Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Stick it between some bread and call it a sandwich

I used to work with a woman who would, every day like clockwork, forlornly pull her lunch out of her bag, sigh loudly while exclaiming 'aren't sandwiches boring', and then ruefully start to munch on her homemade sarnie. 

Firstly, I never quite understood why she didn't just make herself something else; secondly, who could possible hate on the sandwich? I'd spend the whole morning clock-watching until I could unwrap mine. It's still feel the same.

I eat a lot of food, and the food I eat the most is the humble 'something between two slices of bread'*. On average I've eaten 6 a week (one a day at work and a bacon sarnie on a Sunday), since early childhood. Which, by my primitive calculations makes approx ten thousand of the things (wow, imagine that - TE).

I never get bored, even on holiday, and as a testament to my love I dragged the Ewing around some of the best on the West coast, starting with the Godmother at the Bay Cities Deli. The most famous woman in Santa Monica.

*rolls, baguettes and bagels all welcome

Boars Head genoa salami, prosciutto, mortadella, coppacola, ham and provolone cheese are layered up on crisp Italian bread with a perfectly blistered crust before being given "the works": mayo, mustard, Italian dressing, onions, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, and chopped peppers. You can chose hot or mild, but there's really only one answer to that question; spice all the way.

It's always gonna be a pretty incredible sandwich, wherever you eat it, be it sitting on Santa Monica beach, fending off the seagulls and surreptitiously sipping a cream soda ale at 11 o'clock in the morning takes some beating (yeah baby - TE).

When it comes to iconic LA foods, there is little to beat the french dip sandwich and there is no where more iconic to try one than at Phillippe's, the "Home of the Original French Dip Sandwich". Established in 1908, it doesn't seem like much has changed, from the sawdust on the floors, to the 'carvers' who serve you at the counter, to the row of coin-operated phone booths by the door, this is a slice of the City of Angels set in aspic.

For their signature sandwich a crusty french roll is stuffed with beef (or lamb, turkey or pork) before being dunked in the hot roasting juices - chose single-dip, double-dip, or wet. A slice of cheese is optional, the special famous hot mustard on each table, is pretty much mandatory.

While the Ewing was reluctant to go for a sandwich (primarily because we had literally just eaten taquitos and tamales at Ceilto Lindo, across the street), I lured her in with the prospect of a beer; a schooner of Booming Rollers from San Diego-based Modern Times (I am such a push over - TE).

Even if the sandwich was a duff, it would have been worth it for the booze, with both of us agreeing it was possibly the best beer of the whole trip. And there were a few beers. Of course the french dip was excellent, with the Ewing bravely eating half of my roast beef and cheddar roll, although I had to eat the whole portion of macaroni salad to myself. Hardly a hardship, as I still think of it's mayo and pickle-spiked perfection even now.

If the Ewing thought we were done for the day after our french dip, she hadn't counted on the Dodger Dog at the Dodger Stadium, our next stop. While it might be a stretch to include this as a sandwich, it is meat (of a questionable providence, but animal-derived no less) between bread, so it's in.

Described as a 10 inch pork wiener - I added a couple of inches with the extra large - wrapped in a steamed bun and served either steamed or grilled. The grilled Dogs are considered the "classic" version. with more dogs sold here than at any other Major League ballpark.

I'm not completely sure what type I had, although it seemed a bit scorched, so I'm going with the latter. Was it a good dog? If spongy mechanically recovered meat clamped in soggy bread and smothered in sweet, vinegary mustard and ketchup, then yes. Was it a good experience? Absolutely, even if we left at the top of the 8th inning, with the Dodgers 3 -1 down, only to miss two homers. At least we heard the triumphant cheers as we walked back to Union Station. 

I couldn't possible write about a trip to California and not include at least one mention of In-n-Out, the burger chain established in 1958 that inspires a cult-like devotion. Known for it's secret menu, fair treatment of staff and resistance to franchising it's operations, it also makes a pretty decent burger.

If it was a stretch to include a Dodger Dog, its even more so to include a burger that eschews bread and is instead wrapped in a lettuce leaf, but this is Cali and this is a Double Double (two meat and two cheese) protein style. If the salad is still too carbalicious, you can order the flying dutchman, two slices of cheese melted between two burger patties. 

Of course, they also offer buns, and good thick shakes - above is the off-menu neapolitan, combining chocolate, vanilla and strawberry - and not very good fries that are marginally improved by being ordered animal style - covered in melted cheese, 'spread' (read thousand island) and grilled onions. Make sure they also chuck in some chilli peppers, but be careful; they are hotter than they look.

