Ethiopian omelette

I haven’t had much time to cook this week. It’s the first few days after the summer holidays, and so much work has piled up that I’m practically glued to my computer screen, replying to hundreds of emails and trying to get on top of things. You know the feeling well, right?

To be honest, I haven’t really cooked anything interesting worth sharing this week – except for this omelette. I first tasted the omelette – known as enqulal t’ibs – when an Ethiopian chef I once interviewed served it to me for brunch. She told me it could be eaten alongside ginfilfil, a spicy stew made from torn up, leftover injera bread – the soft, fermented flatbread of Ethiopia with a slightly tangy taste.

I have never made that stew – or indeed the bread – at home, but I do like to order it in restaurants. I like making this omelette for supper when I have little time to cook as it takes about 10 minutes from start to finish. As for the dried garlic and ginger – I wasn’t being lazy or too busy to use fresh: this traditional recipe really does require them to be dried and powdered.  Eat the omelette with some hot chilli sauce if you like, accompanied by baguette or crusty bread and a tomato-based green leaf salad. Serves 1.

2 large free-range organic eggs
2 tablespoons milk
¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste
Freshly ground pepper
1 shallot or very small onion, trimmed, peeled and finely chopped
½ small green bell pepper (or a mild chilli), trimmed and finely chopped
½ small red bell pepper, trimmed and finely chopped
¼ teaspoon dried powdered garlic
¼ teaspoon dried powdered ginger
¼ teaspoon cardamom seeds, freshly crushed in a mortar
2 tablespoons corn, groundnut (peanut), or sunflower oil

1.    Lightly whisk the eggs with the milk until fluffy. Add all the remaining ingredients except oil and beat well.
2.    Heat the oil in a medium frying pan. When hot, add the egg mixture and cook for a few minutes until the omelette is set.
3.    Finish the omelette under a grill if desired. Serve hot.

Tofu burger with Asian flavours

These light, nutritious and colourful tofu burgers are far removed from the mundane, ready-made supermarket variety in terms of taste and texture.

Serve them either in a bun with sliced onions, tomatoes, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts and a little chutney or ketchup or, alternatively, accompanied by brown rice and stir-fried green leafy vegetables. They also taste great with a deep-flavoured mushroom sauce, along a side helping of potatoes, grilled tomatoes and sautéed spinach. For a variation of flavour, add a pinch of curry powder to the tofu mixture.

If you don’t eat eggs, you may substitute the egg – which only acts as a binder in this recipe – with a tablespoon or two of cornflour (cornstarch), though to be honest I have not tried this myself.

Panko – which are available in Japanese grocers – can be replaced with ordinary dried breadcrumbs if you can’t find them. Remember to go easy on salt because it’s already added to soy sauce and panko, and you don’t want your burgers to become too salty. Makes 6 to 8 burgers/ Serves 3 – 4.

1 lb/ 450g firm plain tofu
5 tablespoons corn or groundnut (peanut) oil
3 spring onions, trimmed and very finely chopped
4 large shiitake mushrooms, stalks removed and finely diced
3 oz/ 75g carrot, trimmed, peeled and finely diced
2 tablespoons celery, trimmed, peeled and finely chopped
1 or 2 green chillies, finely chopped
4 tablespoons fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped
2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 medium egg, beaten
Around 8 to 10 tablespoons panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)

1.    Place the tofu between several layers of kitchen paper, and weigh it down with a heavy kitchen utensil or a bag of sugar. Leave for about an hour to drain off excess water so that you get the dry texture that’s necessary for this recipe to work.
2.    In a large bowl, crumble and mash the tofu with your fingers until it resembles fine soy mince.
3.    Heat a large frying pan (or a small wok) on high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil, and stir-fry the spring onions, mushrooms, carrots, celery and chillies for about 3 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked through. Let them cool a little.
4.    Tip the vegetables into the crumbled tofu. Add the coriander, soy sauce, and a little salt and pepper. Mix well.
5.    Add the egg and about 5 tablespoons of the panko, or enough to make a mixture that can be formed into patties. Mix well, and adjust the seasoning.
6.    Shape the tofu and vegetable mixture into 8 round burger-shaped patties.
7.    Spread the remaining panko in a thin layer onto a large plate. Roll the burgers in the panko so as to cover them lightly on all sides, including the edge. (If you are not cooking the burgers immediately, you can refrigerate them for up to 3 to 4 hours).
8.    A few minutes before you are ready to eat, heat a large, non-stick frying pan on medium heat. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons oil in the pan and, when hot, put in the burgers 2 or 3 at a time. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until they are well browned.
9.    Drain on kitchen paper. Serve immediately.

Mexican watermelon ice

So, summer is drawing to a close. I first realised this when I saw plants and bushes slowly shrivelling, ready to turn into skeletons, marvelled at apple and pear trees already heavy with fruit, and experienced the crunch of brown leaves under my feet. Actually, it dawned on me even sooner: when my brother got his ‘A’ level results, I started seeing ‘back to school’ notices everywhere, and somebody invited me to an end-of-summer ball.

This simple, 3-ingredient watermelon ice is typical of what you would buy from a street vendor in Mexico. Everywhere in Mexico you see vendors proffering fresh fruit, from the mundane to the paradisiacal. The fruit may be peeled, sliced and ready to eat, or pureed and blended with mineral water for liquid refreshment, or even poured over crushed ice and served as a slush in a wax-paper cone. Whatever the form, the basic notion is essence of fruit. Watermelon ice is delicious served with cookies for a dessert: Mexican wedding cookies (available in some delis), lime cookies or chocolate cookies are all ideal.

The tequila is optional, but it does more than add flavour: the alcohol prevents the mixture from freezing so solid that you can’t spoon it out without completely defrosting it. You can use cantaloupe, honeydew or any other type of melon in this recipe, or even substitute mangoes or berries. However, the watermelon gives it a richly seductive, sinful scarlet colour. And why not? This may be your final fling of the summer: the sunny season’s last hurrah. Until next year, of course…. Serves 4.

4 lb/ 2 kg ripe watermelon (weight after removing rind and seeds)
2 oz/ 50g to 3 oz/ 75g caster (superfine) sugar, depending on the fruit’s sweetness
3 tablespoons tequila (optional)

1.    Roughly dice the watermelon and puree it in a food processor.
2.    Transfer the puree to a large bowl. Stir in the sugar to taste, and the tequila, if using. Mix well to dissolve the sugar.
3.    Place the fruit mixture in the freezer and chill for about 2 hours, or until it begins to freeze around the edges and across the top.
4.    Remove from the freezer and whisk to break up and mix in the ice crystals. Return to the freezer and chill for about 2 hours more.
5.    Once again, remove from the freezer and whisk again, breaking up the ice crystals and remixing into an evenly granulated mixture. Cover with a plastic wrap and return to the freezer until frozen through – from another 2 to 3 hours, up to several days.
6.    Remove from the freezer 45 minutes before serving so that the ice softens enough to spoon it out. Serve in attractive glasses, sundae dishes or paper cones.

Grilled vegetable and butterbean gazpacho

I first fell in love with gazpacho when I visited a small Andalusian village on the hills as a child with my parents. Some years ago, watching the hit Pedro Almodovar movie ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (in which gazpacho plays a significant part) cemented my passion for the chilled Spanish tomato and raw vegetable soup.

Over the years I have tasted several variations, including white gazpacho made from almonds and grapes, and the newly fashionable (at least in the UK) watermelon gazpacho, which is a little too sweet and insubstantial for my taste.

This recipe started life as simply grilled vegetable gazpacho, which I prepared one lunchtime from leftover barbecued vegetables, including roast potatoes. More recently, when I made the soup again, I substituted the carb-laden potatoes with protein-rich butterbeans. It worked perfectly well as the beans provided the creamy texture just as the potatoes had done. This soup is rather like salmorejo – the thick Andalusian tomato and bread soup – in texture. It is at once hearty, tangy, savoury, refreshing and redolent with tastes of the Mediterranean summer.

The butterbeans I use in this recipe are the large Mediterranean variety called ‘gigante’. They’re available in delis, health food stores and department stores’ food halls. (In the UK, you can often buy them in jars from Sainsbury’s ‘Special Selection’ section). You may use regular butterbeans, or even chickpeas (garbanzo beans) which are common in Spanish cuisine.

Use any combination of Mediterranean vegetables – adjusting the solids to liquids ratio accordingly – and hand around a good variety of toppings so that your guests can choose what they like. Just make sure that your summer tomatoes are very red, ripe, juicy and packed with flavour, otherwise the soup will be insipid.

I often serve regular red gazpacho at the start of a barbecue, but this recipe is substantial enough to be almost a meal by itself. Serves 4.

