Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Chinese-style "Char Siu"

Years ago, Jane and I lived for several years in Hong Kong, and we soon developed a love for Cantonese cuisine. One of our favourite Chinese foods is Char Siu, pork meat flavoured with fragrant spices and cooked either in an oven or over a barbecue until the meat is tender and its exterior is dark and sticky. The Char Siu is then used in a variety of ways, for instance to form the stuffing for little buns called Char Siu Bau, or as an ingredient in dishes based on rice or noodles.

The little lanes in Hong Kong are always resonating to the sound of butchers enthusiastically chopping their Char Siu on big wooden chopping-boards, with their massive heavy cleavers, and the shops are festooned with arrays of Char Siu and Peking Ducks hanging from hooks on high rails. Meanwhile, the smell of wood smoke and Five Spice powder wafts all around....

This past weekend I had a go at making something inspired by this. It turned out well, so today I'm going to describe it.

Char Siu is normally made with pork shoulder or belly. If you like the fattier cuts, buy the belly - it has more flavour and produces a more succulent end result. I bought a pack of sliced belly pork, which is a really good-value cut. I got 495g of meat for a mere £2.47. The only preparation the meat needs at this stage is to remove the skin. I discarded it, but you could if you wanted cook it separately to make some crackling. The next step is to marinate the meat. In a suitable dish, mix up all the ingredients (below) and make sure the meat is thoroughly coated before covering and refrigerating for several hours. (I gave mine six hours).

Garlic, crushed
Fresh Ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
Chilli, roughly chopped
Soy Sauce
Kecap Manis (a very thick, sweet, sticky soy-based condiment)
Sweet Papkika (to provide colour. Commercially-produced Char Siu often uses artificial red colouring.)
Five Spice powder (the key ingredient!)

As mentioned, the Five Spice powder is crucial. It's hard to say how much you need to use. This is the sort of thing that is instinctive! If it helps you to judge, I used about half a teaspoonful for 495g of meat. Too little Five Spice would be better than too much though, because it is quite powerful, especially when fresh.

I cooked the meat in the same dish in which it had been marinated - it was a Pyrex one - and I gave it about 3 hours on a very low heat (about 110C), turning the slices once or twice to ensure even browning. When I was satisfied that the meat had gone really tender (testing it by prodding it with a knife), I took it out of the oven and let it cool.

When it was cool I sliced it into small pieces:

BTW, I confess that at this stage (lukewarm), both Jane and I did have a little test (for quality-control purposes, you understand) and agreed that it was so delicious that the dish had to be covered with clingfilm to stop us both guzzling it all before Dinner-time!

Meanwhile... I pre-cooked some Chinese noodles and left them to cool. Then, when the time came, it was easy to finish the dish. First I warmed the noodles in a hot wok, adding some chopped Spring Onions and Tomatoes for a bit of colour:

Then I stirred in a good glug of Soy Sauce and let it sizzle a bit before adding the Char Siu. Oh wow, if only you could have smelled it at this point!

All that was necessary was to cook the dish for three or four minutes, to thoroughly warm the ingredients, stirring occasionally (notice I used two wooden spoons for this, so that I could turn the noodles without damaging them or the ceramic wok), and then serve:

Notice the cheffy garnish of cucumber, chilli and Spring Onion!

I was really pleased with how this came out. In terms of effort-to-results ratio, this dish is definitely a winner! Cheap, easy to do (as long as you plan ahead), and wonderfully delicious. What's more, for us it was evocative of good times in Hong Kong years ago...

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Challock Chilli Fest

At the weekend I had the privilege of attending the Challock Chilli Fest, a chilli-themed event hosted by Stephen Shirley, the owner of Victoriana Nursery Gardens and his family / team.

Victoriana is a small family-run nursery - very different to the huge chain-owned Garden Centres. For a start, it has character. My reason for visiting was primarily to meet Stephen, who I know through the UK Veg Gardeners forum, but of course there was an ulterior motive: we share a love of the chilli! Actually there is more to Victoriana than meets the eye. For instance, I think if I were a serious Fuchsia enthusiast, this would be a place I would want to visit often...

On view this past weekend were 80 different varieties of chilli, all grown on-site, in a plastic poly-tunnel.

Chilli plants in the polytunnel
 Some of them were apparently quite hot...

The Disclaimer!

Looking at this photo of Stephen and me, you would think I had just eaten one of those hot, hot chillis!

Stephen and me. He's the good-looking one...
Actually, it was a hotdog from Cafe Mauresque made with Merguez sausage, with yogurt with mint and harissa - which was absolutely delicious! In fact there were lots of edible goodies on sale. For instance these potato crisps with chipotle chilli flavouring from Kent Crisps.