If burgers and hot dogs are in, then barbecue with parker rolls also qualifies (YEAH! we had such an amazing time on this trip - TE). While we were not strictly in 'cue country, most of the smoked meats in this corner of the country would still run smoke rings around anything you can find back here.

Case in point being Fox Smokehouse BBQ, our last stop on our drive to Vegas. An anonymous looking building in a strip mall in Boulder City, identifiable only by the smoker on the sidewalk outside and a small flashing neon sign in the window.

Inside smelt like the contents of my holdall after a week sitting around a bonfire at Reading Festival as a teenager. Not great for my Mum doing my washing, but a pretty enticing smell when you know it's the scent of slow-cooked ribs and brisket.

As predicted on arrival, the food was exceptional. Excellent deep fried nuggets of crispy okra with ranch dressing; barbecue pit beans; gooey mac and cheese; crunchy vinegar slaw and cold glasses of PBR for only just one buck. And of course the meat - tender ribs, with a proud, pink smoke ring and just the right amount of resistance when trying to prise them from the bone, and slices of soft and fatty brisket with it's crisp outer bark. Best of all were the pillowy rolls, perfect for DIY beef sandwiches. How can that ever be boring?

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Bucks Bites: Bull and Butcher

Now days it’s hard to think of a foodstuff that doesn’t have its own dedicated day. From cream puffs to cassoulet, chocolate cake to cheese fondue, it seems like there is an annual opportunity for me to be reminded of it while scrolling through Twitter at work, while tucking in to the same weekday sarnie at my desk. Of course, I feel very smug when sandwich week rolls around.

Apart from pancake day, which is obviously one of the holiest days in the glutton’s calendar, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever really been tempted by the marketers ploys to get me to eat more sausages or sandwiches, or sausage sandwiches (possibly because I’m not sure I could eat anymore), although the creation of the ploughman’s lunch - by the wonderfully named, Cheese Bureau - is still one of my favourite PR stories.

That being said, I did find myself a couple of weeks ago cynically shoehorning that it was National Fish and Chip Day on 1 June into the conversation. A handy way to persuade the Ewing that we should go for dinner in a country pub garden to commemorate the fact and a mercifully easy task when fried fish on a Friday was involved.

Of course a far harder job was deciding which pub and then crossing everything that it wasn’t going to rain. In answer to the former, I picked the Bull and Butcher in Turville, a quintessentially ‘English’ pub with whitewashed walls found in the picturesque Hambleden Valley village that the Vicar of Dibley was set in. 

With regard to the latter, not only did the rain hold off, but the clouds even parted a little; a very good job as all the inside tables seemed to have 'reserved’ signs on them. Fortunate really, as my wife’s 'thoughts' of booking had remained just that.

Although it isn’t Beer Day until the 15 June (which conveniently happens to be this Friday…), a pint of beer was a no-brainer, vying with creosote-coloured tannic tea as the perfect beverage with deep fried cod.  As it's a Brakspears pub, I went with their 'ordinary' bitter, a beer that in 1993, beer writer Michael Jackson described as the best in England.

Since their Henley home closed, production has moved to the Wychwood brewery in Witney and it fails to reach those heady heights anymore. That said it remains a great example of a classic English ale with biscuity malts and a fruity spiciness, at a low enough abv (3.9) to be the kind of perfect session beer that creeps up on gently you over an afternoon in front of a log fire with a good book and a wet dog for company.

While I had neither of these, I did have the conversation of the Ewing and my cod - skin on, we are in the South - with a slightly too thick carapace of batter, it was pretty decent, if not up to Prestwood Plaice standards (the Ewing used to drive around with a paper bag in the boot, so she could transport our Friday fish and chips home without risk of sogginess). Alongside were proper fat chips, which may have seemed miserly at first glance, but even I struggled to finish them.

While the main event passed muster, the accompaniments were standout. Peas, which were mushy and not the garden variety (nothing against their rounder brother, but mushy all the way with fried fish), were excellent. I also got the Ewing on the pea and malt vinegar vibe. Try it, it's a revelation. The home made tartar sauce was also stick your finger in the remnants at the bottom of the ramekin good.

My pudding was another pint of Brakspears, although we could have chosen from the stalwarts including bread and butter pudding, lemon tart and a chocolate brownie. Surprisingly the Ewing also eschewed dessert, plumping instead for a handful of runner bean plants from the plant sale to take home instead. Here’s hoping they’ll be ready by phaseolus coccineus week.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

More tea, vicar?