8 medium tomatoes, halved
1 medium red bell pepper, trimmed, seeded and halved
1 medium green bell pepper, trimmed, seeded and halved
1 medium courgette (zucchini), trimmed and thickly sliced
1 small baby aubergine (eggplant), trimmed and cut into chunks
6 spring onions, trimmed
Approx 4 tablespoons cooked gigante butterbeans (large lima beans), drained
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
4 fl oz/ 125 ml tomato juice, chilled
12 fl oz/ 350 ml vegetable stock, chilled or at room temperature
3 tablespoons olive oil (Spanish, if you have it)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar, or more to taste
A pinch of paprika
A pinch of ground cumin
A pinch of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
Fine grain sea salt
Ice cubes

Optional toppings (Prepare a few of the suggested garnishes for your guests to choose. Don’t use them all though, otherwise the flavours will clash or dominate!):

Very finely chopped red onion
Very finely chopped yellow bell pepper
Very finely diced cucumber
Diced avocado, drizzled with lime juice
Finely sliced celery
Finely sliced pickled gherkins
A few pickled green peppercorns in brine, drained
Smoked paprika
Handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
Whole almonds, blanched, skinned and lightly toasted
Hard-boiled egg, shelled and finely diced
Croutons

1.    From tomatoes to spring onions listed above, barbecue, roast or grill all the vegetables until tender.
2.    Once cooked, peel and core the tomatoes and peel the peppers. Roughly chop all the vegetables and allow them to come to room temperature.
3.    In a liquidizer or food processor, combine the chopped grilled vegetables with the cooked beans, garlic and tomato juice and blitz for a few seconds.
4.    Add the stock, oil, vinegar, spices and seasoning and blitz the mixture until it is smooth but still retains plenty of texture. Add a little cold water if the texture is too thick.
5.    Refrigerate the soup for 1 or 2 hours. Serve chilled with ice cubes, and hand around optional garnishes of your choice.

Italian tomato tart

This Italian tomato tart – crostata di pomodoro – is so amazingly easy that even my 11-year old niece, Ellie, can make it. In fact, she just did! It’s simply made from puff pastry topped with fresh tomatoes, garlicky olive oil, basil and toasted pine nuts. It’s very light as there is no cheese – though you may add some if you want a pizza-like flavour.

Because the recipe is so simple, it is more than usually important to use only the best-quality ingredients. Buy puff pastry from a good bakery. (Although when I’m in the UK, I always keep Jus-Rol brand’s ready-rolled puff pastry in the fridge. With tomatoes from my garden in the summer, I’m able to whip up this tart in no time at all).

I have suggested Italian plum tomatoes to be authentic – they are fleshy with fewer seeds and ideal for this recipe – but you can use multi-coloured tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, or any variety of top-quality tomatoes. Use only the finest, sunniest, plumpest specimen you can find – it really will make a difference to the taste.

You can, of course, add other ingredients like olives, onions and so on. But I think less is definitely more in this recipe, and I like allowing the uncluttered tangy, grassy, herby, fruity taste of summer tomatoes to shine through.

This tart is perfect for picnics and light lunches, served with a salad, or wonderful cut into small squares and served with wine as an appetiser. Serves 4 – 6.

4 tablespoons Italian extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
7 medium Italian plum tomatoes
1 sheet uncooked puff-pastry, rolled to approx 12 by 12 inches
1 medium egg yolk, beaten
Small bunch basil leaves, torn
2 oz/ 50g pine nuts, lightly toasted in a small saucepan

1.    Combine the olive oil with garlic, salt and pepper and set aside.
2.    Thinly slice the tomatoes, removing as many brown cores and seeds as you can. Leave to drain on paper towels.
3.    Place the puff pastry square on a lightly floured surface. Cut ½-inch strips of pastry from all four sides.
4.    Brush the egg on the edges of the pastry square and arrange the strips along the top edges. Press down gently with a light hand – you should be left with a square puff pastry case.
5.    Lightly prick the bottom of the pastry case with a fork. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
6.    About 10 minutes before you are ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 400F/ 200C/ gas mark 6.
7.    Bake the pastry case for 10 minutes, or until it rises and turns light golden-brown.
8.    Let the pastry cool a little, and brush the inside with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and garlic mixture and sprinkle with half the basil. Arrange the tomato slices over the top. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and garlic mixture.
9.    Bake for 10 minutes until the pastry is golden-brown and the tomatoes have softened but are still intact.
10.    Cool the tart slightly. Sprinkle with the pine nuts and the remaining basil. Serve warm or at room temperature.

lavender, gin and honey ice cream with lavender biscuits

August is one of my favourite times of the year. I try to take a break from my relentless work-related travelling, even if it’s just for a few days, to spend quality time with family and friends. My Aunt Christina owns an enormous farmhouse in a breathtakingly beautiful, tiny village in Provence. All the siblings and cousins have a great big pre-Christmas get together throughout the month, travelling in from all over the world. Some, like my cousin Amy who is a recently-qualified doctor, can only stay for a couple of days, while others, like all the little nephews and nieces, stay for several weeks, typically running riot. It’s one heck of a party.

My aunt’s farmhouse is surrounded by acres of picturesque lavender and sunflower fields. The distinctively musky perfume of lavender is heady to the point of being overwhelming.  This year I was determined to make cooking with lavender a success. This is no mean feat: use too much lavender and your dish will taste like shower gel (or “dear old Victorian ladies’ undergarments”, as my cousin Jonathan put it – an image I would rather not linger on for too long); too little and it will taste like an unfulfilled promise: all fragrance and no flavour. The trick is in getting the balance of floral flavour right.

My attempts at raspberry and lavender preserve, lavender bread and butter pudding, and lavender crème brulee have ended in disaster in previous years. So would I get it right this year? Well the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The ice cream and biscuits were polished off within minutes.

This isn’t really a French recipe. I have simply taken Provencal lavender, which grows abundantly in most English gardens anyway, left it to dry for a couple of days on strings and, with the addition of gin, I’ve concocted a sort of English summer garden recipe. Or maybe it’s Anglo-French. Oh, I don’t know. All I know is that the recipe – or rather, recipes, as I have done two this week – tastes pretty spectacular. You can, of course, eat the ice cream or biscuits on their own, but together they’ll seduce you with sunshine-infused magic that will linger in your memory for days. Makes 2 pints/ 1 litre ice cream and approximately 25 – 30 small or 12 – 15 large biscuits. Serves around 6.

For the ice cream:
5 tablespoons gin
1 level tablespoon dried lavender flowers
6 medium egg yolks
¼ pint/ 150 ml honey (ideally lavender or other flower honey)
½ pint/ 300 ml double (thick) cream
Fresh lavender flowers to garnish (optional)

For the biscuits:
9 oz/ 225g unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing
4 oz/ 100g white caster (superfine) sugar
I medium egg, lightly beaten
7 oz/ 175g self-raising white flour
1 level tablespoon dried lavender flowers

To make the ice cream:

1.    In a small saucepan, warm the gin slightly, and then pour it over the lavender flowers in a small bowl. Cover tightly with cling film, and leave to infuse for an hour or so.
2.    Sieve the lavender-infused gin through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing the flowers against the sieve with the back of a spoon to extract all the flavour. Discard the flowers. You should end up with about 3 tablespoons of strongly-flavoured gin. If it is a little under, top it up with some plain gin from the bottle.
3.    In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with an electric whisk (or a wire, balloon-type whisk) until they are very light and fluffy.
4.    Heat the honey in a small saucepan until it reaches the boiling point, then remove from the heat.
5.    Pour the hot honey in a thin, steady stream over the egg yolks, whisking continuously. Keep whisking vigorously until the mixture has cooled and the yolks have increased in volume. This should take about 2 – 3 minutes if you’re using an electric whisk, or 5 – 10 minutes by hand.
6.    Add the flavoured gin and stir thoroughly to combine.
7.    Whip the double cream into soft peaks. Carefully fold it into the egg yolk mixture, blending everything well.
8.    Pour the mixture into a bowl or container and freeze for 8 hours. There is no need to remove the ice cream at regular intervals and beat it (as is the case in many freezer ice cream recipes) – simply leave it be. Just before serving, garnish with fresh lavender flowers, if using.

To make the biscuits:

1.    Pre-heat the oven to 350F/ 180C/ gas mark 4. Line a baking tray with lightly buttered non-stick baking paper.
2.    Cream the butter with the sugar (this is easily done in a food processor). Add the egg and beat well.
3.    Add the flour and mix thoroughly. Mix in the lavender flowers, and stir with a light hand until well-blended.
4.    Place small teaspoonfuls of the mixture on the prepared baking tray, shaping them in circles with the back of the spoon and allowing plenty of space around for them to spread. (Alternatively, place tablespoonfuls of mixture on the tray, and shape them into medium-sized oblong or rectangular shapes).
5.    Bake for 15 – 20 minutes or until the biscuits are pale golden in colour (be careful not to let them get too brown). They will not feel crisp to the touch until they have cooled.
6.    Allow the biscuits to cool thoroughly on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container until ready to serve with the ice cream. As both the ice cream and biscuits are very rich, serve in small, European portions!

South Indian green beans with coconut

My South Indian friend, Thiru, is renowned for his lavish weekend brunches, when he cooks up a large variety of traditional dishes that he learnt from his mother: spongy white rice cakes known as ‘idli’, accompanied by ‘sambhar’, a spicy lentil and vegetable gravy, along with the popular rice and lentil pancakes called ‘dosa’ and a plethora of green and red chutneys, pickles and dips. He often puts vividly coloured, quickly cooked vegetable dishes on the table, too – this being one of them.

I spent a recent weekend morning watching Thiru speedily whip up all these dishes, and wrote down the recipe for green beans exactly as he dictated it. My friend tells me that it can be made from other vegetables, too, such as green cabbage, carrots, beetroot (beets), green bananas, or other varieties of green beans like runner beans. In fact, I’ve tried a version of this dish in upmarket Indian restaurants in the UK made from asparagus, which I’m going to have a go at cooking next.

If you don’t have a well-stocked Indian larder, a trip to an Indian grocer will be necessary – or at least a visit to the ‘ethnic’ section of a large supermarket. Yes, the mustard seeds need to be black, not the more commonly found yellow, and the mild red chillies could be ones labelled as ‘Kashmiri’. Lentils are often used in South Indian cooking as a spice. If you can’t find urid dal – which is a type of white lentil with a distinctively nutty, ever so slightly smoky taste – then use ordinary red lentils. They’re there to provide crunch and texture, so it doesn’t really matter which type of lentil you use.

