Sunday, 30 June 2013

Eating out in Berlin

One of the people I've encountered while tutoring is a sports confidence coach. He charges many pounds an hour for people to hear what they already know: there are things you can control and there are things you can't control and when you accept this and concentrate on the controllables, you'll start to succeed more of the time. And worry less. And be more confident. This is a lesson which I learnt in Berlin. I'm a notorious worrier. I'm also incredibly controlling. This has the consequence of me trying to plan and control every little corner of my life that I can, accounting for the fact that there are different possible outcomes. It's like decision maths except probably more boring and slightly more revealing about my mental frailties. But Berlin revealed to me that you can try and control everything but it's ultimately futile because the universe has other plans in store. In the words of Outkast: you can make a pretty picnic but you can't predict the weather (oh noooo). For Berlin, I'd done all I could do. I booked the flights when they were reasonable, found a well reviewed but decently priced hostel and even downloaded bloody offline maps with little pins for places recommended both by my Berlinische housemate and some food blogs. This wasn't all because I was worried, it was primarily because as I've mentioned over the past few posts, I was getting really world weary and just wanted a break from it all. And of course, planning your little break from it all is a great way to procrastinate. Unfortunately, even though we had packed efficiently and were on time for everything and got lost remarkably little of the time, there was nothing I could do about the fact that I was brutally ill. It was as if my body KNEW that I'd been really looking forward to having a great time and decided to stop me in my tracks. LIFE ISN'T FAIR, KIDS. I've learnt this lesson late in life. Nevertheless, taking Gary's advice and controlling the controllables meant that I still had an enjoyable time. It's just that the good bits were interspersed with naps and tears and rants on the lines of 'why me why this why now?' I think it is revealing about how great Berlin is as a holiday destination that despite all this, I salvaged a good time from the wreckage. So, here's a li'l round up of what I did, of course with a particular emphasis on what I ate.