Last weekend saw most of us Brits basking in a long bank holiday; the second in May and the fifth of the year so far. Sadly, this is where it all goes downhill, as the next one isn’t until the fag end of August (Boo-hiss! - TE). Although I hear Labour are promising an extra four BH in their election manifesto (where's my poll card? - TE). First week in October sounds good (coincidentally also around my birthday), if you’re listening, Jezza (and first week in May...oh I forgot, I've already got one...TE).

Anyway, while I’m still basking in the joy of a four day week, it seems an apt time to take a break from my American adventures and write about one of my favourite ways to spend a sunny Sunday/bank holiday Monday; partaking in a cream tea in the Hughenden Valley.

Being lucky enough to have the Hughenden Estate on our doorstep, the Ewing and I - and on occasion the magical Stealth - can perennially be found traipsing around the fields and woods for various reasons. If it’s snowing, there’s normally a hip flask involved; spring is the perfect time to collect elderflowers for homemade cordial; and in autumn we head for the hedgerows laden with blackthorn bushes, to collect sloes for the annual batch of gin.

If that doesn’t sound quintessentially English enough (or like a bad version of the Good Life), on Sundays and Bank holiday Mondays between Easter and the end of October, St Michael and All Angels' Church also offer afternoon cream teas.

Adjacent to Hughenden Manor, the Grade II listed church is 12c in origin, but almost completely rebuilt in 1875. The interior impressively boasts a pulpit carved by Thomas Earp, floor tiles designed by Edward William Godwin and stained glass windows by Thomas Willement, and Clayton and Bell. Well worth a visit if you’re interested in the Victorian Gothic style. Or, if like me, you just enjoy poking about an old church on a sunny afternoon. My transformation to Officially Old is now well underway.

It’s also the final resting place of Benjamin Disraeli, who bought the Manor in 1848. While protocol did not permit her to attend the funeral, a memorial to Disraeli was erected by Queen Victoria on the north side of the chancel following his death. The only memorial to be erected by a reigning monarch to a commoner.

Anyway, I always save looking around the church for afterwards, always being in far too much of a hurry to race up the path to the church cottage next door, home of the aforementioned teas. You can eat inside but, if you’ve picked your day carefully, sit on the patio or in the lower walled garden, where you also get wonderful views of the church and across the Valley.

Normally the magical Stealth accompanies us, but on this most recent visit we were sadly without her company. While the quality of the conversation was diminished somewhat (you mean, one sided - TE), I was looking forward to actually being able to eat a whole slice of cake to myself. Until I remembered I was with my wife; and I had ordered chocolate cake…. Oh well, sharing is caring, although I notice it’s not quite as forthcoming in reverse (blah, blah, blah - TE).

For me it’s the perfect cream tea: a scone with cream and jam, a pot of tea and a slice of cake. All baked and served by the most wonderful volunteers and all still for a fiver in all the year’s we have been coming. The profits from the teas help to support the church and maintain Church House, and you can also leave a donation and buy copies of their recipe booklet, which I think the Ewing is currently building a stockpile of.

The cakes are all homemade and, certainly the ones I’ve tried, have all been wonderful. Proper slices of old fashioned loaf cake, slabs of tray bakes, and wedges of sponge in rotating flavours but sure to include a selection of classics including lemon drizzle, lime and ginger, victoria sponge and old fashioned fruit cake.

On our last visit my chocolate cake (there was also a fat-free version, which I politely declined, as nice as I’m sure it was…) was slathered in thick chocolate buttercream that shone in the afternoon sun and proved irresistible to the magpie-like attentions of my wife. Her slice of coffee and walnut may have been even better; the most fluffy of sponges with two different icings -  sandwiched with coffee buttercream and glazed with a carapace of coffee water icing - that showed commendable attention to detail.

But to enjoy tea here is more than just the sum of its cakes and perfectly risen scones adorned with clumps of clotted cream and raspberry jam (#creamfirst). It’s a place that feels so perfectly peaceful and welcoming; a spot untroubled by the world raging outside and immune to the passing of time. I very rarely feel patriotic, feeling these things essentially boil down to an accident of birth, but sometimes I do feel terribly lucky to be British. 

To be sat, peacefully in the church garden, red kites circling in the clear blue sky and the faint strum of a petrol mower in the distance. Even the enjoyment of fighting over the last forkful of cake with your nearest and dearest, though you know you’re going to come off second best, before the slow, contented tramp through the fields back home.

Monday, 28 May 2018

How do you like your eggs in the morning?