If you can’t get hold of fresh curry leaves and fresh coconut – both of which are also available frozen in Asian grocers – it’s not really worth attempting this recipe. Well, you can reconstitute dried desiccated coconut in boiling water before use, but the dish won’t taste as it’s meant to. Asafoetida is a type of powdered resin with a strong, pungent aroma (which mellows after cooking, giving the dish a distinctive taste), so it should be used sparingly.

I was a bit hesitant about posting this recipe, as it requires so many specialist ingredients. But I don’t believe in adapting recipes to suit western kitchens – it’s patronising and, after all, speciality ingredients are widely available in most large cities if you know where to find them. (If you don’t, ask members of the particular community whose recipe you’re cooking, and they will be more than happy to advise you). Besides, I would be assuming that all my readers live in western countries, which is not the case – one of the best things about having a blog, especially a global recipe blog such as this, is that you have readers from around the world!

This dish doesn’t have a sauce or gravy, and it needs to be cooked quickly (especially steps 2 to 5) to prevent burning. Don’t be daunted though – it’s light, refreshing, nutritious, flavour-packed, and easy to cook.

Serve the green beans with plain rice, plain yoghurt, poppadams and an Indian ginger pickle. The dish won’t keep long because of the fresh coconut, so leftovers would be delicious stuffed in warmed pita breads or toasted sandwiches, or turned into half-moon shaped pasties made from ready-rolled puff pastry. Serves 4.

1 lb/ 500g fresh fine green beans
4 tablespoons corn or sunflower oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
Dried large, mild whole red chillies, to taste
1 tablespoon urid dal (or red lentils)
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
8 – 10 fresh curry leaves
¼ teaspoon asafoetida
Salt
2 oz/ 50g finely grated fresh coconut
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
A squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice (optional)

1.    Trim the green beans at both ends. Either leave them whole, cut them in half, or chop them small. If you leave them whole or halve them, steam the beans for 3 to 4 minutes until tender but still crisp. (You won’t need to follow this step if you chop them small, as South Indians do, as they will cook quickly).
2.    Heat the oil in a frying pan. When very hot but not smoking, add the mustard seeds and remove from the heat immediately. Cover the pan with a lid and let the mustard seeds pop. They should become dark grey, but must not burn.
3.    Once the mustard seeds have stopped making the popping noise, place the pan back on the heat, and immediately add the dried chillies and urid dal. Stir once or twice.
4.    When the chillies turn a couple of shades darker and the urid dal starts turning pinkish-brown, add the sesame seeds and curry leaves. Stir again.
5.    Finally, when the curry leaves become crisp and turn a shade or two darker, and the sesame seeds start turning pale brown, remove the pan from the heat, and add the asafoetida. Let everything sizzle for just a few seconds.
6.    Place the pan back on heat, immediately add the green beans and coat them evenly in the spice mixture. Add the salt, and let them cook with the lid on until the beans are tender but have still retained their bright green colour.
7.    Top the cooked beans with coconut and coriander, and stir a couple of times. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice if you wish. Remove the red chillies and curry leaves before serving – or let your guests fish them out from their own plates, as South Indians do – and eat immediately.

Moroccan vegetable kebabs

The versatile chermoula serves as a sauce and a marinade in a wide variety of Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian dishes. Although traditionally used with seafood, it is also mixed with pureed tomatoes to create a delicious sauce for green beans, broad (fava) beans or carrots. Recipes vary widely, often containing ingredients like finely chopped pickled lemons. In this dish, my Moroccan-recipe chermoula imparts a wonderful flavour to fresh vegetables. Serving little saucers of ground cumin on the side is the tradition in Morocco.

Serve the kebabs with plenty of couscous flecked with saffron, finely chopped herbs such as parsley and mint, and sliced nuts like almonds and pistachios. If you are serving the kebabs as part of a barbecue spread, you can also grill freshly made or shop-bought flatbreads on the barbecue, along with skewers of cubed white cheese. A big bowl of green salad, and a side salad of sliced oranges, red onions and black olives would be perfect, along with little saucers of pickled lemons and harissa or chilli sauce on the table. Serves 4.

For chermoula:
½  pint/ 300 ml virgin olive oil (Moroccan, if you have it)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon saffron strands
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons ground dried ginger
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
Small bunch fresh coriander (cilantro), trimmed and minced
Fine grain sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

For the kebabs:
1 small cauliflower, trimmed and separated into florets
1 medium aubergine (eggplant), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 small fennel bulbs, trimmed and quartered
1 courgette (zucchini), sliced into 1-inch pieces
1 red and 1 green pepper (bell pepper), trimmed and cut into 1-inch squares
12 tiny baby onions, trimmed, peeled and left whole

To serve:
2 tablespoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and coarsely crushed

1.    To make the chermoula, combine all the chermoula ingredients in a small bowl and mix until well-blended. Set aside.
2.    To make the kebabs, blanch or steam the cauliflower, aubergine and fennel for 5 – 7 minutes. They should be fairly soft, but not falling-off-the-fork tender, otherwise they will become mushy. Drain and cool.
3.    Place the par-boiled and raw vegetables together in a large bowl. Add the marinade, gently rubbing it all over the vegetables so that they are evenly coated. Cover and set aside for between 30 minutes to 4 hours, tossing the vegetables occasionally.
4.    About 15 – 20 minutes before you are ready to eat, heat up the barbecue or grill (broiler). Thread the marinated vegetables on metal skewers, reserving the marinade for basting.
5.    Barbecue or grill the skewers, rotating them carefully and basting the vegetables several times until lightly and evenly browned.
6.    Serve hot with the crushed cumin on the side.

Mexican green pea soup

I love shelling peas – somehow it makes me feel like a proper, grown-up cook. I imagine Elizabeth David used to shell tender peas in her garden on warm sunny days, pick a few herbs and sauté her green treasures together in unsalted butter. Simple but, I’m sure, utterly delicious.

I unfortunately made the mistake of declaring to my friends and family members how much I love shelling peas and how therapeutic I find it – because now, almost every time they see me in the summer, they give me a big bowl of peas to shell.

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbour Laura went one step further. We were sitting down watching tennis during the Wimbledon Championships, when she put an enormous BUCKET of pea pods in front of me and asked – in a terribly polite, gentle, unassuming British manner – whether I would very much mind shelling them. It took me two hours to get through the lot – thankfully, it was a five-set match – and once I was done, she asked me to cook with them!

This is the soup I made with some of the peas (the rest were subsequently used in pasta, risotto and curry). The soup is known as sopa de chicharos, and versions of the recipe, often made with dried green split peas, are found all over Mexico as well as Cuba.

Laura and I wolfed down the vibrant emerald-hued soup with sweetcorn and red chilli muffins straight from the oven – but it goes equally well with cornmeal bread, wholemeal pumpkin seed bread, or tortilla chips. Serves 4 – 6.

2 oz/ 50g finely minced flat-leaf parsley
3 oz/ 75g butter
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt
Freshly ground white pepper
1 medium egg
2 medium onions, trimmed, peeled and thinly sliced
2 pints/ 1 litre well-flavoured vegetable stock
1 lb/ 450g fresh green peas (shelled weight)
1 large avocado, peeled, halved, stoned and thinly sliced

1.    Mix the parsley with 1 oz/ 25g butter, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
2.    Lightly beat the egg and combine well with the parsley butter. Set aside for about 15 minutes.
3.    Heat the remaining butter in a large saucepan, taking care not to burn it. Fry the onions until soft but not browned.
4.    Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Add the peas, lower the heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes with the lid on.
5.    Remove the lid, and carefully drop in the parsley mixture one teaspoon at a time.
6.    Cover again with the lid, and cook for 10 or 15 minutes or until the peas are tender.
7.    OPTIONAL STEP: If you want smooth-textured soup with a glossy sheen, blend the soup using a hand blender. Otherwise leave it as it is. (This is my own preference – a clear soup with whole green peas and fluffy, eggy bits floating on top – but many people prefer it blended).
8.    Season the soup to taste. Serve in bowls garnished with the sliced avocado.

Chilled Japanese buckwheat noodles

This simple, austere, no-frills dish – known as ‘zaru soba’ in Japan – is perfect for hot weather. Well, it’s simple if you shop in Japanese stores regularly, or have all the ingredients on hand – otherwise a trip to a Japanese food emporium is absolutely necessary. The noodles are traditionally served on square wooden zaru soba dishes, but woven bamboo plates or chilled china plates are also suitable.

Use all the ingredients exactly as specified – do not substitute, say, ordinary ramen noodles for the soba, red radish for the white radish, and so on. Not only will it not taste the same, but the dish will lose its distinctive identity. If you’re not used to cooking Japanese food, this recipe is a good excuse to play around with unfamiliar ingredients and flavours. Ready-made dipping sauce and instant vegetarian dashi are perfectly good in this fuss-free, easy-to-make dish, but if you do want to make your own, I have given the recipes below.

Chilled buckwheat noodles are best eaten as a snack or for light lunch in the garden, accompanied by a bowl of clear, delicate miso soup, some chilled silken tofu or a few pieces of tempura (which can be dunked into the same dipping sauce). It’s also fun to make, and the presentation over ice adds a touch of drama and a talking point. Serves 4.

