Bizarrely, one of the foodie things I most look forward to on my trips to the UK is Pret A Manger sandwiches. This is especially the case at Christmas time when they do a Christmas Lunch sandwich – a heavenly combination of turkey, great slabs of herby stuffing, cranberry sauce, mayonnaise, crispy fried onions and some token greenery to obscure the fact that you are actually eating pure lard. Sadly, being June, the Christmas Lunch sandwich is having a well-earned Summer holiday so, on coming across a Pret at Marble Arch at lunchtime last Thursday, I choose the crayfish with lemon mayo and rocket. Pret is a very well marketed brand, in my opinion. Their promise is freshness and flavour and boy do they deliver. The soft, grainy bread is generously filled with plump, tender crayfish and peppery, unwithered rocket, and the lemon mayo adds the perfect zing. Plus, in a perfect example of internalising your brand promise, the staff are so damn perky and helpful that you really think that Pret must be an awesome place to work, and that does add to the enjoyment of the experience.
In the evening I cook dinner for Alex as a thank you for their wonderful hospitality. Laura is trying out a special diet that seems to consist mostly of mushed up aubergines so sadly she can’t partake of my culinary efforts. I make a Vietnamese beef salad from a favourite Nigel Slater recipe which I know by heart having made it so many times. Into a big salad bowl I put two ripe vine tomatoes cut into thin wedges, the equivalent of one large carrot and about 10cm of cucumber cut into matchsticks, some salad leaves (the recipe suggests watercress), a handful each of chopped fresh mint and coriander and one birdseye chili finely sliced (I leave the seeds in but I’m a chili freak). The only thing that’s missing that I didn’t manage to find at the shop is about four kaffir lime leaves which you’re supposed to de-vein, roll up tightly and then slice as thinly as you possible can. I love the flavour and fragrance that these add. I then prepare the dressing in a small bowl – the juice of a lime, two and a half tablespoons of sweet chili sauce, two tablespoons of fish sauce and a good pinch of sugar. All that remains is to cook the steaks – two lovely pieces of sirloin from the local butcher in Kew Gardens which earlier I’ve rubbed with some olive oil and sprinkled with black pepper. They’re not overly thick so I fry them in a very hot pan for just one and a half minutes on the first side and one on the second, grinding on some sea salt as they cook. After resting them for a few minutes I slice them into strips which are a lovely dark pink inside. I toss them into the salad along with the dressing and we’re ready to eat.
Alex is so enthusiastic in his compliments that I’m really quite chuffed I chose this recipe. It’s a bowlful of vibrant flavours and textures with the crunchy vegetables, tender rare steak and sweet-sour-salty dressing, plus a good chili kick that really gives our sinuses a workout. For pudding we have beautiful fat raspberries (only £2 for a big punnet from M&S – in Oz they’re extortionately expensive) with half-fat crème fraiche and a light sprinkling of white sugar. And over a few glasses of white burgundy followed by a fruity little sauv blanc from New Zealand, we reminisce about an enlightening (for me, anyway) visit I made to see Alex at Oxford University 20 odd years ago. As the cliché goes (and increasingly so, the older we get), how time flies!