So, got there on Friday afternoon. After confronting the ticket machines which managed to remain confusing despite having an English option, we got a couple of S-bahns to our incredibly well located hostel. PLUS Hostel on Warschauerplatz. It's the nicest place, hotel or hostel, I've ever stayed. Our room was roomy and tall and tasteful. It was wonderful. Our every need was tended to. Excellent. Still, since I was there for three days, I was keener to hang around Berlin rather than the hostel. (I didn't even get to see the fake beach.) So we trotted off to the Jewish museum. We handled it completely incorrectly, seeing the interesting architecture but not much of the history side. We had museum legs by the time we got to the bit explaining Jewish history proper. And then I had my first illness-related episode and that prevented us learning that much. But after a short break and a sit down, I was ready to queue for Mustafa's. We thought we were being really clever by getting some currywurst from Curry 36 while we waited for our kebabs but actually, we saw a few others doing that too. The currywurst's fame was really down to the sausage: crisp and moist together. Indeed, I'm not sure much is added (except a tonne of grease and salt) by covering it in curry powder and ketchup. Still, who's complaining? I love both of those things. 
What we hadn't envisaged, however, was how long we'd be waiting for our kebabs. We were patient. Even with the belligerent, chatty American who decided to speak to us about the Woolwich attack. ('Yeah, I think most Americans would've attacked him with a rock. That's just the kinda people we are. Braver and better than you Brits.') But an uncontrollable popped up: Mustafa's revolving meat stack ran out. We were almost at the front at this point so we'd invested too much to give up now. Anyway, we were in Berlin, there was beer, the meat was thawing. What was the harm in waiting? I doubted this opinion at many points during the wait but when I bit into my garlic slathered, roasted-veg stuffed kebab I dismissed all regrets. Salty, sweet, slightly spicy, fresh, wet, tomato, courgette, aubergine, umami. Just so much going on. Best kebab, ever. By some way. Which is what we made me even sadder about the fact that after my greasy treat I had another little bout of 'oh God what's wrong why do I feel so crap' (probably all the beer and salt, Ari) after our dinner and so felt too unwell to attack the durum. I felt very touristy carrying my kebab and my beer whilst pissing everyone on the subway off though. Oh well, I deal with it in London. 
The fever broke and I woke up feeling strangely energised on Saturday. I didn't want to tempt fate by finishing the rest of my kebab from the night before, though. Instead, I settled on a coffee from a shack in Alexanderplatz station before taking a leisurely walk towards the Pergamon. A surprisingly fun museum! I enjoyed our walk down Oranienburgerstrasse past the Neue Synagogue and Kunsthaus Tacheles though. And the stroll down Linienstrasse was even better and showed me why Berlin is prettier than London. Street art and flower boxes. Gritty colour from one and lush from the other. Anyway, our ambling took us to Monsieur Vuong. We sat and saw some people get their food. As vibrant and lush as the window boxes. That wasn't what I wanted. I wanted big portions and steaming mouthfuls, not dinky plates and raw cucumber. We tried White Trash Fast Food next but that was both closed and looked a little too expensive. We agreed to wander on a little longer but hten I remembered the Snickers 'you're not you when you're hungry' advert and remembered how, like a baby, I get really cranky if my body is in discomfort. And I was already more uncomfortable than I would've liked to be. I am not a sturdy gal. So we went into the first decent seeming place. It was called Louisiana Kid and we went for the gumbo and the chilli burger.
I was impressed that the chilli burger was hot and spicy and stacked with plenty of cooling lettuce. But aside from that, there wasn't much that could be remarked upon about it. The rice in the gumbo was a minute away from being properly cooked and the chicken breast pieces weren't particularly flavoursome or moist but I wasn't upset with the meal. But I probably wouldn't mention or recommend this place. But the service was good and the waiter kindly informed us of the best route towards the Brandenburg Gate. Back to Alexanderplatz where we'd started the day. We covered the Holocaust Memorial and Brandenburg Gate with a little too much haste thanks to my body having its third tantrum of the trip. That meant that my idea to walk down Unter den Linden to our hostel was thwarted. An hour and a half of nap later, I was refreshed and ready to put on my shabbiest clothes for the East Side Gallery followed by some dancing. Dinner that night was at Flescherei Domke, a deli style place serving cute home cooking. I had a schnitzel with potatoes and sauerkraut.
Whenever I mention schnitzel, people invariably say something like 'I didn't know schnitzel could be that good'. They haven't tried this schnitzel! I think it was my favourite meal of the trip. It was just so tender and meaty. There is no other way of describing the flavour other than meaty. It had that warming, slightly salty, gorgeous umami flavour and it covered your mouth entirely. Oh, and that gravy! Just so gentle. It was all so subtly flavoured. I don't know how you can call something so artful boring. And at less than five euros, it was probably the cheapest meal of the trip. That was mainly because we shared a portion (my illness was settling in again) and that meant we got hungry later. After several drinks, a Turkish pizza seemed irresistible. I don't remember where it came from or really what it tasted like but I know that it inspired me to seek lahmacun next time I was making a drunk trip home.
I was feeling surprisingly fresh the next morning. In fact, I thought I was cured from my illness and miraculously not hungover. It turns out that it was just the caffeine and slight leftover alcohol having that effect. This became clear when we were in the idyllic 3 Schwestern in Mariannplatz so I wasn't too traumatised. Although it took a while for the soothing effect of our surroundings to kick in. ('Can we just be silent please? I can't handle conversation at the moment.') I make strange decisions when I'm hungover and deciding to get a spread at this breakfast place was one of them.
I'm not sorry. What you see there is a cheeseboard (alpine breakfast), a bratwurst (bavarian breakfast), eggs (a little treat on the side) and fruit salad. All with a multitude of breads. I know that sounds heavy but it was all clean and crisp and executed in a stereotypically German, efficient fashion. The yolks were perfectly runny. My favourite was possibly the spiced apple mustard that accompanied the sausage. Or maybe the grapes combined with the various creamy cheeses. Unfortunately, hungover people aren't known for having the biggest appetites so much of our cheeseboard went to waste. We were planning on visiting the Berlinische afterwards but then I literally thought I would die so we hopped on a U-bahn straight to the hostel for naptime. I felt lame because we got in ridiculously by Berlin standards (five) but I was ill, OK? I shouldn't have been out at all so I did really well. I was a trooper. We only napped for about an hour and then we headed out again on a tram in the opposite direction towards Mauerpark. If you are in Berlin on a Sunday, definitely visit Mauerpark. It highlighted the difference between British and German cultures. They aren't judgy there! They are just as bad at singing but they don't care, they clap and don't taunt or heckle. 
I felt less enthused about Berliners in Il Ritrovo, a pizza place we visited in the evening. Look, I know it's our national shame that we are lazy and can't speak two languages as standard like most other countries of the world. But we try! I was saying my dankes all over the shop! And ordering in my pastiche of a German accent. That is no excuse not to read us our specials or help us with the all German menu. I don't know if it was the service or the fact that the pizza was a touch burnt that left me disappointed in this dish. Too salty, too many of the same notes. But mainly that acrid taste of burnt toast. It was time for my post-food feverish ill phase so we headed back to the hostel and I shivered and sweated until I fell asleep. 
Still determined to make up for my poor immune system, I insisted that we go to the Berlinische on Monday morning. On the way, we stopped at a cafe for one of the best hot dogs I've had. Germans do great snacks. It was followed by a woefully brief (about 2 hours) in the gallery and Huhnerhaus. We had saved this for our last meal because it was described as 'like the Nandos of Berlin but actually really tasty'. A good last meal before the return to health and wellbeing in the UK. This was a great half chicken. Is a half chicken interesting? I think it is when you manage to char the skin but keep the flesh moist. And it manages to pair that headaching saltiness with a touch of sweet. Oh, the spicy sauce and garlic sauce really helped. It was properly spicy sauce. I appreciate that. And the salad came well dressed but fresh and a little watery but that's what you wanted to counteract the heart attack of the rest of the plate. Much better than Nandos. And about £5 cheaper too. It kept us full until we returned to England, back to cleaning and drudgery and chores. It's not all bad, my cold went away too.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Recipe - Red Pepper Sauce