And this Indian Lime Pickle and Hot Mustard Pickle (aka "Piccalilli")  from "Jane's Country Larder".

The star attraction though was the chilli plants. It was really inspiring to be able to see Stephen's chilli plants "up close and personal", and in my case, to photograph them. Most of the varieties were available for tasting too (though I didn't avail myself of this offer). This really is the way to find out if you like chillis - either to grow them or to eat them. Seeds for about half of the 80 varieties were available to buy (you can also get then via the Chilli Peppers page of the Victoriana website.)

Here is a small selection of what was on offer: (Apologies to Stephen if I have mis-identified any of them!)

"Pinocchio's nose"

"Bolivian Rainbow"


"Moruga Scorpion"


"Naga Morich"


"Numex Suave Orange"



"Bulgarian Carrot"

"Ring of Fire"

"7-Pot Brain Strain Yellow" (immature)

"7-Pot Brain Strain Yellow" (mature)

Stephen's chilli plants were mostly a lot bigger than mine. The reason for this is of course that his are grown in a polytunnel, whereas mine are out in the open. As it happens, this suits me fine. I couldn't afford the space in my little garden for plants as enormous as Stephen's ones anyway (although he was trying to persuade me to install a polytunnel!). Many gardening books assert that growing chillis outdoors is not worthwhile in the UK. They are wrong. I have done it for years, and I usually get a pretty good crop. You just have to start them off indoors and only put them outside when the weather warms up in the Spring. Chillis do take a long time to grow to maturity though, so the key to success is to start them off early (Jan / Feb in the UK), as long as you have a suitable place to keep them warm and provided with enough light.

Regular readers of my blog know full well that for a long while I have been interested in growing chillis. Well, after our visit to Challock at the weekend I'm upgrading that: I'm now officially "obsessed"!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Harvest Monday - 29th September 2014

My harvest this week has as usual not been big, but varied.

In the basket this time are Beetroot, Runner Beans, Chillis, Peppers, Lettuce, Cucumbers, Tomatoes and one solitary French Bean.

The Lettuce are "Webbs Wonderful", an Iceberg type. I was only able to use the hearts because the outer leaves had been extensively nibbled by slugs. Here's a tip for separating the leaves of a tight lettuce like this (and Little Gem / Romaine types too): do it under a running tap. The water gets under the leaves and lifts them apart gently so they don't tear.

The two tomatoes you see in the basket are "Maskotka", the first ripe ones from a small second crop on my two plants of this variety. They avoided the blight which took down the bigger varieties, and made it through the compost contamination saga better than any of the others, and now they are producing a second crop. I think you can understand why this is my favourite tomato variety!

"Maskotka" - 26 Sept 2014

I am also reckoning the "Orkado" tomatoes picked two weeks ago but only just ripened (indoors):

And the Mesclun I wrote about on Saturday:

And of course on Friday I got these, about which I wrote yesterday:

Saturday produced this modest yield - some more chillis and a handful of "Cobra" French Beans.

As the saying goes, "Every little helps"...

This is my entry for the Harvest Monday blog-hop, hosted as ever by Daphne's Dandelions.

P.S. My blog was recently given an very nice accolade in an interview of prominent blogger Laila Noort (whose blog is by Dave Ledoux who runs Back To My Garden. You can listen to the podcast here:

Sunday, 28 September 2014

British Veg

On Friday Jane cooked a good old-fashioned British beef casserole, so I thought I should provide some good old-fashioned British veg to accompany it, so this is what I produced:

I'm so pleased with these carrots. For the first time ever I have a crop of carrots that have completely escaped the ravages of the Carrot Root Fly. The covering barrier of Enviromesh has done its job admirably. They are mostly "Early Nantes", by the way.

The "Toledo" Leeks, likewise, have been better than I had dared to hope for. They are really densely-packed and strongly-flavoured.

This is my first little batch of Brussels Sprouts for the year. They are few, and not very big, but we just wanted them! Sprouts are probably Jane's favourite vegetable. I know that they would have grown bigger if left for longer, but this year I have enough plants to justify picking some early - young and delicious. By the way, these ones are of the variety "Brilliant".

What vegetables come to mind when you are asked to name typically British vegetables? I think I would have to add to the ones above the Parsnip, the Cabbage and the Swede Turnip. They are all ones that I associate with late Autumn or Winter - ones that go well in or with a hearty casserole!

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Mesclun and "Daddy Salad"

Mesclun is a posh name for mixed salad - usually a mix of very small leaves from plants like Rocket, Chervil, Lettuce and Endive - whereas "Daddy Salad" is what my daughters used to call it when they were very young. Well, actually, they called it that first when they were very young. They still call it that now! Here it is in its latest incarnation...

