Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Vietnamese Mussels with Crispy Pork Belly

How about this for a twist on a surf and turf!

Canterbury used to have an amazing little Vietnamese restaurant that sadly closed a few years ago. I loved the food there, and recently picked up a Vietnamese cooking book by Charles Phan to try and recreate some of those dishes at home. They are light, healthy and big on flavour!

Like Burmese food, Vietnamese is heavy on the shallots, shrimp paste, fish sauce and soy and also has a strong reliance on herbs.  This dish is no exception.  The original recipe calls for the pork to be cooked in a cast iron pan that has been placed directly on charcoal coals.  I live in a townhouse and don't have much call for a charcoal grill, but a regular gas or electric hob will do the job!  Add a couple of drops of liquid smoke to the stock if you really want the smoke flavours in the pork.
You can substitute the chile paste for the stuff you can buy in a supermarket if you wish, but it is just as easy to make your own and will make a huge difference to your finished dish.  See below for the recipe for the paste.

250ml chicken stock
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
500g skin off belly pork, sliced 1/4 inch thick
60g thinly sliced shallots
2 red chillies, stemmed and minced
2 jalapeno chillies, stemmed, seeded and julienned
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons roasted chile paste (see below)
1 kg cleaned and de-bearded mussels (discard any that don't close when you tap them)
60ml rice wine
60g fresh Thai basil leaves

In a measuring cup or small bowl, stir together the stock, fish sauce and sugar until the sugar has dissolved.  Set aside
Heat a griddle pan until very hot.  Add the pork belly slices in a single layer to the hot pan and cook, turning occassionally for about 8 minutes until some of the fat has rendered and the meat is golden brown. 

Pour off all but about 3 tablespoons of the accumulted fat from the pan (keeping the pork in the pan) and return to the heat. 

Add the shallots, chillies and ginger to the pan and cook, stirring occassionally for one minute.  Add the garlic and chile paste and cook for 30 seconds more.  Transfer to a large pan.

Add the mussels and rice wine, pour in the stock mixture and add the Thai basil.  Cover the pan with a metal bowl or wok lid and cook, uncovering and stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes until all the mussels have opened.
Pour the mussels, pork belly and juices into large bowls (pasta bowls are good), discarding any mussels that have failed to open.

Serve immediately with crusty fresh bread to mop up all those wonderful juices swimming at the bottom of your bowl.
Vietnamese Chile Paste

You could use shop bought chile paste, but nothing beats a homemade version.  The punch and depth of flavour it adds to the dish cannot be replicated, and any extra can be frozen and used in curries, soups and stews to add an extra dimension!  It's also great with nacho's or prawns as a dipping sauce - basically just play with it, you will be amazed at how versatile it can be!
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon annatto seeds
60g finely chopped shallots
120ml canola oil
8 crushed garlic cloves
30g chilli flakes
40g ground bean paste
2 tablespoons rice wine
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons light soy sauce

Bash the peppercorns and annatto seeds in a pestle and mortar until they are coarse

In a small saucepan, combine the shallots and oil over a medium heat and cook, stirring frequently for about 6 minutes until the shallots are light gold

Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently for about 4 minutes until the garlic and shallots are lightly browned

Stir in the chilli flakes and the peppercorn-annatto seed mixture and mix well.  Add the bean paste, wine, sugar and soy sauce and continue cooking, stirring for 1 minute longer. 

Remove from the heat and let cool completely.  It will store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 months, or 6 months in the freezer. 
If you like (or hate!) what you have read, please do let me know in the comments below or slap me with a cheeky follow, or say Hi to me on my Facebook group or Twitter or Instagram!

Friday, 22 May 2015

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Warning - there are small spoilers ahead. 

Last night was an interesting night for a number of reasons.

1) The second Eurovision song contest semi-final was on (admit it, you love the cheese factor as much as I do)

2) I was woken up in the middle of the night by the room shaking as Kent was hit by a mini-earthquake.  We braved our way through it, huddled together in a ball and in the morning went outside soberly to view the horrific aftermath.  One patio chair was knocked over.  Although, thinking about it, I'm fairly sure it's been like that for a good month or so already.

3) I finally got to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the multi-Olivier Award winning play!
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Curious Incident is currently on tour and into its second week of residency at the Marlowe Theatre.  I had known it was coming for months, and, having read the book ages ago and heard all the rave reviews about the staging, concepts and creativity of the production, I was really keen to go and see it.
I was also intrigued - in London the play is performed in the round, which isn't physically possible at the Marlowe Theatre, and I had no idea how they were going to translate the play onto a more traditional stage structure.

