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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pretty is as pretty does

Near my office there is an Italian cafe run for the benefit of Italian and Southwark autistic people. I'm not sure what that means, but they do good sandwiches and delicious soups, and sell Italian products for Enormous Amounts of Money. Sadly for my bank balance, those products are generally so good that I cannot resist spending the money.
Most recently I bought some beautiful coloured striped pasta in the shape of little sombreros. I'm too embarassed to tell you how much I paid for it, so I'll move swiftly on to what I did with it, even though that was far from a triumph.
The packet suggested stuffing them, then baking with a sauce over them. Fair enough. I roasted a small butternut squash and  pur√©ed it with melted butter and garlic, plus generous amounts of salt and pepper. Meantime, I flung the pasta in boiling water for three minutes, as suggested on the packet, then sat them on a teatowel to drain.
Each little hat got a filling of squash, and then was sat on its individual base (the whole process was extraordinarily cute, or finicky, depending on your mood) in a baking tray. I then poured a tomato sauce over them and topped the whole lot with torn gobbets of mozzarella, covered everything with tinfoil and shoved it in the oven as suggested.

Turns out, if you want to show off your gorgeous stripey pasta hats, smothering them in tomato sauce and mozzarella is not the best course of action. It further turns out that three minutes in boiling water was not nearly long enough to cook the pasta, particularly as the peaks of the hats remained poking out of the sauce, ending up much crisper than pasta is traditionally supposed to be.
But we are not downhearted! (NO!). We're going to cook them again on Sunday for friends. I know this time to boil the hats for longer, but how can I serve them looking pretty, but not horribly dry?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Revisiting the scenes of my youth

I've lived in London for an astonishing ten years now, so the miserable days when i lived out on the far-off reaches of the Central Line have more or less faded from my mind.
The one aspect of living in Leytonstone that was an unalloyed pleasure was the wonderful, wonderful Singburi Royal Thai Cafe.
Eleven years ago, Tony and Thelma bought a fish fry bar on Leytonstone High Road and started frying fish and chips. Tony, however, loves cooking the food of his native Thailand, so the regulars soon started to spend more on the red Thai curries or the phad thai noodles that were also available than on the boring old fish and chips.
So they ripped out the fry bar (but left the backlit panel on the wall above it, just covering it up with posters from the Thai Ministry of Food), bought some tables and chairs, moved the kitchen into a back room and set up shop as Singburi.
My housemates and I discovered it early and ate there regularly. The menu had all the usual Thai standards, done to an extremely high standard, and on quiet evenings, we would ask if Tony had anything special going on. Usually he would have picked up something interesting at the market and have put together some unexpected dish. Minced quail, sweet-roasted dried beef, massaman curry - even minced frog.
On busy evenings, we stuck to those menu dishes we knew were exceptional: tom kha gai (coconut chicken soup), gang paneang neu (a dry coconut beef curry), roast duck curry, phad thai. And it was never so busy that Thelma couldn't stop to greet us fondly, or come over for a giggly chat at some point. 
After a couple of years, I left Leytonstone, and soon thereafter lost all touch with the people I had known at that time of my life, but I never forgot Tony and Thelma. Every now and then, I would check online to make sure they were still going, and plan to go back there just to see if I had imagined how good it was.
Finally a couple of weeks ago, the Man and I drove over. We pushed open the door to familiar smells and Thelma - six years older but still as smiley - welcoming us in.
It was unchanged!
Ok, I realised on closer inspection that some of the chairs were new and the fish tank near the door has gone, but the weaver birds' nests still hang in the window with little toy koala bears clinging to them, the menu is unchanged (except for the addition of a specials board) and the food is just as good.
As we ordered, I realised Thelma was looking at me carefully - she slowly recognised me despite six years' absence and a lot of changes.
The crowning joy of the evening was that although the back-lit panel has gone, replaced by a wall of photos of jolly meals at Singburi (I even found a few old acquaintances), the very best Ministry of Food poster has been upgraded from blu-tak to frame. It is an artfully lit photo of rambutans with the caption: "Bushy, juicy".