The very best things I ate…January 2018

January.

It’s cold and dark. You’re poor and chubby. Everything that only days before had seemed warm & inviting in the cosy twinkle of fairy lights now seems a world away and in the last few hours of holiday, you find yourself stuck between two warring sides of your brain, one which desperately wants to start the new year virtuously and is throwing everything green and leafy into the Nutribullet, itself in possession of a layer of dust so thick across the top that you have to resist the urge to write ‘wash me’ on it and the other that demands you finish everything good bad good in the house – Bailey’s, brandy butter, blue cheese – in one final gluttonous sitting because really, until that alarm pierces your slumber at 6.20am the following morning, you. are. still. on. holiday.

Ya get me?

However, new year, new page, new start and there are many things to be thankful for at the dawn of another twelve months through this journey we call life.

One of the best things about January for me is the opportunity to leaf through new cookbooks, to mark so many pages with post-it notes that rifling through them creates a gentle rainbow breeze on your fingertips and to plan weekends around what dishes you’ll explore and savour. I don’t make new years’ resolutions as such – too often they strike me as being things that you either know you probably should be doing anyway (put down the cigarette, the whisky and/or the bag full of sale bargains please) or that will cause you to leap into some new activity with relentless enthusiasm until midway through the month when you make it home at the end of a long day, trip over the roller blades/ballet shoes/how-to-learn-Japanese book, fly into a rage, throw the offending items across the hallway and then drown your wilting anger in a wineglass big enough to keep koi in.

That said, my non-new-year-resolution for 2018 was to be more patient in the kitchen because try as I might not to be this way, I am bossy, restless & demanding in that particular corner of the house. I like to be in control to the point where I’d hazard a guess I’m not always much fun to be around unless there’s an open bottle of Pinot Noir on hand to soothe all concerned so this year I’m trying to share my love of food & cooking rather than keeping it all to myself before presenting something on a plate that is beautiful but rather meaningless. In less than four months time, I become a different tick box on every form and really, if I’m going to undertake that journey, the biggest of my life and the one I’ve waited for above all others without fear or worry, wouldn’t it be nice to turn what is often a solo obsession with perfection into a joint venture that’s fun with the soon-to-be mister to my missus?

And so, something a little different for the blog this year – a monthly dip into the greatest things that I’ve eaten. No criteria other than full and sincere love for whatever was on the plate in front of me…though let’s be real here, we all know it probably didn’t stay there for long.

1.Blue Corn Tortillas with Baked Avocado, Pickled Chillies & Charred Salsa by Anna Jones from The Modern Cook’s Year

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J & I share a love for many things, movies and California being just of them. Before our paths crossed in London, we unknowingly spent simultaneous but separate time in the same drama school and the same neighbourhoods of Los Angeles. Going back there together for the first time on our achingly wonderful 2014 West Coast road trip gave us the chance to share some of our favourite things in the City of Angels, one of which is soft corn tortillas eaten at shadowy dive bars or with our toes in the sand dunes or in the Chateau Marmont shadowed Pinches Tacos, always with the stain of lime on our fingers and the fizz of Corona on our tongues.

Given that Santa was kind enough to gift me with a beautiful cast iron tortilla press and a gorgeous copy of ‘The Modern Cook’s Year’ by Anna Jones for Christmas, it only seemed right that the first dinner of 2018 – something that for some reason means a lot to me…it seems to send a beacon up for how the ensuing months might pan out – should be homemade blue corn tortillas. Simple to make and a dream when stuffed with cornmeal-Parmesan-ancho baked avocado wedges and served with the sweetest pickled chillies and a smoky tomato & spring onion salsa, these team-effort-tortillas were eaten quickly but with every mouthful savoured as we were transported back to our spiritual home.

 

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Turning Japanese in the heart of Soho…

Like the back end of the annual nativity donkey costume, the bottom end of Wardour St is not generally somewhere you want to find yourself. Littered with all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets and thick with air that hangs ripe with the perfume of coloured sugar from nearby cultural landmark M&M’s World, it’s not a part of London I’d associate with cool, new food but recent opening Ichibuns may bring with it more fragrant winds of change.

