Saturday, July 31, 2010

Portland's fabulous food carts

I must admit it's taken me a while to get excited about the food cart/truck thing which has been a massive craze on the West Coast for the past couple of years. It seemed to me particularly suited to the US with its warm climate and car-centric society where the only food on offer when you're on the move is a Jack in the Box or a Taco Bell.

But then there's Portland, as so often the exception to the rule, which now has over 500 carts offering what seems like the whole world's food in a single neighbourhood. (For those of you whose geography is hazy it's just south of Seattle, but on a much smaller, more laid-back, grungier scale. For instance it has a bookstore (Powells) which takes up an entire block and has its own garage. Love it.)

We toured a few at the end of my recent Oregon wine trip with local food journalist, Mike Thelin, a great guy who has become an unofficial minder to the world's visiting food press.

First stop was Nong's Khao Man Gai (above), a Thai truck on 10th and Alder where the speciality is boiled chicken and rice. Which doesn't sound wildly exciting except that the chicken is cooked in an amazing scented broth (served alongside with what tasted like cucumber and mooli in it) and a piquant soybean sauce. If I hadn't had to stuff my face from several other trucks I'd have made short work of it.

We then moved on for a quick 'schnitzelwich' at Tabor (on SW5th and Stark) which is - as it sounds - a schnitzel in a bun with a eastern European-style red pepper relish. KFC eat your heart out!

If we hadn't been rushing to catch a plane we'd have probably carried on all day but we had to round it off with a deep-fried crawfish pie at one of the most popular carts, Swamp Shack. Outrageously good pastry (which begged to be dunked in Tabasco sauce) but a bit light on crawfish, I'd have said.

By the end I was totally converted. It's a great way to have a cheap, home-cooked lunch that varies every day.

I now feel like an evangelist and want to see food carts all over my home town of Bristol. There are some already except they don't call them carts: My mates Jess and Todd of Trethowan's Dairy have a toastie and raclette cart which they set up at St Nick's farmers market every Wednesday and also take to festivals. Felafel King have a well-established 'stand' at Narrow Quay and Agnes Spencer's Jamaican Jerk chicken turns up at the Love Food Festival - and elsewhere for all I know. There must be more - it's just a question of a 'rebranding' exercise as the marketing boys would say. Replace stalls with carts.

Do you have any food carts near you and what do you eat there?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fish for Thought

It's odd the ideas we now take for granted - like ordering fish on the internet but it makes abundant sense when you think how few people have access to a decent fishmonger these days and how second-rate supermarket fish counters are.

So I confess I really didn't need convincing when the PR for Fish for Thought, the new(ish) name for Cornwall-based online fishmonger Martins Seafresh asked if I'd like some of their fish to try. Including a lobster and who'd look a gift lobster in the mouth?

In fact I was rather more excited about the sardines and mackerel which were sparklingly fresh and reminded one how delicious - and healthy - these simple fish can be. (Maybe that's why they call it Fish for Thought - all that brain-boosting Omega 3?)

As we didn't want to stink out our flat with fishy smells we bought a disposable barbecue and cooked them down in the gardens below with some grilled fennel and courgettes I'd pre-cooked on a ridged grill - a simple, summery feast that made us feel as if we were camping by the sea.

The Cornish lobster was fine too although I never feel lobster is quite as good if it hasn't been freshly cooked - it seems to lose a bit of texture and sweetness in transit. But you can have it sent live if you're brave enough to dispatch it yourself.

It was much tastier than the ubiquitous Canadian Lobster you get nowadays though ironically more expensive given the shorter distance it had to travel - from £14.37 for a 0.6kg lobster to £29.94 for a 1.25kg one. At just £6.95 a kilo you could buy a lot of mackerel for that.

I'm lucky enough to have a good local fishmonger near where I live in Bristol - Mitch Tonks's Rockfish Seafood Market - but if I hadn't, and had a big enough freezer to store a delivery - I'd certainly use a service like this.

* Incidentally I noticed on the site that pollack which has been much touted as a sustainable catch is now £11.95 a kilo, the same price as haddock which has a much better flavour. Or go for the very reasonable whiting at just £8.96 a kilo.

Have you ever bought fish online and if not where do you buy it?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

July’s Blogs of the Month

Blimey, how time flies! It’s July 10th already and I’ve only just got round to putting up my blogs of the month. Put it down to post-Noma excitement and frantically trying to pull together a book(ette) which I’ll be telling you more about in due course.

