not all about the food.
If you go to someone's house and all they could offer you is Crix biscuits and butter with some juice, you'd enjoy it because you know they offered it with a lot of love.
At that point, it doesn't matter if the house are a lil untidy or things not perfect, but if I go to a restaurant, I certainly expect everything to be perfect, because I'm paying, I don't want love, I want a good all round culinary experience.
My recent visit to the
Hummingbird Restaurant in north London was less than satisfying.
Even though the food was extremely tasty, there were too many other things that didn't sit well with me.
here to see photos of my visit to the Hummingbird.
The service was a bit too leisurely. Waitress No. 1 was so laid back she seemed uninterested. Waitress No. 2 who took over, was under pressure because she was the only person on the floor so the service got slower as the night went on.
Untidiness doesn't cut it in a restaurant.
The Hummingbird could do with a visit from my mother in full clearing up mode. Don't get me wrong, the place wasn't unclean, it was just untidy.
The bar area was in a mess with menus all over the counter top, behind the bar looked like a storage area and the amount of half-empty bottles on the shelf didn't help either.
On the décor front, I could appreciate what they were trying to do with a minimalist approach, white walls, metal chairs and a coconut tree motif. They didn't go down the colourful 'cartoon Caribbean' look that I hate.
However, the place looks tired. The walls could do with a lick of paint, because the signs of wear – scrub marks from chairs – were clearly visible.
The toilet was clean but on the way to the toilet, there were broken floor tiles and an untidy back yard with a broken down car. It was just too shoddy.
On the food front, the place is extremely popular. There was a steady stream of customers and their takeaway business appears to be going guns.
I'll give them high marks for their menu because it's one of the most diverse Caribbean menus I've seen among the restaurants I've visited.
The range of dishes would find favour with even the harshest Caribbean foodies. Bajans will be glad that coo coo and stewed fish is prominent on the menu. In fact that was my choice for main course. It was sumptuous.
The chef got the cornmeal, okro and coconut milk to a perfect texture and the red fish cooked in a rich tomato, pepper and red herb stew was a wonderful accompaniment.
When I saw fried sprats - or what we call 'fry dry' in the Caribbean - as one of the appetisers, I couldn't resist. My mom used to do these when I was a child and I hadn’t had them since. Cherise’s saltfish fritters (accra) were light and moreish but EJ thought the potatoes in his sweet potato cheese bake were overcooked and Lisa felt her callaloo was a tad spicy.

Click here to see the photos of my visit to the Hummingbird.
I loved the ginger and tamarind sauce that accompanied EJ's grilled lamb but he said the lamb was a bit too well done. That's something I find about Caribbean restaurants, they tend to cook the meat too much. Lisa also thought her St Lucian lobster was a tad overcooked but tasty nonetheless. Cherise said her jerk chicken, was just right.
If The Hummingbird could get the food right, why don't they pay attention to everything else?
I think some people might feel I'm a bit harsh, but I really feel that Caribbean cuisine is as good as any other and I don't understand why more restaurateurs aren't making the effort to hit the heights that some other 'ethnic' restaurants are doing in this country.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

My first harvest

I was so excited when I dug up these lovely garlic bulbs!
I got the cloves at last year's Hampton Court Palace Flower Show from the
Garlic Farm's stall.
I've bought their garlic at Borough Market before, and since I know how good that Isle of Wight garlic is, I thought I'd give planting some a shot.
I planted them in November and waited patiently until last week to harvest them. It feels great to hold something you've planted in your hands.
The next project is salad leaves, carrots and spring onions (aka scallions), but it's so damn hot now I think I'll wait until it cools a bit.
I'm not a green thumb, I'm not good at plants but I'm determined to make a success of planting edible stuff but who knows, I might throw in a few roses, some irisies and a few cacti for good measure.