This is the so-called "Gourmet Salad". Close inspection reveals that it contains (at least) Lettuce, Rocket, Red Mustard, Mizuna, and Pak Choi. As you can see, the leaf-miners have found the Mizuna, but so far the other plants look unscathed. Unfortunately the Rocket has already begun to bolt, but that seems to happen a lot when it is crowded as it is here.

In the first photo above you can make out a pot of "official" Mesclun behind the seed-tray. This contains amongst other things Sorrel, Celery Leaf, Endive, Chicory and even some Carrots (for their leaves). Put some of each of all this lot together with some Landcress from elsewhere in the garden, and you get this:

I added those mixed leaves to some of my larger-leaved Iceberg-style lettuce ("Webbs Wonderful") and some Radicchio and it made a really special salad. It's maybe a pity I didn't photograph it...

In view of my commitment to Successional Sowing, here is the next lot of Mesclun, already on its way:

It looks a bit sparsely-populated, because despite the application of blue slug-pellets, the blessed slugs have still managed to penetrate the defences!

Growing salads in seed-trays and pots like this is a good way to do it when Winter is approaching, because you can easily move the plants under cover in a cold-frame or greenhouse if you need to.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Tomatoes ripening on the windowsill

It's late September, and at this time of year I usually have a fair few tomatoes ripening on the Dining Room table and windowsill - ones I have brought indoors either to avoid blight or because the weather has turned cool and I think they will ripen better inside than out.

September 2013
That photo is from 2013, and shows just the "last few" of what was undoubtedly a bumper crop. For reasons already known to my regular readers, this year the harvest is an awful lot smaller!

September 2014

When I cut down my blight-affected tomato plants a couple of weeks ago I had more than two of those plastic seeds trays filled with green fruits, but I have had to throw away about half of them because the blight had already got into them and they went brown rather than red. However, yesterday I did get these, which had ripened quite nicely on that windowsill:

They look like plum tomatoes, don't they? They aren't though. They are mostly the "Orkado" ones, which ought to be round.

Still, at this point in time I'm grateful for ANY ripe tomatoes! I really do hope the last of the big "Larisa" beefsteaks (seen below, top right) ripens nicely and doesn't develop the dreaded disease.

Do you see the four "Nosferatu" chillis at the bottom right corner too? I am trying to ripen them fully before putting them with the rest of the chilli crop in the airing-cupboard, where they are drying prior to being made into flakes. I have also frozen some for use during the Winter.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Blanching Endives

Now that Autumn is with us, my Endives, which struggled even to survive during the Summer, have taken off and are looking really nice. I know that many of my readers think that Endive and Chicory / Radicchio is too bitter (though of course that is a matter of personal preference), but I have an answer to this: blanch the Endive. Blanching (literally "making white") means to exclude light, thus making the plant pale. Don't ask me why, but pale leaves are sweeter. Does chlorophyll taste bitter??

Blanching of Endives can be achieved in a number of ways. In France, where Endives are very popular, commercial growers often use purpose-made Endive-blanchers that are shaped like a domed dinner-plate. The blancher is simply placed on top of the growing plant. You can also get blanchers that are a bit like Rhubarb-forcers, normally made of terracotta, that look like tall upside-down flower-pots. However, you can achieve much the same effect with a piece of string!

This is my technique: on a dry day (wet foliage rots quickly), gather all the leaves of the Endive together and tie a piece of soft string around the outside, not too tightly, but firmly enough to keep the leaves in place.

 I normally secure the string with a bow knot, so that I can easily untie it to adjust the tension if necessary.

Apart from watering occasionally if necessary, all you have to do now is wait. Wait for about a week to ten days, by which time the inner leaves will be a pale yellow colour, at which point you cut off the plant at its base, discard the outer leaves, and eat the inner ones in your salad.

 During the blanching period I sometimes untie the string briefly, just to check progress, and to remove any leaves that have rotted or gone mildewy - which can happen if the plant is wet and/or if the temperature is too high. My method is better for avoiding fungal growths than containing the whole plant in a pot-like Endive-blancher, because it allows better ventilation.

This next photo shows an overhead view of a plant that has been tied.

Compare it with this:

Of course this photo is of an immature plant, which is not yet ready for tying, but at least it demonstrates the star-shaped structure of the plant so that you can better understand how the tying-up operation works.

My final word on the subject is this: when your Endive is ready to eat, I suggest serving it with a nice sharp French Dressing (with lots of finely-diced Shallots in it) - or better still, a creamy Blue Cheese dressing. For Jane and me, blanched Endive is the classic accompaniment to a rack of Lamb, served with Gratin Dauphinois, so I think we'll be looking out for a suitable rack next time we go shopping...