As a self-proclaimed ouef-avoider for approximately the last 35 years of my life – following a regrettable incident with some dodgy scrambled egg and a hirsute, bare-chested family friend when I was a young child on holiday –  I would always say, in answer to the blog's title, 'not on my plate'. Pretty much everything I care to order when I go out for the first meal of the day involves an egg being boiled poached fried or scrambled and ceremoniously added to anything I might wish to eat.

Which is what makes breakfast in America so exciting. Not only do the majority of restaurants offer an array of pancakes, french toast and waffles, but pancakes remain one of my all-time favourite things ever. Especially the puffy American ones, stacked up high and doused in a lake of liquid diabetes and served with several rashers of crisp streaky bacon that are composed of more fat than lean.

Only something funny happened on this trip; for the first time in living memory I actually wanted to eat an egg. While I’ve made half-hearted attempts before (starting with a breakfast omelette on a Thai Air flight was probably not the best idea…) this time I was committed, starting with the Pantry CafĂ©, in Los Angeles' Downtown.

Open for twenty four hours a day, apparently the front door key was lost years ago -  there’s still a spot by the payment booth where you can see layers and layers of worn linoleum, like a slice of multi-coloured agate rock. There’s an old fashioned efficiency from the waiters, in their black aprons, who make their way through a steady stream of customers, serving countless plates of steak, fried chicken, and omelettes; often with a serving of their signature coleslaw, even at breakfast time.

I think part of the reason I wanted to start eating eggs again, comes from my inherent quest for ‘completeness’. Firstly, I hate to miss out on things and secondly I don’t like the idea of ordering a meal without a constituent ingredient. 

While I will happily eat a fry up sans ouef (everybody has their own idea of what constitutes a full English anyway) ordering ham and eggs without the eggs just seems pointless. Unless there’s also the option of a pineapple ring on the menu, and I'm there. As I wanted to order the ham steak at the Original Pantry, I decided I would also have the eggs.

While I was softening to the idea of egg, I wasn’t committed enough to have it in its two constituent parts, so I chose scrambled, which in America are often cooked on a flat top and are more omelette-like, which is even better. The ham it’s self was gargantuan, a huge slice from a Tom and Jerry cartoon and served with hash browns, a finely chopped fresh chilli salsa and the most wonderful, chewy, crispy sourdough toast, also cooked on the flat top, that the Ewing is still dreaming of now. 

Of course, we also had a side of pancakes, which I soldiered valiantly through as the Ewing was toasted-out. While anywhere else they may have been an afterthought, here they were utter perfection, and still made equal top billing.

Another reason America is great, is that doughnuts and coffee are seen as an acceptable breakfast option. Something I heartily concur with. And although I’d strictly already had breakfast before we had picked up our hire car to embark on our mini road trip, it was still (just) before midday when we arrived.

The Donut Man, in Glendora, is often featured on lists of the best ‘nut shops in the whole country, and is renowned for its fresh fruit doughnuts. Normally I might make some hackneyed remark about it being ‘one of my five a day’, but, having now eaten one, I should think the strawberry stuffed orb – they offer peach in high summer and apple in the autumn - was at least two or three. 

This thing was as big as my head, and I’m not known for my small bonce, and stuffed to the brim. Government guidelines probably don’t suggest your fruit comes glazed in sugar and clamped in fried dough, but hey.

I’m not even going to attempt to justify the tiger tail, a twisted coil of glazed dough stuffed with devil’s food cake frosting, other than for the joy it bought into my life. Especially while enjoyed with an iced coffee, while sat on the bench outside the shop watching the traffic cruise down Route 66.

As I was already falling well behind in my quest to become half pancake during this trip, there was only one option on our visit to Elmer’s in Palm Springs; the german pancake topped with powdered sugar and lemon. 

To drink was an Arnold Palmer -  a mix of half still lemonade and half iced tea - a drink that apparently got its name in Palm Springs and the perfect PG Tips substitute in 25 degree weather. Also, check out that view. If you do ever eat here, ask for a table on the patio out the back, and you too can gaze out on the San Jacinto Mountains.

Anyway, back to the food and as the name might give it away, this wasn’t an American style stack, but a giant singular pancake. Coincidentally you may have seen it on social media recently, being called out for its resemblance to a shallow Yorkshire pudding. Which it pretty much is. 

Served with the lemon and sugar, it was like crossing the best part of a Sunday roast with shrove Tuesday – and all before noon - and was just as brilliant as you might expect it to be. I also had scrambled eggs and bacon and hot sauce, cos it's ‘Merica and there clearly wasn’t already enough food to incapacitate me for the rest of the day.