14 oz/ 350g dried soba (Japanese buckwheat) noodles
4-inch piece white daikon/ mooli radish, peeled
8 spring onions, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal
2 teaspoons wasabi (Japanese green horseradish) paste
4 sachets ajitsuke nori seaweed, finely shredded with scissors
One 330 ml/ approx 11 fl oz bottle of tempura-tsuyu dipping sauce (I like the ‘Yamasa’ brand which is delicious and suitable for vegetarians), chilled in the refrigerator

1.    TO PREPARE SOBA NOODLES IN THE AUTHENTIC JAPANESE WAY FOR THIS RECIPE: Bring plenty of water to boil in a large saucepan. When it’s boiling rapidly, add the soba noodles. Return to the boil. Add a mug of cold water and bring to the boil again. (If you want to be a purist, repeat the process twice with a further two mugs of cold water). Lower the heat and simmer rapidly without the lid for about 10 minutes, or until the noodles are just cooked. Remove the pan from heat, drain the noodles, and plunge them in a large bowl of cold water under a running tap. Stir gently to separate the strands, and drain again, very thoroughly. When the noodles have cooled, cover and chill them in the refrigerator. Just before you are ready to eat, place the noodles on a decorative platter over a large container/ bucket of ice.
2.    Finely grate the daikon radish and leave on kitchen paper to drain. Do not squeeze.
3.    To serve, divide the noodles between four square wooden zaru soba dishes (or on bamboo sushi mats arranged on pretty Japanese pottery). Sprinkle nori seaweed strips over each portion. Neatly arrange a mound of spring onions, a dab of wasabi, and a small cone-shaped portion of grated daikon around the noodles. Give each person a small dipping bowl filled with chilled tempura-tsuyu dipping sauce.
4.    To eat, mix the wasabi, grated daikon and spring onions into the tempura-tsuyu dipping sauce. Using chopsticks, take a portion of noodles and submerge them into the dipping sauce before eating.

TO MAKE YOUR OWN TEMPURA-TSUYU DIPPING SAUCE:

12 tablespoons dashi, or light vegetable, mushroom or seaweed stock
4 tablespoons mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine)
4 tablespoons sake (fortified Japanese rice wine)
4 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce

Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan and heat until the mixture just comes to boiling point. Remove from the heat immediately, and allow to cool at room temperature. For the zaru soba recipe above, chill in the refrigerator. (Otherwise this dipping sauce is eaten warm or lukewarm with tempura).

TO MAKE YOUR OWN VEGETARIAN DASHI:

Follow either of my two vegetarian dashi recipes: the more complex one incorporated into the Vegetarian Oden recipe posted on 7th January 2009, or a simplified version that’s part of the Agedashi Tofu recipe written on 31st October 2008.

Wimbledon cake

I love tennis. Or more accurately, I love the time of Wimbledon Championships. You get glimpses of Ye Olde England – the near-mythical age of fogs and mists, men walking around in top hats and ladies nibbling on crustless cucumber sandwiches.

I must admit that, other than a few glorious heatwave-friendly salads (the one with miniature baby potatoes, fresh peas, mozzarella, wild rocket, toasted pine nuts and extravagant quantities of silky green asparagus was particularly delicious), I haven’t done much cooking since the Championships began. I have either travelled down to London to visit Wimbledon, or have been glued to my TV watching Wimbledon, or have been sitting in my garden with strawberries and Pimms imagining myself to be at Wimbledon.

Except for this cake. I wanted to concoct a strawberry and cream cake that could be enjoyed not only during Wimbledon, but on all special summer occasions – of which there are plenty. Since there’s enough cream in the filling, I didn’t put any butter in the cake (only small quantities needed for greasing the cake tin). Happily, it works. The semolina gives the cake a slightly crunchy, dense texture.

I used strawberry jam that I had made last month from tiny little strawberries that grow in my garden. I was going to post the recipe, but given that some food bloggers are sharing recipes for exotic and imaginative jams and marmalades, my own humble effort felt a little, well, humble.

Serve the cake with crustless white cucumber or watercress sandwiches, plump scones, a pot of tea, and a glass of champagne or Pimms for the taste of England in summertime. Makes one 8-inch cake.

For the cake:
Unsalted butter, softened, for greasing

3 eggs, separated
4 oz/ 100g caster (powdered) sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
3 oz/ 75g semolina

For the filling:
8 oz/ 200g strawberry jam or coulis
A few fresh strawberries, finely sliced (optional)
5 fl oz/ 150 ml clotted or whipping cream, lightly whipped

To finish:
Icing (superfine) sugar
Fresh strawberries, sliced or left whole (optional)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/ 350F/ gas mark 4. Grease a deep, round 8-inch (20 cm) cake tin and line it with buttered greaseproof paper (butter side up).
2. Place the egg yolks, sugar, grated orange zest and juice and the semolina into a bowl and mix well until thoroughly combined.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry, then gently fold them into the orange and semolina mixture. Pour into the prepared cake tin.
4. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30-35 minutes until well-risen and pale golden brown. The top of the cake should spring back when lightly pressed with a finger.
5. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out and leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
6. Meanwhile, heat the strawberry jam or coulis on gentle heat until it is runny. (I’m suggesting 200g, but adjust the quantity – half a jar, whole jar – to suit your own taste). Let it cool a little at the same time the cake is cooling.
7. To fill, carefully split the cake in half horizontally and fill with the strawberry jam, the clotted or whipped cream and, if using, a few sliced strawberries.
8. Just before serving, sift some icing sugar over the top and, if desired, decorate with fresh strawberries. Enjoy the cake a little warm or at room temperature – but it must be eaten on the same day as it won’t keep.

East European summer vegetable casserole

I must confess that I don’t normally associate the words ‘East European’ with the word ‘summer’. This cool part of the world is more renowned for its long-cooked meat stews, hearty potato dumplings and rich cabbage dishes than a sprightly summer vegetable casserole that wouldn’t look out of place on a Mediterranean table.

You could call this dish ‘East European ratatouille’ if you wish. However, the origins of this famous stew – called ‘gyuvech’ – lie in Turkey. (“Gyuvech’ is the Turkish word for a special earthenware pot in which the vegetables are cooked). From Turkey, the dish travelled to the Balkan states, and is now popular in Romania, Hungary, Croatia, and Bulgaria. Just like goulash, there are many national and regional variations, with each family adding its own signature. This is a broadly Bulgarian version of the dish – though serving it with sour cream rather than yoghurt would make it more Hungarian.

However you serve or eat it, the casserole is very simple to prepare and tasty. The key is in using the best, plumpest, freshest vegetables. Choose okra which are very tender to touch and not fibrous. Green beans, mushrooms, various types of pumpkins and squashes are also good – experiment with vegetables of your choice, varying them according to the seasons. You may omit the optional garnishes, but the yoghurt or sour cream is a must. Serves 6.

1 medium aubergine (eggplant), chunkily diced
6 tablespoons virgin olive oil
2 medium green or yellow courgettes (zucchini), thickly sliced
2 medium red onions, trimmed, peeled and cut into 8 wedges each
6 oz/ 150g okra, trimmed on both ends and left whole
1 lb/ 450g fresh tomatoes, chunkily diced (no need to skin)
2 small red and yellow peppers (capsicum), trimmed, seeded and cut into squares
1 heaped tablespoon sweet or hot paprika
Salt and pepper
A large bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Optional garnishes (use one or more of the following):
Several sprigs of fresh savoury, dill, tarragon, or celery leaves
Fried eggs, or hard-boiled eggs – shelled and cut into wedges
Feta, or other feta-like white cheese, cubed
Green or black olives, pitted

To serve:
Plain yoghurt or sour cream
Rye bread or caraway seed bread

1. Pre-heat the oven to 190C/ 375F/ gas mark 5.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy frying pan. Sauté the aubergines and courgettes for around 5 minutes until they are starting to soften and become lightly browned.
3. Pour the remaining oil in a large oven-proof dish (earthenware if you have it), and place the empty dish in the pre-heated oven for 5 minutes.
4. When the oil is heated through, take the dish out and put in the aubergines, courgettes, onions, okra, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. Sprinkle with paprika and salt and pepper.
5. Stir the vegetables gently so that they are evenly coated with hot oil, paprika and seasoning. Place the dish back in the oven without a lid, and bake for 1 hour. The aubergines and okra should be tender and thoroughly cooked, whereas all the other vegetables should retain some bite.
6. Remove the stew from the oven, check for doneness, and adjust the seasoning. Sprinkle with parsley and stir gently. Top with any of the optional garnishes you are using.
7. Serve hot, accompanying each portion with yoghurt or sour cream, mixing up the hot vegetables with cool yoghurt/ cream as you eat.

Chinese stir-fried asparagus with black bean and sesame sauce

I adore asparagus. During its all-too-brief season, I put it in pastas, risottos, soups, quiches and salads. So, being a globalveggie, I started thinking about asparagus recipes that are ‘ethnic’, spicy, or just a bit different from the usual tried-and-tested, run of the mill stuff.

Then I remembered a traditional recipe once described by my Chinese friend Jasper Lee, in which tender, leaf-green asparagus is simply stir-fried with black beans and sesame and eaten with mounds of warm, fluffy, slightly sticky rice. I tried it – adapted it a little – and instantly fell in love with it. Here is the recipe.

Preserved black soy beans in brine are available in jars in Chinese supermarkets. I prefer the dried preserved version, flavoured with ginger, which comes in terracotta or stone jars. Whichever type of preserved beans you buy, you may want to rinse them to remove their saltiness before use. The beans have earthy, slightly gritty, flavour and texture that adds substance and body to the still-tender but often chunky late season asparagus.