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Despite having a name to make passing tourists snigger, if, like me, you’ve never been to Japan, then I imagine stepping inside here is like a sensory overloaded snapshot of what the centre of Tokyo might be if it had a brief, torrid, snogging-in-the-back-row affair with the heartland of Americana diner culture. It’s way cool, with an 80’s flavoured techno-pop soundtrack and it’s certainly not short of things to keep you entertained visually as you wait for food. Sat downstairs, we had walls of arcade games, plastic dollies behind metal mesh, the front half of a van surrounded by the oversized stereo speakers you had when you were 15 and a ceiling covered with black & white Japanese comic pages all vying for our attention.

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The menu offers a slightly curious mix of ramen, burgers, sushi & the sort of shakes that will slay a bride-to-be in her tracks as well as beers, whiskeys & juices. You’ll find the sour cherry with orange & lemon refreshingly sharp enough to cut through the richness of the meat & bread with ease. Read More

Fast food the way it should be at Shake Shack…

When it comes to food, I am a fully paid up split personality. I love to eat healthily, I like trying new wholegrains, I’m obsessed with avocados and I’ve totally trained myself to enjoy the sort of green juice that often has a vague aroma of feet…

…however, I also completely adore fat burgers that drip between my fingers, bursting-at-the-seam burritos that are bigger than my arms, pizza that sags under the weight of its own bountiful toppings and ice-cream sundaes loaded with enough hot chocolate fudge sauce to make Augustus Gloop’s eyes gleam.

What this little glimpse into my psyche means is that while I’ve been dying to try Shake Shack since it opened on these shores last year, I’ve had to wrestle with when that would happen thanks, in no small part, to the rise of all things that fall under the banner of ‘clean eating’ and all the frankly freakin’ awesome burger joints we currently have in London. However the time has come, the day has been, the Shack has been sampled and oh lordie, it was gooooooood.

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Given that the original Covent Garden location always appears to involve queuing for roughly the same amount of time you’d need to devote to transatlantic flying, I skipped round the corner to New Oxford Street. Here you’ll find the most cavernous location where the menu filled an entire wall, plasma screens told us about the restaurants’ suppliers and slatted wooden tables stood under enormous brushed metallic letters proclaiming devotion to the gods of ‘shakes’, ‘burgers’ and ‘fries’.

It’s important you know the difference between the two types of burger places currently on offer in the capital – Honest, Patty & Bun, Bobo Social, these are all sit down, have a beer & enjoy table service sort of spots. Shake Shack & its main US originated competitor Five Guys are self-serve and fast food. This isn’t a bad thing you understand, it just means that you have to think of them more along the lines of those golden arches…except they’re in a whole other league when it comes to taste and quality.

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Service wasn’t bad; staff on our early Saturday evening visit had the weary demeanours of customer facing workers who’ve been on their feet for 8 hours already but they were perfectly pleasant. For such an apparently huge space, there aren’t as many tables as you might expect so it took a few minutes of diner-stalking to bag seats as a couple left but food was pretty quick to arrive via a handheld buzzer that took me back to my (short lived before being moved into the kitchen) heydays of waitressing in Pizza Hut.

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Two burgers, one cheese fries, two sodas and a frozen custard totalled around £25 so not as cheap as the aforementioned Ronald McD but for the most part, it was totally worth it.

Patties were juicy, buns were sweet, cheese was melty, lettuce was crisp, and tomatoes were ripe. I absolutely devoured my burger in greedy bites, loving each one a little more than the one before; it was everything a top quality fast food burger should be. Fries were retro-perfectly crinkle cut – anyone else have one of those hand-held slices with the crinkled edge?! – and generously covered with the sort of gloopily delicious cheese sauce your inner fat kid wants to pour on everything…yep, this food made me one happy gal.

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A word of warning; for me, the frozen custard which we had in the form of a New Oxford Street Style Concrete (frozen chocolate custard ice-cream blitzed with St. John Bakery brownies, peanut butter sauce and banana) was something of a let-down. I’ve had better ice-cream (Udderlicious), I’ve had better fro-yo (Pinkberry) and I’ve had better take-out from the supermarkets (Ben & Jerry) of our capital. I didn’t consider it anything outstandingly creamy or delicious and while it didn’t offend me, I definitely don’t rate it as worthy of the £5 price tag.

I’ve spent a lot of time stateside where celeb-fave In’N’Out has always topped my fast food treat list but a recent visit there proved disappointing and in an age where good burgers are the holy grail of our ‘grams and tweets, you just can’t rest on your laurels so from now on, Shack, I got your back.