Two music graduates chronicle the culinary delights of Leeds and London and explore the height of fine dining on a limited budget.

Good food is well punk.

July 24, 2010

From Bulgaria With Love: A Beginner's Guide to Shopska Salad.

With three years of higher education under our belts, my housemates and I (along with 6 other friends) recently spent a week on the coast of the Black Sea in Bulgaria sunning ourselves, drinking cheap lager and generally frittering away the remainders of our overdrafts.
"But why is he telling us all this!" I hear you ask through the magic of the internet. Well, obviously because we ended up spending the week surviving on Shopska, the national salad of Bulgaria. It may sound simple, and I'm not going to imply that simply chopping vegetables requires a recipe, but I felt the meal needed some kind of record for posterity. What can I say?

The key ingredient of the Shopska is the cheese, a type of brined white cheese called sirena. It's similar to feta, but less strongly flavoured, and generally made from cow's milk rather than ewe's. Any Leedsers should be able to pick something similar from the Maumoniat international supermarket, but the ubiquitous Feta should serve just as well.

Perhaps harder to replicate in Britain are the tomatoes. I don't think I've ever eaten a tomato from a supermarket that satisfied me in any way. I mean, sure, Sainsbury's flavouripe are alright in a bland sandwich, or drenched in dressing, but we just don't have the climate for producing tomatoes that actually taste of what they are. Oh well. It may be worth shelling out for. If you find a good source for tomatoes, let me know. In any case, the texture of the salad demands large and juicy tomatoes rather than small and fruity - if it wouldn't go in Maz's famed Tabbouleh, it wouldn't go in here.

Serves 10 as a starter, maybe 6 as a main.

1 block of Sirena cheese
1 large cucumber
2 Green or yellow peppers
2 red onions
4 of the freshest, best beef tomatoes you can find
1 tsp dried parsley
½ tsp dried oregano
6 tbsp sunflower oil
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
Salt and Pepper

Begin by chopping the cucumber, peppers and tomatoes into chunks about 1cm wide, and place in a large bowl - actual quantities don't really matter, but there should be a roughly even amount. Likewise, finely chop or slice the onions, add to the bowl and stir the mixture. Season well with salt (to bring out the juices) and set aside for a few minutes. 

To make the dressing, simply mix the dried herbs into the oil with a fork. Add some salt and pepper, slosh in the vinegar and shake vigourously in a glass jar. Pour most of the dressing over the mixture in the bowl. Either chop the cheese into large chunks or grate it over the salad - either way is fine, but we preferred the large chunks of salty goodness soaking up the dressing and tomato juices. Drizzle over the remainder of the dressing, and serve with bread and grilled meat.

I know, it doesn't look like much, but the way the saltiness of the cheese is matched by the acidty of the dressing and juice of the tomatoes is one of the closest sensations I've come to culinary perfection.

As a post-recipe bonus, have a picture of me making the salad, in a dodgy vest and using the knife found in our villa that we swiftly entitled "the Bitchfucker".

July 13, 2010

A Trip to Whitby: The Magpie Café

George Bernard Shaw, highlighting the inconsistencies of the English language, once proposed a new spelling for the fish: ghoti. That's gh as in trough, o as in women, and ti as in nation.

Spelling aside, the word fish has a great cultural resonance with the British. Say it. fshhhh. Instantly, the sound of the word conjures up little silvery things caught off the coast of Cornwall, or a river trout cooked over a barbecue in the New Forest. Perhaps more likely though, the sound and smell of a fillet of white fish frying in batter. Fish and Chips. The best thing we gave the world outside of Monty Python and football violence. Like McDonalds and chocolate, it is a meal that transcends boundaries of class and age. Who doesn't love tucking into a steaming crisp fillet, smothered in salt and vinegar, atop fried potatoes dripping in grease? Doubly so from a wrapper, at a bus shelter on a cold winter's night.

Yet Fish and Chips is such a widespread dish, there are surely infinite ways to get it right? And subsequently, get it wrong. We've all been there. The fish tastes dodgy, the batter falls apart and the chips are some godawful "french fries". How to get the meal right?

On a recent daytrip to Whitby, we ran into this very problem. Being a coastal town awash with tourists and old people on coasches, it has a glut of Fish and Chip emporiums, but only one of them has a large queue out the door on any given Wednesday afternoon. Situated literally opposite the fish market, the Magpie Café consists of a (rather swanky-looking) fish restaurant combined with a more typical Fish and Chip outlet. Clearly the stuff of local legend, we decided that it was the destination of choice for lunch.

We were proved entirely right.

The meal was perhaps the Platonic ideal of how Fish and Chips should be cooked. The cod (they'd run out of haddock) was perfectly flaky, captured in a large crunchy batter. The chips perfectly struck the balance between crisp and soggy, benefitting from being fried in what smelt like beef dripping. And the mushy peas. Oh, the mushy peas. Words cannot begin to describe quite how good the peas were. Suffice to say, they were the best. Absolute end of.

Of course, such culinary perfection comes at a price. But that price is an absolute steal. At £4.40, the fish is slightly above the average, but so completely worth it in every way. Cod, chips, mushy peas, tartare sauce and a can of shandy came to just under £8. Eaten on the beach with a healthy pinch of sand the sea breeze in my hair. Paradise.

Interestingly, had I been served a battered ghoti, the chips would have been made out of ghoughpteighbteaus*.

The Magpie Café
14 Pier Road
North Yorkshire
YO21 3PU

*Hiccough, though, ptomaine, neigh, debt, bureau. Tenuous yes, but roll with it.