Chilli bean sauce is a common ingredient in Chinese cookery, and is made from the usual yellow soy beans combined with fiery red chillies. Serve this stir-fry with plain steamed rice and a tofu dish, or simply perched on top of egg-fried rice.
Serves 2.

1 lb/ 500g asparagus
1 tablespoon groundnut (peanut) oil
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely grated
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons preserved black beans, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon chilli bean sauce
5 fl oz/ 150 ml light vegetable stock (instant is fine)
¼ teaspoon white sugar
4 tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 tablespoon dark toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds, lightly toasted in a small saucepan
A pinch of salt (optional)

1.    Trim the asparagus, cutting off the tough ends of the stalk at the bottom. Slice the asparagus diagonally into 3-inch lengths.
2.    Heat a wok on high heat until it is hot. Add the oil. When the oil is hot – which will only take a few seconds – add the ginger, garlic and black beans, and stir-fry quickly for a few seconds. The aromatics should turn a couple of shades darker, but must not turn brown or burn.
3.    Add the chilli bean sauce, followed by the asparagus a few seconds later. Stir-fry quickly and continuously for about 2 minutes until the asparagus is nearly tender.
4.    Add the stock, sugar and rice wine. Cook on high heat for 2 more minutes, stir-frying continuously.
5.    Add the sesame oil and sesame seeds. Stir thoroughly, and adjust the seasoning, adding a little salt if necessary. Serve immediately.

Barbecued baby aubergines with Med yoghurt dip

Smoke, fire, stomach doing somersaults in anticipation and, if you are lucky, sunshine pouring all over the proceedings like a special blessing… Well, I love barbecues as much as the next vegetarian person, but I get bored of unimaginative offerings, often consisting of little more than veggie burgers, jacket potatoes and corn on the cob. This simple Greek-style, broadly Mediterranean recipe is guaranteed to bring sunshine into your kitchen – whatever the weather!

Serve with pitta bread toasted on the barbecue or grill, and a platter of simply cooked green vegetables or tomato and mixed leaf salad. Serves 4.

For the yoghurt dip:

1lb/ 500g Greek yoghurt, sieved through muslin (cheesecloth)
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped
2 tablespoons mint leaves, finely chopped
1 small red onion, trimmed, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 oz/ 100g Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, lightly toasted and crushed
1 tablespoon small capers (chopped if they’re too big)
1 tablespoon gherkins, finely chopped
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

For the aubergines:

12 baby aubergines (eggplants)
3 tablespoons virgin olive oil, ideally Greek
Salt and pepper

1.    Make the yoghurt dip by mixing together all the dip ingredients. Set aside in a cool place to let the flavours develop.
2.    When you’re ready to eat, fire up the barbecue or grill (broiler) on medium heat. Halve the aubergines lengthwise, leaving them attached to their stalks. Using a small pastry brush, coat the cut sides with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
3.    Cook the aubergines on the barbecue or grill for 3 or 4 minutes on each side, or until they are done (test each aubergine for doneness with a small skewer).
4.    Serve the aubergines with the yoghurt dip.

Caribbean mango ice cream

Everyone talks about summer berries and stone fruits at this time of the year – but what about mangoes, which are in season right now? How can you possibly resist their voluptuous shapes, their vibrant sunset colours, their heady fragrance that is somewhere between flowers and honey and, of course, their seductive juiciness?

This is a rich, old-fashioned Caribbean recipe – it harks back to the time when people didn’t feel guilty about eating so much cream and eggs, and when essences used in cooking weren’t synthetic but natural. Enjoy it in that spirit – and don’t forget to use only the best quality ripe, sweet, juicy mangoes (any variety is fine), and only a touch of spice, to bring out the flavour of the mangoes and not overwhelm the ice cream. Buy fresh cream from a farm shop or farmers’ market if there is one near you – it really will make a difference to the taste.

In Britain, not only is it near-tropical weather right now (and it looks like it’s here to stay), but we also have National Ice Cream Week kicking off this week – so what better excuse to indulge in a delicious, cooling sweet treat?
Makes 2 pints/ 1 ¼ litres.

8 oz/ 200g fresh, ripe mango flesh (weight after removing skin and stones)
Around 2 oz/ 50g white sugar (optional, depending on how sweet the mango is)
3 pints/ 1 ½ litres single cream
6 egg yolks (from medium-sized organic, free-range eggs)
6 oz/ 150g caster sugar
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice berries, finely crushed in a mortar
1 or 2 drops natural vanilla extract

To serve:
Fresh mango slices

1.    Pulp the mango flesh. Add sugar if needed, and stir until it has dissolved. Set aside while you get on with the rest of the recipe.
2.    Heat the cream on medium heat, stirring frequently. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat immediately. Let it cool a little, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin forming.
3.    Whisk the egg yolks with the caster sugar until fluffy and creamy, and gently combine with the cream. (You can use the remaining egg whites to make meringues or omelette).
4.    Mix well, and add nutmeg, crushed allspice and vanilla extract.
5.    Return the mixture to a low heat (or use a double boiler). Cook until the mixture becomes creamy custard, thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir constantly to prevent lumps forming and burning. Do not allow to boil, otherwise the mixture may curdle.
6.    Remove from heat and allow to cool completely – it helps to stand the pan in ice cold water. While the custard is cooling, add the mango pulp and stir frequently.
7.    To freeze the ice cream: either use an ice cream maker, the ice cream compartment of a refrigerator or a freezer. If you use either of the latter two options, the ice cream must be taken out approximately every 30 minutes and beaten or whisked to prevent ice from forming, and to obtain a creamy consistency. Once you have done so, return the ice cream to the freezer immediately. Repeat the process until the ice cream has set and you have reached the desired texture. Serve with fresh mango slices.

Flageolets with green and yellow beans and spring onion butter

This is a contemporary take on the traditional French dish, haricots panaches, in which equal amounts of flageolets and green beans are combined and served with roasted or grilled lamb. You can eat this version as a first course, side dish, or for a light lunch – accompanied by some bread, if you like.

Flageolet beans have a pretty pistachio-green colour, and a delicate, refined flavour that is less earthy and mealy than other types of beans. Combined with vivacious, grassy, fresh bright green and yellow beans, this dish tastes luxurious, while at the same time looking like it’s been plucked from the French countryside.

Yellow wax beans, little bundles of summer savoury, and fresh, tender spring garlic with papery skin that’s tinged with green and lilac are all seasonal ingredients that are available in farmers markets, or even supermarkets these days.

This dish tastes lovely as it is, but you can liven it up by adding a splash of lemon juice and finely grated lemon zest and/ or some Dijon mustard to either the beans or the butter. Another variation to the spring onion butter is butter flavoured with chives and chive flowers. Any leftovers can be eaten as a salad, and would be ideal for picnics. Serves 4.

8 oz/ 200g dried green flageolet beans
Water
2 bay leaves
A large sprig of summer savoury or thyme
2 medium spring onions, trimmed and very finely chopped
4 oz/ 100g unsalted butter at room temperature
Fine ground sea salt (ideally French fleur de sel)
Freshly ground white pepper
6 oz/ 150g fine green French beans, stringed and left whole
6 oz/ 150g yellow wax beans, stringed and left whole
2 cloves fresh spring garlic, peeled and very finely chopped
Salt and pepper

1.    Soak the flageolets for 8 hours or overnight in plenty of cold water. Drain and rinse. Place the beans in a saucepan with water, bay leaves and summer savoury, and bring to the boil. (Do not add salt, otherwise the beans won’t cook properly). Reduce the heat to low, and cook for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the beans are tender but have still retained their shape. Drain, leaving aside 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquid, and discard the herbs.
2.    To make spring onion butter, combine the chopped onions with butter, sea salt and ground white pepper. The butter will be flecked with an attractive emerald green colour. Refrigerate for around 30 minutes until firm.
3.    Steam the green and yellow beans in separate compartments of a steamer for about 7 minutes until they are tender but still retain some bite. Drain thoroughly.
4.    In a frying pan, combine the cooked flageolets with the 2 tablespoons reserved cooking liquid, garlic, and salt and pepper. Cook over gentle heat for a minute, stirring from time to time. Add the cooked green and yellow beans and mix well. Keep the bean mixture on very low heat.
5.    Set aside a cube of spring onion butter (about a tablespoon), and add the remaining butter to the pan of beans about 2 tablespoons at a time, heating just until the butter is absorbed. The beans will take on a shiny gloss. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
6.    Transfer the beans to a serving dish, and place the cube of butter that you have set aside on the top. Toss before serving.

Kashmiri morel mushroom pilau

Morel is the only mushroom to eat at this time of the year – but I’m surprised how little-known and difficult to obtain this fine delicacy is in the UK. You should be able to find morels in well-stocked delis, good health food shops and large supermarkets.

I love their honeycomb-patterned, tulip bud-like shape. What I love even more, however, is that Kashmiris refer to them as ‘gucchi’ – making their traditional ‘gucchi pilau’ sound like a designer rice dish. Suffused with saffron soaked in flower essence and studded with spices (all of which are available in Indian grocers, large supermarkets and specialist spice shops), it is indeed an exotic and aromatic dish.

Serve with plain yoghurt, raita, or a few spoonfuls of my Kashmiri Spiced Spring Greens – the recipe for which I posted on 25th March 2009. The pilau is also grand enough to eat all on its own. Serves 4 to 6.