We're turning into one of those sumo-suit couples who sit around stewing in their own filth and eating cake. I had this realisation when my housemate was looking super fly despite having been at work all day and was still intent on heading out to the gym. We, on the other hand, had just returned from Berlin (post forthcoming) where we'd eaten exclusively fatty foods and fizzy beer. Yet upon our return we decided that it should be the last night of our holiday so we should have wine and apple pie. Which also made an appearance at breakfast the next morning. And then it was lunchtime and we were hungry from our errands so it seemed only proper to carb load. I would say that was the last of it but this carried on into dinner and then there was yet more pie. I would reassure myself that it only happens when the Explorer is visiting but that would lead to the conclusion that if ever we're not long distance, we'll be super tubs. Oh well, this is the sauce we had with our tonnes of pasta.
Quick red pepper sauce
1 onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 chilli, chopped
1 jar roasted peppers, drained and chopped
4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

Fry the onion and garlic until very soft and starting to brown.
Add the peppers, tomatoes and chilli and fry for a further two minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a food processor and blend until smooth.

2 tbsp tomato puree
1 cup red wine
1 cup water
Handful of parsley, chopped

Return to the pan and fry for a further minute.
Add tomato puree, water and wine.
Simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes.
Season and stir through chopped parsley

I added tuna and black olives to this to make a puttanesca-esque affair.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Review - Four Seasons

After having spent a miserable weekend at home being lonely and thinking about abortion (for my dissertation, not because I need one), the Explorer joined me in London. I was recently exceptionally lame and commented how I was excited for him to be around in summer as it meant I could do all the London things I love best but with him in tow. But then came the realisations over the past two entries that it's really hard to do much but eat and roll around when we're in eachother's company. The temptation to be lazy and insular grows even stronger when we end up doing activities which, in retrospect, we would have preferred to avoid. That's what happened on Tuesday. We had a typical 'date night' planned - dinner and a show. Both the restaurant and the show came highly recommended yet both left us feeling underwhelmed. I'll only talk about the restaurant here for obvious reasons. Four Seasons is, apparently, the restaurant with the highest stock in the world. Two friends with more developed tastes than me had previously been and gave it pleasing reviews. I really don't know why. I was so disappointed. We ordered a plate of their famed barbecued meats, prawn noodles, rice and, despite many attempts to be dissuaded by the waiter ('Chinese like this, you won't like this'), aubergine with minced pork. I was really uninspired by everything. If I hadn't been so hungry, much more would've gone to waste.