Gourmet Traveller
I’ve been corresponding with the anonymous Gourmet Traveller on my recent visit to Copenhagen and hadn’t realised what an inveterate traveller she (I think she’s a she) was. She eats at some good places: check out her recent review of Paris’s controversial Le Chateaubriand. A minor quibble - I'd ditch that black background. Food mags are printed on white for a reason.

Joy the Baker
I have to confess I’m not big on baking but the ideas and pictures on LA-based Joy Wilson’s baking blog could almost - almost - tempt me to take it up, if only to see what that yummy-looking avocado pound cake tastes like. She has a HUGE following: 186 comments on a wedding cake post alone. Let no-one doubt the power of the blogger.

While on the subject of cakes - and for another insight into the devotion they inspire - check out the The Cake Committee which reports on London-based get-togethers where everyone brings their own cake. It seems to have spawned several international offshoots or 'slices' as they call them, as in The Singapore Slice. Seems to be a bit of a craze in Japan too.

And don't miss a visit to Cake Wrecks, a hilarious celebration of cakemaking disasters, another site that has attracted a cult following in the US (over a million and a quarter followers on Twitter alone). Apparently all the cakes are made by professional cakemakers. Unbelievable.

A Forkful of Spaghetti
A blog which will be familiar to British food bloggers but maybe not to the rest of you and one of the first blogs I followed regularly. Helen is not afraid to speak her mind - witness this post on London’s celebrated La Fromagerie, an institution few food writers would dare to criticise. I'm personally a fan but I haven't had the experience she obviously did so good for her. Some classy photographs too.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Lunch at Noma in pictures 29.06.2010

The idea of the world's best known restaurant being a 'find' is, I admit, ludicrous but in some ways true. Every meal is a discovery at Noma (which for those of you who haven't heard of it is a modern Danish restaurant in Copenhagen, recently voted the best restaurant in the world). And eating there is such a rich and complex experience that you need time to think about it before attempting to write it up.

So here are my amateurish, snatched snaps of the 20 courses we ate 3 days ago, described as they are on the menu. Just a remarkable meal.

Bullrush and praline (you find the rushes lying on the table when you take your seat)

Sea buckthorn leather and pickled hip roses

(Savoury) cookie with lardo and currant

Rye bread, chicken skin, lumpfish roe and smoked cheese (a clever spin on a smørrebrød sandwich)

Smoked and pickled quails egg. (Note the wisp of smoke coming up from the side of the dish which billowed out of the decorated egg 'casket' as it was opened suffusing the air with the smell of smoke)

Radish, soil and herbs. The soil, of course, being edible

Æbleskiver and Muikko (spherical apple dumplings with tiny freshwater fish). Loved the way they looked like Viking helmets.

Toast, herbs, smoked cods roe and vinegar (Another riff on a Danish open sandwich topped with 'duck film' the umami-rich crisped up film that forms on duck stock)

Noma's bread which is served with 'virgin' butter and pork fat with scratchings - a fine meal in itself.

Shrimps and sea urchin, cream and dill

Beetroot and sorrel, malt flat bread (the tiny poori like puff)

Dried scallops and watercress. Biodynamic grains and beech nut. Those wafer-thin slices of scallop were possibly my favourite thing in the entire meal. Or possibly not - so hard to decide.

Tatar and sorrel, tarragon and juniper (a steak tartare you eat with your hand, holding the meat with the leaves)

Langoustine and soil, parsley and seawater

Oyster and the ocean

White and green asparagus. Pine. (The pile of green needles in the front are young spruce shoots)

The hen and the egg. A dish that you cook yourself, breaking a duck's egg onto a hot skillet, adding thyme butter, spinach, wild garlic and herbs and topping it with curls of fried potato. Ultimate egg and chips

Summer deer and snails, forest shoots and chanterelles

Sheeps milk mousse, sorrel and fennel seeds (the only dish from the menu I had three years ago)

Strawberries and straw. Chamomile and elderflower (a new dish on the menu for the first time that week)

'Gammel dansk'. Milk and woodsorrel (Gammel Dansk is a bitter herbal digestif similar to Fernet Branca and Jägermeister)

Of course photos alone don't give the full picture. The extraordinary tastes of these dishes, the homely smells coming out of the open-plan kitchen, the beauty of the building, the intimacy of the service. I'll link to other posts and features as I write them but for now that will have to do.

Except to say that the food was so light that even after all these courses we didn't feel overfull.