12 oz/ 300g white basmati rice
3 oz/ 75g almonds
¼ teaspoon saffron strands
1 teaspoon pure screwpine essence (or 1 tablespoon rosewater, orange flower water, or jasmine flower water – they will all give their own distinct taste)
4 oz/ 100g dried or 6 oz/ 150g fresh morel mushrooms
3 oz/ 75g clarified (or unsalted) butter
4 black cardamoms, lightly crushed in their pods
6 green cardamoms, lightly crushed in their pods
3-inch piece cinnamon, broken into 2 or 3 pieces
6 cloves
3 dried bay leaves
A small pinch of asafoetida
1 teaspoon dried ginger powder
Salt
1 ¼ pint/ ¾ litres cold water
1 teaspoon garam masala
Fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves

1.    Wash the rice in several changes of cold water until the water runs clear. Soak the rice in just enough water to cover it, and set aside.
2.    Steep the almonds in boiling water from a kettle for 10 – 15 minutes. Drain, cool a little, remove the skins from the almonds and slice them vertically.
3.    Crush the saffron strands in a mortar, and soak in 1 teaspoon flower essence or 1 tablespoon flower water, as available. Set aside.
4.    Wipe the mushrooms with a damp cloth, but do not wash as they will lose their flavour. Halve them lengthways.
5.    Heat the butter in a wide heavy-bottomed saucepan, taking care not to burn it. Add the whole spices and bay leaves. Stir for a few minutes until they turn a shade darker and start to perfume your kitchen.
6.    Add the asafoetida and let it sizzle for just a few seconds.
7.    Add the prepared mushrooms and almonds, and sauté for a couple of minutes until the nuts begin to brown.
8.    Drain the rice thoroughly and add it to the mushroom mixture. Sauté for a few minutes until the grains of rice become shiny.
9.    Add the powdered ginger, the saffron mixture, and salt. Add the cold water and bring the rice to the boil. Then lower the heat, cover with a lid, and let it cook undisturbed for 20 minutes.
10.    Check to see whether the rice is cooked by pressing a couple of grains between your fingers. Remove from heat and set aside, keeping the lid on. Do not disturb the rice.
11.    Sprinkle the rice with garam masala and coriander leaves. Remove the whole spices before serving, or allow your guests to fish them out individually on their own plates.

Rustic Roman spring vegetable stew

This light, simple stew – traditionally known as Bazzoffia in Rome – sings the song of springtime, but I won’t pretend that it’s not a little time-consuming to make.

For a start, I recommend you steam the broad beans and remove the skins for best results. As you’re peeling each individual bean, you will, no doubt, come up with your own version of Shirley Conran’s famous quote – “life is too short to stuff a mushroom” – perhaps something along the lines of: “life is too short to peel a broad bean”. You could be watching a movie, surfing, lying on a beach, shopping for new shoes or doing any number of interesting things, right? But a serious cook chooses to do all these mundane tasks – peeling beans, par-boiling and peeling tomatoes and so on – because he or she wants their guests only to have the best possible taste sensation. If you don’t have the time, buy the smallest, most tender-looking beans you can find and hope for the best.

Secondly, I suggest you use only fresh artichokes for this dish – it’s not really a recipe where you can get away with using ones from a can or a jar. If you have access to them, buy a bunch of tiny, ultra-fresh baby artichokes with violet tinge – they taste amazing, and don’t need much preparation.

Do not be intimidated by artichokes – for vegetarians, they are on a par with asparagus, truffles, saffron, dark chocolate or champagne when it comes to ‘posh treats’. There are many ways of trimming and preparing artichokes, depending on size and a country’s food culture. I have written up a separate section below on how to do it – though you may have your own method.

The great thing about this recipe is that you can prepare all the vegetables in advance, and cook the stew less than half an hour before you are ready to eat. Serves 4.

1 lb/ 500g broad beans (fava beans) in the pod
½ head cos (romaine) lettuce
8 tablespoons virgin Italian olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 medium white onion, trimmed, peeled, and cut into thin wedges
4 medium or 8 baby artichokes, prepared and cut into thin wedges
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced vertically
3 oz/ 75g fresh or frozen tender peas (podded weight)
Salt and pepper
Lemon wedges, to serve
Vegetarian pecorino romano cheese, finely shaved

HOW TO PREPARE ARTICHOKES FOR COOKING:

Snap back any tough leaves from an artichoke and pull them down, working your way around the layers. Stop when you get to tender, pale yellow leaves. Cut off the tops of the remaining leaves, leaving only about an inch of leaf. Use a potato peeler to trim away the dark green areas along the base. Trim off the base of the stem end, and cut off the rough fibres around the stem, leaving only the light-coloured, tender centre portion. Cut the artichoke in half lengthwise. Carefully cut away the fuzzy choke using a small knife, trying to cut just at the point where choke and heart meet. Baby artichokes do not generally have developed chokes, but they do have a layer or two of tough leaves that must be removed, and the base needs to be trimmed just as with larger artichokes. Keep all trimmed artichokes in acidulated water (water with plenty of fresh lemon juice added) to prevent discolouration until needed.

1.    Shell the broad beans. Steam them for 3 to 5 minutes until they’re nearly soft, but still al dente. If you have time, peel each individual bean. (If you don’t have time, omit this step and leave the beans in their grey-green skins).
2.    Trim the lettuce, remove any tough ribs and blemished leaves, and shred into ribbons.
3.    Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, and cook the onion on low heat until tender.
4.    Add the prepared artichokes, and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5.    Add the cooked broad beans and uncooked peas, and give the vegetables a stir. Add the shredded lettuce, and sauté for a few seconds until the lettuce wilts slightly.
6.    Add just enough water to cover the vegetables, and season with salt and pepper. Simmer the stew gently for 10 to 15 minutes until all the vegetables are tender, stirring from time to time. If the stew begins to dry out, add water a little at a time until you have the desired consistency. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
7.    To serve, ladle the stew into individual pasta bowls. Drizzle each portion with a little olive oil, and top with a few slices of shaved pecorino cheese. Hand around extra cheese at the table, along with lemon wedges and good, chunky rustic Italian country bread.

thai-lettuce-wraps-with-tofu-and-pineapple

According to Thai culinary philosophy, every Thai dish should be a perfect balance of savoury, sweet, sour and hot – and if any single flavour dominates, then the dish is all wrong. Well, actually I’m putting it simplistically. Thai gourmets would judge each dish in terms of the first flavour that hits the tastebuds, the second flavour and the third flavour – and how harmoniously all three work together. So I guess you’d need to know what a traditional dish is supposed to taste like in the first place before you could judge. You’d also need a finely tuned, razor sharp, educated palate – and, if you don’t already have it, the good news is that it can be developed.

All this goes to show how complex a language food is: learning to cook a few dishes from a country is akin to knowing just a few words of a foreign language, and it is only by immersing yourself in a country’s culinary heritage with an open mind and a spirit of adventure that you will learn the full vocabulary. Be respectful of different cuisines, become curious, ask questions, read up, and prepare to experiment with new ingredients, flavour palettes, and cooking techniques. Cookery is, in other words, a journey rather than a destination – and like all good journeys, along the way you will learn a lot about yourself.

This lovely, summery recipe has bland, meaty tofu pieces taking on the sweetness of palm sugar along with the savouriness of soy sauce, sharpened by a background of chilli heat, refreshed by the sour, tangy, fruity overtones of lime, lemongrass and pineapple. Cashewnuts provide the necessary crunch, and the entire dish is perked up by the effusive liveliness of fresh green herbs.

Serve these light flavour bombs as appetiser or snack, or hand them around to your guests while they’re building up their appetites before a barbecue. Serves 4.

1 iceberg lettuce with unblemished leaves
12 oz/ 300g firm tofu
4 oz/ 100g cashewnuts
4 pink shallots, trimmed, peeled and halved
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 large stalk lemongrass, trimmed
1 or 2 fresh red birdseye chillies
2 tablespoons groundnut oil
4 fl oz/ 100 ml light Thai beer or mild vegetable stock
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon palm sugar or light brown sugar
Salt
4 oz/ 100g fresh pineapple, diced small
Large handful of fresh coriander (cilantro) and mint leaves
2 limes, quartered

1.    Carefully remove the whole outer leaves of an iceberg lettuce, taking care not to break them. Cut off coarse stems and scrape off any tough ribs. Wash the leaves thoroughly to remove grit, and leave in a colander to dry for several hours, or as long as possible.
2.    Drain the tofu between several sheets of kitchen paper, and cut into small pieces.
3.    Dry roast the cashewnuts in a small frying pan until lightly browned. Remove from the heat, and leave to cool a little.
4.    In a small mixer, coarsely chop the nuts – some pieces should still be visible as they will provide texture. Remove and set aside.
5.    Place the shallots, garlic, lemongrass and chillies in the mixer bowl and finely mince into a paste.
6.    Heat a wok on medium heat. Pour in the oil. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the shallot paste. Turn the heat to low, and fry for about 5 minutes until the aromatics turn a light golden colour and perfume your kitchen.
7.    Add the tofu, and stir-fry for another 2 or 3 minutes.
8.    Add the beer or vegetable stock, soy sauce, sugar, and a little salt if needed. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat to very low. Simmer without the lid until the liquid has completely evaporated, stirring occasionally.
9.    Add the pineapple pieces and stir-fry until they’re evenly coated.
10.    Remove from the heat, and mix in the chopped cashewnuts. Let the mixture cool a little.
11.    Now make sure that the lettuce leaves are completely dry – wipe them with a kitchen cloth if necessary. (Wet leaves will make the dish soggy, so I’m emphasising this point). Spoon the tofu and pineapple mixture into the centre of a lettuce leaf. Top with a few coriander and mint leaves. Squeeze over a little bit of lime juice. Wrap the lettuce leaf tightly to make a parcel. Repeat until you have used up all of the tofu mixture.
12.    Serve immediately with extra lime wedges and, if you like, some Thai chilli sauce.

old-fashioned-english-rhubarb-fool

I get excited by flamingo-hued rhubarb: their slender, tender spears attached to plumes of attractively vibrant yellow-green leaves are a delight to behold. Rhubarb, which has fruity, tangy flavour when cooked, is plentiful in kitchen gardens, farmers’ markets and even supermarkets at this time of the year. I love turning it into jams, drinks, cakes, and puddings – like this one.