Noodles were boring, soggy and dressed with far too much soy. The three slivers of spring onion brought no relief from the texture hell. The texture of the aubergine, on the other hand, was pleasing. It's just a shame that the taste didn't match. The barbecued meats arrived woefully late and seemed promising to begin with. Crisp, well sliced duck, crispy belly pork and char sui. All nicely smoked but not nealu enough. In fact, the overriding flavour was just sugar. It was much too sweet. Given my recent experience of the more complexly flavoured grilled meats at Mangal, I was prone to be more disappointed than I otherwise might have been. Also, just as I was beginning to enjoy the crisp on the belly pork, I had another bite that tasted almost fecal and that was it for my enjoyment of this meal. Hey, at least I got to write a bad review! That hasn't happened in a while.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Recipe - Moroccan Cod Stew

Argh, THIS BLOG. I still enjoy writing it sometimes but I never have the time to do it. And what happened just now is that I finally put some effort in and wrote an entry which was somewhat cohesive and then tried to put a photo from my phone into it and it alllll went away aaaahhhh. Writing a dissertation and lots of 'hey I'm great' answers for job applications means that in the rest of my time, I really have no inclination whatsoever to write which is obviously bad for young blog here. So it's particularly disheartening that the changes were lost. Anyway, it was just recycled material. Remember how last time I was talking about my chronic laziness and love for food obstructing other activities? This was just going to be more on that theme; I was going to talk about it happening on Monday. We woke, it was already late, I sent the boy to wash while I went to Sainsbury's. Never shop when hungry, kids. I went MAD and I decided the most appropriate brunch would be sausages, garlic mushrooms, fried rosemary potatoes, grilled tomatoes and steamed kale. I also decided I needed other food and bought a bizarre array of ingredients including overpriced, overfished cod. This was a decision that I later un-regretted. The masses of unhealthy brunch food had left me feeling as stuffed as a Christmas goose and just as fatty. And it had just entered afternoon territory so conditions were perfect for a nap. But the Explorer pointed out that if we didn't go to the Tate, we would have done none of the London activities that made it reasonable to drag back with me from Oxford. I was reluctant as I headed out but it was worthwhile after all and if we'd napped, I'm sure I would've hated myself for being a slovenly custard. This is was all a particularly circuitous way of getting to telling you what I did with the cod.

Moroccan cod stew
2 cod fillets

1 onion, sliced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 inch ginger, chopped

1 tsp turmeric
Half teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp ground ginger
Half teaspoon fennel seeds
2 bay leaves
Half a stick of coriander 

1 courgette, roughly diced
1 tin medames (or chickpeas)
6 green olives
6 cherry tomatoes, halved 

Lemon juice 
Fresh coriander, chopped 

Over a medium heat, fry the onion, garlic and ginger until brown.
Add the spices and cook for a further minute.
Add the medames (with their juice) and courgettes and simmer, with a lid on, for about thiry minutes.
Add the cherry tomatoes and olives and dinner for a further ten minutes.

Meanwhile, season the cod all over with salt and pepper.
Over a high heat, heat a dash of olive oil.
Fry, skin side down, for about three minutes to crisp the skin.
Carefully transfer the cod, skin side up this time, to the stew and simmer for three to five minutes until cooked through.

Scatter over fresh coriander and lemon juice.