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Stumped by exotic vinegar

Strawberry VinegarThe wonderful Stacy gave me this bottle of strawberry vinegar and I'd love to cook something with it for her, but I keep finding recipes for salad dressing.
But even though fish cakes with salad and strawberry vinegar dressing sounds great, I don't think it'll cut it for her sophisticated palate.
So if anyone out there could help with an interesting vegetarian recipe that uses strawberry vinegar, please send it on.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Less food please?

Mr Jerk's oxtail with rice and peasI'm not usually one to complain about generous servings but when Bonnie and I went to Mr Jerk the other day, we were both stunned by the stevedore-sized portions.
Essentially, Mr Jerk does what it says on the tin, it serves Jerk dishes and other Jamaican favourites.

The restaurant is known for hearty Jamaican food like patties, jerk chicken, ackee and saltfish and brown stew fish.
One evening after work, Bonnie and I went to the Wardour Street branch in Central London to see what we could 'nyam'.

This is where I begin to complain. The guy taking orders at the counter was not welcoming at all. He was gruff, abrupt and didn't give good advice about items on the menu.
We ignored this and soldiered on anyway. Now Mr Jerk is a takeaway as well as a sit down restaurant. It is small and awkwardly shaped so you could find yourself jammed up against a post or stuck in a corner with little space to manoeuvre. This is not the place you want to be spreading out for a leisurely meal.
Unfortunately, they were out of salt fish dumplings and fried plantains that we had hoped to start with. I thought coco bread sounded interesting so I consulted Mr Man at the counter who told me it was something that you eat with patties. So thinking he would know best, Bonnie and I ordered coco bread and patties.
It was not a wise choice. Coco bread is a big bread roll, and what Mr Man didn't explain was that the bread was cut like a sandwich and the patty stuck in the middle – yes, Jamaican Patties sandwich.
The patties were quite delicious but how in heaven's name could you serve a patty sandwich? That is as anachronistic as the 'chips butty' much loved by people up and down the UK.
I didn't eat the whole starter, because there wouldn't be space for the main course of braised oxtail with rice and peas. When the young lady came with the food, I was speechless for a few moments because I couldn't believe the amount of food that was on the plate! Talk about heaping platefuls!
The food itself was absolutely delicious. The oxtail was unctuous and succulent and the rice and peas was also excellent. Bonnie's pepper steak with hard food (provisions to Trinis) was great as well. The beef was like butter, she could have cut it with a spoon.
You might wonder why I'm complaining about the portion sizes, but I had a look around at the plates other people left behind and none of them were empty because no one could get through the mountains of food. I would think this is a real waste of money for the restaurant.
I guess if they're selling equally large servings in a takeaway container, it's good for the customer who could either share the meal or eat some and save the rest for another time.
In a way, it was a good thing we had lots of food to take away, because those leftovers were put to good use. On the platform at Piccadilly Circus tube station, we saw a homeless guy sitting with his dog and holding a 'homeless and hungry' sign. Usually, I don't give beggars anything, as I prefer to give to the charities but this guy looked honest and the poor dog looked so forlorn.
When I took the two containers to him, I said I had no money but just food. He was totally chuffed and said, "no worries, the food is better". I'm glad Mr Jerk's food didn't go to waste.

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Another one converted

Paul tackles venison
In case you didn't realise, one of my missions in life is to convert as many of my Trini friends into adventurous foodies.
You see, a lot of Trinis are a bit sniffy when it comes to trying new stuff. Not only do they feel that the Trini way is the only way, but they're often willing to dismiss something different without giving it a chance.
Most of my friends are open to new stuff, but many of them blanch at the thought of rabbit cause they can't believe I'd eat Bugs Bunny or at ostrich because it's just weird.
My good buddy Paul recently spent a weekend in London with me so I took him to Borough Market and convinced him to try venison. He was surprised that deer was so readily avialable, as back home the ony time you get deer is if you know someone who went hunting in the bush.
Paul liked the venison and also fell in love with Borough Market. He was thoroughly impressed with the sheer variety and the freshness of the products on offer and now when he calls he asks, "how's Borough Market?"
My mission continues.....