Traditionally, you can flavour any rhubarb dish with ginger, cinnamon, strawberries or orange – but I have left this basic recipe plain, and have simply perfumed it with vanilla. You can build on it as you wish.

This is an old-fashioned recipe, dating back to the era of my grandmother’s generation. It contains vegetarian gelatine, which makes the rather runny rhubarb mixture set quickly and easily. These days, fools are usually made without gelatine, and often with yoghurt rather than double cream. Although thick, creamy Greek yoghurt will work fine in this recipe (not the insipid, low-fat variety), double cream gives the necessary opulent texture. And if you don’t mind your fool being somewhat sloppier, you can leave out the vegetarian gelatine altogether (omit step 4).

For variation, add a tablespoon of rosewater for a taste of Victorian England, and then garnish the fool with a few ruby-red pomegranate seeds to bring it back to the 21st century. Serves 4.

2 lb/ 1 kg forced rhubarb
1 vanilla pod (vanilla bean), split, with seeds scraped out
8 oz/ 200g caster sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ oz/ 7g sachet of vegetarian gelatine, such as Vege-Gel
15 fl oz/ 400 ml double cream

1.    Wash the rhubarb, trim the leaves and stems, and chop into small pieces.
2.    Place the rhubarb, vanilla pod and seeds, sugar, and lemon juice in a saucepan. Do not add extra water, as the water clinging to the rhubarb pieces is enough. Cook on gentle heat until the sugar starts to melt. Simmer with the lid on for approximately 15 minutes until the rhubarb is cooked.
3.    Remove from the heat, and mash the cooked rhubarb with the back of a spoon. Allow the mixture to cool a little. (If you want your fool to have a very smooth consistency, blitz the rhubarb in a blender for a few seconds).
4.    Add the vegetarian gelatine to the rhubarb mixture, and stir thoroughly. When the gelatine has dissolved, place the bowl of cooked rhubarb over ice so that it cools and sets a little.
5.    Whip the double cream for 2 or 3 minutes. Then mix the cream into the rhubarb, and divide the fool between 4 Martini glasses, or other types of glasses or cups. Lightly cover the containers with cling film. Chill in the refrigerator for 4 to 8 hours. Just before serving, remove the cling film, and accompany the fool with a small platter of shortbread biscuits or sponge fingers to dip into.

russian-salad

Normally the words ‘Russian salad’ fill me with dread. Russian salad – also known as Salade Olivier or Salade Russe – belongs to that category of ‘international hotel food’ that is indistinct, safe and seemingly without borders. You know, the sort of food that’s found in every country and in most households: hummus, pasta with pesto/ tomato sauce, mushroom risotto, spaghetti bolognese, vegetable curry, rocket and parmesan salad, grilled goats cheese, omelette fines herbes, lasagne, ratatouille, chilli con carne, tiramisu, banoffee pie… you get the idea.

Moreover, Russian salad seems to be a throwback to the 1970s, when it would have graced many a ‘sophisticated’ dinner party table alongside blancmange and black forest gateau. Generally a little too ‘Abigail’s Party’ for my liking.

But, of course, my Russian salad is different. For a start, the recipe was given to me by the chef of a small, family-run Tuscan restaurant. He serves it spooned into radicchio leaves or in the cavities of cooked artichokes – so this dish is sort of vaguely Russian with an Italian sensibility. The vegetables are soft yet crisp. They are steamed rather than boiled. They retain their bright colours and nutrients. And finally, the tangy lemon mayonnaise is suffused with the anticipation of summertime.

The secret of a successful Russian salad is to add very little mayonnaise – just enough to coat the vegetables and bring them together in harmony, rather than suffocating them in gloopy, heavy, unctuous mass of unnecessary calories. What’s more, any leftovers are delicious tucked into a sandwich. Resolutely rustic with a distinct homemade feel, you certainly won’t find this version in any hotel restaurant – either side of the 1970s! Serves 4 to 6.

For the lemon mayonnaise:
1 medium organic free-range egg, at room temperature
Salt
6 fl oz/ 180 ml mild extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

For the salad:
3 small red or yellow beetroot, trimmed
2 medium potatoes
4 oz/ 100g fine green beans, trimmed and sliced
4 oz/ 100g green/ yellow wax beans or runner beans, trimmed and sliced
2 small carrots, trimmed, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped cornichons or dill pickles
3 tablespoons small capers, rinsed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 recipe lemon mayonnaise (as above)

Optional garnishes:
Green or black olives, pitted and halved
Lightly toasted caraway seeds
Mild paprika
Fresh dill or flat-leaf parsley, roughly torn
Very thin half-slices of lemon

1.    Start by making the mayonnaise. Crack the egg into a blender. Add salt and 2 to 3 tablespoons of the oil. Blend until the egg is pale yellow and frothy.
2.    Keep the blender running, and add the remaining oil in a thin stream. If the egg begins to curdle and the oil is not being absorbed, stop pouring in the oil and continue blending the mixture until all the oil is incorporated. Then continue to add the oil until the mayonnaise thickens.
3.    Add some of the lemon juice and zest, blend for a few seconds longer, and taste. Then continue adding the lemon juice and zest, and taste until the mayonnaise achieves the desired lemony strength.
4.    Transfer the mayonnaise into a container and chill in the refrigerator until ready to use.
5.    To make salad, steam the beetroot, potatoes, two types of green beans, and carrots in individual compartments of a steamer. Take special care to keep the beetroot separate, or it will stain other vegetables. Cook until all the vegetables are tender but still a little firm. Drain and, when cool enough to handle, peel and dice the potatoes and beetroot.
6.    Place all the vegetables in a large bowl. Mix in the cornichons, capers, olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper.
7.    Add enough mayonnaise to lightly bind the salad. Garnish with one or more of the suggested garnishes, if desired. Chill the salad in the refrigerator. Serve cold or at room temperature.

persian-broad-bean-pilaf

Regular readers must be getting bored of my enthusiastic – and prolonged – welcome to this cherry blossom season, with recipe after recipe showcasing greens, asparagus, broad beans (and in forthcoming weeks, also peas, artichokes and other seasonal vegetables) on this site. But it still feels like such a novelty after the freezing winter we’ve had in the UK for so long, and the cooking really is different this time of the year. It’s lighter, more fun and frivolous, more visual, and more colour-oriented.

I’ve been meaning to share this great-tasting recipe ever since I started this blog last autumn, but I was just waiting for the right weather: this dish just doesn’t taste the same any other time of the year. It’s the vivid orange and green colours, the lively ingredients, and the simple, fuss-free flavours that make this easy-to-prepare rice such a quintessentially springtime dish.

You can serve the rice as an accompaniment – but when it tastes so good, why let it share the limelight with another dish? Serves 4.

8 oz/ 200g white Iranian or Indian basmati rice
10oz/ 250g fresh broad beans (or mixture of broad beans, peas and runner beans)
Salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 oz/ 50g butter
1 large onion, trimmed, peeled and finely sliced
½ teaspoon powdered saffron

Optional garnish 1 (herb omelette):
1 large organic free range egg
1 heaped tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill, tarragon, or mint – or a mixture
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

OR

Optional garnish 2 (herbed yoghurt):
8 tablespoons thick creamy yoghurt
1 heaped tablespoon fresh dill sprigs, roughly torn
Salt and pepper

1.    Wash and rinse the rice until the water runs clear. Soak it for half an hour or so in barely enough water to cover it.
2.    Then add a little more water to the rice – enough to cover it up to an inch. Add salt. Cook the rice for 20 minutes until tender. This is the absorption method, and for best results the rice must not be disturbed whilst cooking. Keeping the lid on, set the cooked rice aside for 10 minutes.
3.    Then remove the lid, place the container of rice in a bowl of iced water, and let it cool thoroughly – the longer you leave the rice to cool, the better will be the texture of this recipe. Hours, rather than minutes, is what I am suggesting. . (Alternatively, use 1lb/ 500g cooked leftover rice!).
4.    Meanwhile, shell and steam the broad beans (and other vegetables, if using) for about 5 minutes until tender. (Check by crushing a couple of beans between your fingers). Cool the beans a little, and skin them if you have the time.
5.    When ready to cook, heat the oil and butter together in a saucepan, and sauté the onion for a few minutes until lightly browned. Add the cooled rice, saffron, and more salt if needed. Stir gently so that the grains of rice don’t break or go mushy.
6.    Add the cooked broad beans. (Also add cooked peas and sliced runner beans if using). Adjust the seasoning.
7.    For optional garnish 1: Beat together the egg with the herbs and seasoning. Heat the oil in a small frying pan and make an omelette. Let the omelette cool a little, then roll it up tightly and finely shred. For optional garnish 2: Mix together the yoghurt with dill and seasoning.
8.    Serve the rice hot with either one of the garnishes. Although the garnishes are optional, they enhance this dish and bring out its flavour to full effect.

flower-frittata

I wasn’t planning to share another recipe until after Easter. But I made this gorgeous Italian-style sweet omelette for brunch, and was so seduced by the magical colours and delicate perfume that I decided to write it up, in case any of you are looking for special occasion brunch dishes for the Easter holidays.