I served this with cold mashed sweet potato (in Bengali, we call this 'bhorthah') garnished with red onion and coriander. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Review - Stingray Globe Cafe

That trite little saying about the best laid plans has proved itself to be true again. In the words of Contrary, my list of London things is in need of 'judicious pruning'. I've realised the main obstacle to my doing other activities: food. Often, my plans involve following food with an activity. More often, I get the food bit done but not the activity. On Sunday, we were to spend our day with no food until the end when we deserved it. (Except the picnic beforehand. Which was rudely cast aside by the overcast weather.) Firstly: the Serpentine. Closed. Read the 'closed until...' sign as 8 June, not 28 June. Never mind! We'll go to the Stephen Friedman. Again, closed. And by this time, the late nights had caught up with us and had lost all enthusiasm for going home only to head out again to the Wallace Collection. Or the much closer Museum of London. Or even the literally around the corner Approach. Instead, we relocated our picnic indoors and napped. And after that, I reluctantly dressed up in a nice dress to match my new bracelet but we felt too zombie-like with our post nap, slight G&T haze to make the very short trip to dinner. We contemplated going just around the corner to La Vecchia Gondola but that was too much. If we were going to settle for mediocre pizza, I wanted there to be a chance that it was good. Or at least a little cheaper.
At just over £10 a head with drinks, this was certainly cheap. Quattro stagioni, spaghetti bolognese and salad. Housemate had the boscaiola of which I didn't try any but he finished it so quickly, it must have been tasty. The spaghetti was sweet and almost fruity. The honey mustard dressing lightly coating the salad was tart and accompanied the spaghetti well. Pasta was slightly overcooked but I kind of like it that way. The pizza had a crisp, thin base upon which the terrifically Italian toppings flourished. Cheesy and moist and salty. While the food wasn't particularly memorable, it was cheap and (to coin a cliche) cheerful. I'll be visiting again.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Review - Lucky Chip at the Sebright Arms

I've spent this week seeing people I haven't seen in a while (with varying levels of enjoyment and success) and eating burgers. So this post is going to be all about burgers. The Explorer doesn't really get burgers. He thinks that they're bog-standard, you can get them anywhere and they'll never be particularly good. He's so wrong. To make things worse, he thinks burgers are improved by adding more to them. Again, wrong! The beauty of a burger is not in the condiments. It's only possible to think that when you're having an average burger. And that's exactly what I was doing on Tuesday evening where I tried a Big Ben from this place. The burger was so average that it needed chilli, egg, bacon and cheese to bring it out of its mediocre mire. I mean, it was enjoyable enough and it came with curly fries which is obviously great, but just not quite there. That's the thing with an average burger, you only realise it's average when you chase it with an actually delicious burger. And that's what I (thought I) had at the Sebright Arms where Lucky Chip are doing a residency. I ordered the El Chappo while the Mathematician had a Royale. We got some jalapeno cheese croquettes and wasabi mayo chips to share as well.
You could immediately tell that this burger had much more care and thought behind it; the bun had been lightly fried and therefore had a deliciously greasy sheen to it. Within, perfectly medium rare patty. Mine was surrounded by the hum and spice of a fresh, grilled jalapeno and a madly addictive blue cheese and aioli dip. I was having a thoroughly great time. UNTIL half way through the monstrosity I sort of felt almost ill and headachey. A guy from my course went to Honest Burger and said that at first he thought it was tasty but it got to a point where he realised it was just salt. I don't agree with his assessment, particularly now that I've had a Lucky Chip experience where that's exactly what happened. Nevertheless, salt headache aside, this was a superenjoyable burger. It just should've come with a gallon of water to counteract the heart attack inducing quantity of salt and fat. The croquettes were similar delicious but unhealthy. They were exactly what I wanted when I was craving jalapeno croquettes before but was disappointed by Burger King's limp, floury imitation. The chips were crisp and nothing special. But the wasabi mayo/sweet chilli ginger dip combination was inspired. We worked out the best way to eat them was to dip one end of each chip in each. Mmm. 