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The prodigal returns....

Hectic!! That’s the only way I can describe my life lately, hectic and fun!
I’ve been having a fantastic summer, especially hanging out with my friends at random and unexpected events.
I have to shamefully admit to a
day of drunken excess to celebrate my birthday which for the bits I can remember was excellent. I’ve been told that I was the life of the party for the entire evening, until I slinked off and passed out on Bonnie’s couch.
Thanks to Maurice for the bottle of Laphroaig single malt whisky, it’s my favourite single malt and all 70cl of it went down really well. Amazingly after all that alcohol, I didn’t have a hangover or any adverse side effects. I put that down to the venison burger, oysters, clams and sinful chocolate cake I had at Borough Market before getting to Bonnie’s house, as well as copious amounts of food throughout the day.

Lest you think I’ve turned into a wutless drunkard, rest assured that I rarely drink that much, and when I have done, it’s been in the company of good friends so my business won’t be in the street.
Talking about good friends, I’ve shared some interesting meals with friends at Caribbean restaurants in London in recent weeks.
A few months ago, I said I’ve not been particularly impressed with the Caribbean stuff on offer in London and I’ll admit that I am not as cynical but it’s clear our restaurants still have a long way to go if they’re even to reach to the standard of some pubs here.
Lisa and I finally went to
BB’s Crab Back Restaurant, near to where I live in Ealing, West London and I had a great meal.
BB’s has been around for a while and is a 'must-do' for Caribbean celebs passing through London, you can tell by looking at the walls because everyone who’s someone seems to have signed the walls at BB’s. From Brian Lara and the West Indies team to soca stars and politicians, they’ve all eaten there.
When I stepped into the restaurant, I felt as if I was in a time warp, but not in a bad way. It was like eating in a shack on the side of the road on the way to the beach where the reggae music in the background – Beres Hammond and Gregory Isaacs obviously – is a bit too loud and the service is leisurely but attentive.
BB’s might be really rootsy, but chef/owner Brian Benjamin’s menu is quite sophisticated. The menu is quite diverse and strongly influenced by Grenada, chef Benjamin's native land.
There are old favourites like callaloo, ackee and saltfish and curried goat side by side with modern interpretations of less well-known dishes from the region.
I was thoroughly intrigued by the Bathway Express, an appetising curried split peas risotto served with mild mint and yogurt sauce, that’s clearly based on good ole split peas and rice, something our mothers cook up quickly if they not feeling to make pelau or soup.
I love prawns, so I couldn’t help but dig into to Lisa’s King Prawns Seretse (cooked in butter with lobster sauce and served with pimentos and mango). That was bloody excellent!
What struck me about BB’s was the extensive rum list that included Cockspur, Royal Rivers, Vat 19, Clarke’s Court, Appleton and El Dorado rums.
I have a bee in my bonnet about rum and I think more Caribbean people (myself included) ought to be rum experts in the way that many Europeans are wine experts. I once shocked a wine critic by saying that wine is an acquired taste for me, and that I could do without it.
Once you taste rums like Angostura’s 1919 and 1824, Appleton’s V/X or 12-year-old El Dorado, you can’t really enjoy £4.99 Ernest and Julio can you? I promise I’ll return to that conversation in the future.
Passion Fruit Sorbet or Bananas flamed in Rum and Lemon are always tempting options for dessert, but we decided to try something different and went for the Bush Tea, a delicious and soothing infusion of Grenada’s finest spices - West Indian bay leaves, lemongrass and cinnamon.

Chef Brian and his wife Anna are great hosts, and I was happy they took the time to chat with us about food and about things in general. Brian told me about the Grenadian version of oil down that sounded much richer than the Trinidadian recipe. He even promised that he could cook it for a bunch of us if we warn him in advance. I will definitely be back!

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