Apparently with ease!  The grid box is one of the most ingenious stage concepts I think I have ever seen and offered the actors and stage crew boundless opportunities to have fun with lighting and visualising concepts.
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
For those of you who have been living under a rock, Curious Incident is the story of Christopher, a 15 year old boy with an extraordinary brain, one which grasps mathematical and scientific constructs with ease, but is ill-equipped to integrate with society, and his quest to solve the mystery of his next door neighbors dead dog that he finds speared with a garden fork in the early hours of the morning; a quest that leads him in an unexpected direction and changes him forever.
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Although never explicitly stated either in the book or in the play, it is insinuated that Christopher is on the autistic spectrum with possible Aspergers Syndrome.  The portrayal of a person with Aspergers, or any form of autism on the stage, is one that needs to be handled sympathetically and this production beautifully demonstrated the balance between academic brilliance and social awkwardness Christopher experiences, and the challenges he has to overcome in everyday life in a world which is not designed to help or be sympathetic to people who struggle in social situations.  The use of sound, lighting and strobe to signify the times when Christopher needs to retreat into himself to cope with the overwhelming sensory overload around him, and the use of mathematics to stabalise and reassure him are beautiful constructs.
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Rather than a first person narrative, the production was presented as a play-within-a-play, with the cast acting out the story that Christopher has written in his book as it is being read out loud by his teacher, and later converted in a play that his school puts on.  The physical movement was particularly effective, with dance elements used when Christopher is imagining himself tumbling through space as an astronaut or trying to navigate the streets of London on his own.  Hardly surprising when a group as well respected as Frantic Assembly have choreographed the play!
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Standout sequences for me were the tube, the building of the railway sequence just before the interval (such a shame one of the letters landed on the line and stopped the train from reaching its destination) and the flight through Christopher's imagination as he describes his wish to be an astronaut.  These sequences in particular stand out as you are seeing the world through the eyes of someone that sees it very differently.  The author of the book, Mark Haddon, has stated that he does not want the book (and by default the play) to be about autism, but about difference, about being an outsider and seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. 
From an acting perspective, the majority of the performances were exemplary.  Joshua Jenkins, who played Christopher, was simply outstanding.  He conveyed the strength and determination of Christopher's character mingled with the raw emotion of someone struggling to cope in a world not designed to meet their needs.  He was on the stage for the entire performance and did not once let his energy levels drop or slip up with the incredibly difficult scientific and mathematical theories he was explaining that bought order and routine to Christopher's world.
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Stuart Laing and Gina Isaac, playing Christopher's parents, were exceptional at delivering the love and frustration they both feel at trying to communicate with a child who doesn't respond in the way that they expect, their desire to protect him from the world and also their coping strategies for compensating for Christopher's particular physical needs, such as the fingertip touch to replace a hug as Christopher violently eschews physical contact.
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Geraldine Alexander portrays Christopher's teacher, Siobhan, whose calm demeanor and teachings help Christopher make sense of the world around him and provide him with valuable coping strategies when faced with high stress situations.  It is her voice that tells him to follow the red line and tap out the rhythm when Christopher is confronted by the chaos of a big city, who he hears telling him to work through the numbers and try again when he fears he cannot achieve a task. She is his comfort blanket and has a relationship with him that is in stark contrast to his mother, who clearly struggles to cope with Christopher's challenging behaviour.
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Now the staging.  There is a reason that Curious Incident has won the Olivier Award for Best Sound Design, Best Lighting Design and Best Set Design and it is simply incredible.  The set becomes a vehicle for seeing inside Christopher's mind, for visualising the connections that he makes, the theories that he uses and the stress that it goes under when he is upset.  White cubes glow and become television screens, fish tanks and wheelie suitcases.  Windows open in the wall and props appear.  A table is pulled from the back wall as if out of thin air.  The set glows and moves and becomes a home, a train station, a tube station and a park.  It needs to be seen to be believed. 

I am ridiculously lucky to have the Marlowe Theatre on my doorstep, and I become even more aware of that fact when I get to see touring shows of the calibre of this one.

The UK tour is running until mid-November.  Check it out, and if you get a chance to go and see it, please do.

It will open your eyes to a world you may not have even been aware existed.
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
 If you like (or hate!) what you have read, please do let me know in the comments below or slap me with a cheeky follow, or say Hi to me on my Facebook group or Twitter or Instagram!