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Recipe - Baked Soy and Ginger Salmon

I don't know if it was the relative lie-in (8.30) or the weather or my imminently 22-manship but I felt borderline jubilant on Monday. I didn't even do anything particularly interesting but managed to clear away some of the nagging little chores on my list (including my tax return!) and then got to go to the market. You know how I love market. This time, I went without my terrifying phone lists because I didn't want it to be an efficient trip, I wanted calm and surprise. As it turns out, this was an error because I was hungry. But it was enjoyable nonetheless. I returned with ingredients that lent themselves to Asian flavours. And the Artist had been talking about baking fish in parchment so I thought I'd have a stab at that with my lowly foil. This happened.
Baked soy and ginger salmon
2 salmon fillets, skin and bones removed
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Half inch ginger, chopped 
1 chilli, chopped
Drizzle of soy sauce
Drizzle of honey
Half lemon, squeezed

Place salmon on a piece of foil large enough to wrap the salmon. 
Scatter with garlic, chilli and chilli on top.
Drizzle with lemon, honey and soy.
Place in a hot oven (gas mark 7) for about fifteen minutes.

Half red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Half inch ginger, finely chopped
1 chilli, finely chopped
1 red pepper, cut into strips
1 green pepper, cut into strips 
1 carrot, cut into thin strips.
2 portions cooked udon noodles
Half tablespoon kecap manis
Half tablespoon white wine vinegar

Over a high heat, fry onion, garlic, chilli and ginger.
After a minute or two, add carrots.
After another minute, add the peppers.
Once the vegetables are softening, add the noodles, soy sauce and vinegar.

Serve with the salmon on top.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Recipe - Braised Lamb Shanks with Rosemary and White Wine

Anyone who was hoping for a chirpier instalment than last time will be sorely disappointed. (Although stats indicate that y'all love it when I'm miserable.) I have had a god-awful week and this has given me a newfound awe and respect for anyone who's part of the rat race, working the grindstone, generally being a real human adult. I've been working twelve hour days to dig myself out of debt and be able to go on a guilt and stress free holiday. When that happens, I'll really think the abject misery and tiredness that came with this week was all worth it. Unfortunately, that time won't be until September so I've got a lot of waiting to do. In my defence, I'm not being as much of a complaining wimp as I seem. It hasn't been twelve hours of sitting at a desk (although props to anyone who manages to do that) with the occasional opportunity to zone out/have a coffee. It's been twelve hours of patiently explaining rudimentary concepts to children who don't care and don't want you there interspersed with sweaty, slimy tube journeys. (I'm being unfair, only one of the children was that difficult - insisting that a day does not have 24 hours.) The experience was doubly depressing because it served as a constant reminder of what a job as a career tutor would be like: well paid but soul-crushing. I'll try to channel this into making some great applications next week. Also, getting back at nine every day meant that all I had time to do was make my sandwiches for the next day. No special, slow cooked treats for Ari. (My quick subsistence foods were still quite fun though.) That left me craving an indulgent weekend and I was due to be painted again so it seemed like the ideal time for a nice cut of lamb. The weather was all wrong for something as rich and heavy as shanks with dauphinoise but you know, who the hell cares?
Braised lamb shanks
4 small shanks (about 750g total weight), seasoned all over with salt and pepper
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 and a half large onions, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 cloves
3 sprigs rosemary, chopped
400ml wine

Brown the shanks over a high heat in olive oil.
Remove and set aside.
Brown the chopped onion and garlic until very translucent and brown around the edges, about 7 minutes.
Return the shanks the pan.
Add the wine and aromatics and set the alcohol sizzle away for about 3 minutes.
Place in an oven at gas mark 3 for 2 hours until the shanks are tender and falling apart.

Dauphinoise potatoes
2 large potatoes, peeled and finely sliced
150ml double cream
2 cloves garlic, crushed

In a small baking dish, place the potatoes in a layer, seasoning with salt and pepper and pouring over the garlic.
Pour over the cream.

(I actually forgot to season as I went along so I seasoned the cream with salt, pepper and garlic and hoped for the best but this is how I should've done it.)

Serve with something light to counteract the richness - we did steamed carrots and spinach.