The Ewing’s southwest omelette was very polite in its presentation, but delicious all the same. Although she did make the rookie error of choosing the fruit cup instead of the hash browns, which, despite us being in the fecund garden of Cali (the state that produces the sizeable majority of all fruit and veg in the states), consisted of browning banana and hard melon chunks. Whereas you can never go wrong with crispy, salty shards of fried potato.

Another day, another doughnut, and Jelly Donut in 29 Palms is one of the last stops if you’re heading out West (there’s also a great gas station, stuffed with a treasure trove of craft beers, just as you hit the city limits). It’s pretty unmissable, with its drive thru canopy and giant sign, and is worth a stop for classic American donuts, you won’t get anything fancier than sprinkles here, and polystyrene cups of percolator coffee.

I also like the fact that ‘jelly’(our jam) donuts are covered in powdered sugar or glazed, not like our crunchy granulated sugar. Here the glazed ones are raspberry, and the powdered ones are stuffed with a bright lemon, that matches the Formica table tops. The maple old fashioned donuts – craggy edged and made with a buttermilk enriched dough – are cinnamon-scented simple perfection and the giant apple fritters, studded with huge chunks of the fruit, were big enough that even we didn’t mind sharing.

Chicken. Fried. Steak. Three of my favourite words, right there. Combine them in a sentence and you may have one of the finest culinary contributions Southern American cuisine has made to the world. The first time I tried this magical combination of two already pretty great foodstuffs – a thin piece of steak is pounded to tenderise, before being coated in season flour and breadcrumbs and fried - I was 15, in a small restaurant in rural Arizona.

I still remember everything about that night, the way some people remember meeting their wife, or their first child being born. The Kinks playing in the car on the way there, the cloudless desert sky, the blood red velvet drapes at the windows and the chintzy tableware. But mostly I remember the wonderful food.

While my meal of ambrosial CFS and cream gravy remained indelibly etched on my memory, it’s taken me until now to try it again. After all, I grew up in the south of England, where the steak came unbattered, and the gravy is always brown. And let's not even start on the 'biscuits' that often come with gravy in the American south.

Squaring the circle, this version was also eaten in rural Arizona - in Parker, a town on the Colorado River Indian Reservation that was half way on our drive to Sedona - and was as good as I remembered.  Alongside was more scrambled egg and home fries cooked with onion and green pepper (one of the only times I've actually enjoyed the pizza-ruiner).  

Pudding (no, not the American kind) was the American kind of biscuit, light and fluffy with baking powder, like our scones, and perfect covered in Smuckers grape jelly. 

Image result for ihop  stratosphere
Our friend’s Vegas wedding also happened to fall on the same day  as the Ewing’s birthday. As I didn’t want her to miss out on her own celebration, I also excitedly planned a surprise brunch trip to IHOP for birthday pancakes.

The surprise being that, apparently, my wife doesn’t really like pancakes. Despite me making them for her on countless weekends for the past decade. She also decided to make this announcement in front of our friends and brunching partners, Stealth and GWP, while pointing out my own deep love for the puffy discs of dough. (Yeah, yeah, I'm a bitch but name one time I have ordered pancakes and proclaimed I loved them so much I would order them again - TE).

Despite this revelation, and the accompanying minus wife points, we still all went to IHOP; the strange chalet like building  in the shadow of the Stratosphere, if you fancy visiting. The Ewing was placated by their vast omelette menu, me because they had pancakes with sprinkles – which I was determined the birthday girl would enjoy – while others in our group were happiest because of its proximity to the ReLeaf Dispensary. 

Despite walking past multiple times, I failed to get a photo, so the one above is from Trip Advisor. I took the photo of the syrup bottles though; no less than four different flavoured ways to get your sugar spike.  

IHOP’s are ubiquitous a sight across America, so I wasn’t holding out much hope for anything beyond edible, as long as it came adorned with sprinkles. As it turned out I was more than pleasantly surprised by our food. In fact, it was excellent. My steak and cheese omelette stuffed with hash browns and topped with salsa, was by far the greatest iteration of eggs I encountered on our trip. Although, as I mentioned before, what could be really bad about something that’s stuffed with crispy fried potatoes and covered in cheddar. 

You may also be happy to hear that he Ewing also very much enjoyed her food, and even tried a forkful of the birthday pancakes - a stack of pancakes with sprinkles in the batter, topped with frosting and whipped cream, and more sugar strands – although others at the table seemed to enjoy them more. Any correlation between this and visiting the ReLeaf Dispensary is entirely unsubstantiated.