There is something very charming and ultra-feminine about cooking with flowers. If you’ve never tried it before, this is a good recipe to start (yes, even if you are a guy – and especially if you are looking to impress somebody special!).

Buy unsprayed, chemical-free flowers from florists, large supermarkets, delicatessens, or some branches of Whole Foods – or just pick them from a garden (preferably your own!).

Serve the frittata with champagne (why not make it pink champagne?). Alternatively, cut into diamond shapes, and serve with afternoon tea in the garden. Serves 4.

8 large organic free-range eggs
Generous handfuls of edible flowers (any combination of unsprayed rose petals, pansies, violets, marigolds, chive flowers, courgette flowers, etc)
2 tablespoons double cream
½ teaspoon cinnamon powder
1 oz/ 25g unsalted butter
Caster sugar (powdered sugar) for dusting

1.    Heat the grill (broiler) to medium heat.
2.    Crack the eggs into a bowl. Beat them lightly with a fork.
3.    Add most of the flowers (reserve some for garnish), cream and cinnamon, and combine everything very gently.
4.    Heat the butter in a small frying pan on medium heat. Pour in the egg mixture, and turn the heat down to low.
5.    Swirl the egg mixture around the pan, and stir it with a light hand until large curds form.
6.    Now do not disturb the egg mixture, and let it cook on low heat until the frittata is firm and the top is wobbly.
7.    Finish cooking the frittata by placing it under the grill until the top is just set.
8.    Remove from heat and let it cool in the pan for a couple of minutes.
9.    Slide the whole frittata onto a serving plate. Let it cool slightly. Sprinkle with caster sugar, and garnish extravagantly with the remaining flowers. Cut into wedges before serving.

greek-easter-bracelets-with-sesame

It’s a shame Britain doesn’t have a tradition of Easter foods. Well, we consume hot cross buns and chocolate eggs in massive quantities this time of the year – but they are not so much a ‘tradition’ as brainchild of supermarket marketing departments. At least, that’s what I think.

So for inspiration on Easter cooking, look to Italy, Greece and other countries with a strong Catholic or Christian tradition, and you will find plenty of eggs dishes and baked sweet treats.

These Greek pastry ‘bracelets’ – which are like a cross between bagels and biscuits – are a favourite with children. The dough can be shaped into large or small bracelets, rings, rolls, cigars, twists, plaits – or anything else you fancy, really.

This is a traditional recipe – it’s known as Kulurakia in Greece – so I make no apologies for using white flour and white sugar. You can substitute brown flour and raw cane sugar if you wish – I’m sure it would be fine, but it won’t have that old-fashioned rustic Greek taste.

Get children involved in making these bracelets – if you don’t have any, do what I do and borrow a gaggle of nephews and nieces. It’ll be a lot of fun, especially if you make an event of it and have an egg painting party at the same time as the bracelets are being baked. Happy Easter! Serves 4 to 6.

4 oz/ 100g clarified or unsalted butter, softened
4 oz/ 100g white sugar
½ teaspoon natural vanilla extract
2 medium organic free-range eggs
12 oz/ 300g white flour
2 level teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon powder

For the glaze:
1 medium organic free-range egg
1 tablespoon milk

For the topping:
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds

1.    Beat the butter with a fork until it is creamy. Add sugar and vanilla extract, and beat well.
2.    Crack the eggs into the butter and sugar mixture, and once again beat thoroughly.
3.    Sift in the flour with the baking powder and cinnamon, and combine everything to make soft dough. Allow the dough to stand for approximately half an hour.
4.    Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375F/ 190C/ gas mark 5.
5.    Then break off walnut-sized pieces of the dough, and shape each into a roll about 4 inches long.
6.    Pinch the ends together to form a bracelet shape and flatten slightly. Place the bracelets on greased baking sheets, making sure you leave enough space between each to give them room to rise.
7.    Make the glaze by beating together the egg with the milk. Using a pastry brush, paint each bracelet with the glaze.
8.    Carefully sprinkle the top of the bracelets with sesame seeds.
9.    Bake in the pre-heated oven for 15-20 minutes until golden.
10.    Allow to cool on a wire rack. Serve warm with coffee. Store any remaining bracelets in an airtight container.

asparagus-soup

Nothing sings like springtime more than asparagus: it’s the first thing I want to eat at the start of the new season of brighter days. The subtle, grassy flavour of asparagus, so out of place on our menus any other time of the year, comes into its own in warm weather. When the last of the cold spell leaves us, I always ask myself, “Is it pasta primavera season yet?” – and then proceed to use asparagus in pastas, stir-fries, salads, and soups such as this.

This soup is made with the finest ingredients: locally grown asparagus from the farmers’ market, the freshest artisan-made unsalted butter and cream, home-made vegetable stock (or asparagus cooking water), and a shower of the sprightliest of spring herbs from the garden.

Use green or white asparagus according to preference: the French value the white variety for its superior flavour, whereas the English believe green asparagus tastes finer. Serve the soup with rustic French country bread or good-quality baguette – warmed, and smeared, if you like, with a little Dijon or wholegrain mustard. Serves 4.

2 lb/ 1 kg green or white asparagus
1 oz/ 25g unsalted butter
4 shallots, trimmed, peeled and finely chopped
2 pints/ 1 litre mild vegetable stock
2 tablespoons mixture of fresh tarragon, chervil and chives, finely chopped
1 teaspoon celery salt
Freshly ground white pepper
Fine sea salt (optional)
9 fl oz/ 250 ml crème fraiche or single cream

1.    Snap off the woody stems from asparagus spears, and discard them (or use them to make stock).
2.    Cut the asparagus into approximately 3-inch pieces. Steam for around 3 to 4 minutes. Refresh in cold water and set aside.
3.    Melt the butter in a soup pot, and sauté the shallots for 2 or 3 minutes on medium heat. Add the cooked asparagus pieces, and stir for another minute or two.
4.    Add the stock, most of the herbs (reserve a few for garnish), celery salt, and pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat, cover with lid, and simmer for 30 minutes. The asparagus should be very tender. Let the soup cool slightly.
5.    Blitz the soup in a food processor until smooth, then sieve into a clean saucepan. Pour in the crème fraiche or cream. Heat gently, but do not allow to boil. Season with white pepper. Taste the soup – it should already have enough salt because of the vegetable stock and celery salt, but add some sea salt if necessary.
6.    Ladle the soup into individual bowls and garnish with the remaining fresh herbs. Add swirls of extra crème fraiche or cream if desired, and serve immediately.

kashmiri-spiced-spring-greens

So spring has finally sprung… at least here in the UK. It’s amazing how the days of unseasonal snow and chilled-to-the-bones weather seem a distant memory. Now bright sunlight is sprinkled over everything like free-range egg yolks pushed through fine-mesh sieve; and daffodils have been peeping through the sand cautiously, looking like Victorian women’s bonnets.

I thought all this weather talk was purely a British trait, but having read several books by American authors, I realise that it’s an American convention, too: every American book I have read recently, without exception, contains lengthy, evocative descriptions of the weather. The weather is, in fiction as in real life, always a silent extra character in the background.

Of course, a change in the weather also means a change in the way we eat. I no longer want to eat hearty casseroles and baked dishes: just give me sprightly food, ideally in grass-green, sunlight-yellow, cherry blossom-pink… and other colours of the spring. And I don’t want in-your-face flavours this time of the year either.

This renowned Kashmiri dish, known as ‘haak’, makes good use of early-season tender leaves of spring greens. Use Kashmiri spinach, if you live in a part of the world where you have access to it. I have never seen Kashmiri spinach in the UK. Spring greens (collard greens in USA), are a perfectly suitable substitute, as is ordinary spinach. Or use a combination of different types of greens – I’m sure whatever variety is local to you would work well in this recipe.

The cooking technique used here – in which the greens are gently boiled in water and flavourings, tempered with onions and chillies, and finished with aromatic ground spices – is a traditional Kashmiri way of making this classic dish. You may, if you like, simply stir-fry the shredded leaves with spices if you want to retain their bright green colour and crisp texture.

The quantity of chillies may seem a lot to those who are not used to them, but Kashmiri chillies (widely available in UK supermarkets) are mild and used mostly for their vivid red colour; and in any case, you can adjust the quantity to suit your own taste – or replace the chilli powder with paprika. If you can’t find black cumin seeds (also available in supermarkets and Indian grocers), substitute ordinary white cumin seeds; but do not use fresh ginger in place of dried ginger powder – which is an authentic Kashmiri spice, used in many savoury dishes.

This recipe doesn’t have a sauce, making it ideal to serve as an accompanying vegetable. Serve with plain steamed rice, alongside a bean, lentil or paneer (Indian cheese) dish for a balanced meal – though to be perfectly honest, I’m happy to gobble it up with plain rice all on its own. Serves 4.

4 pints/ 2 litres water
1¼ lb/ 500g tender spring greens, stems removed and shredded
1 level teaspoon turmeric powder
6 fresh green spring garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon Kashmiri (or other mild) red chilli powder, steeped in ½ cup water
Salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, trimmed, peeled and finely sliced
1 dried Kashmiri (or other mild) red chilli, slit
1 teaspoon Kashmiri (or other mild) red chilli powder
2 teaspoons black cumin seeds, crushed in a mortar or spice grinder
1 teaspoon dried ginger powder

1.    Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add spring greens, turmeric powder, minced garlic, red chilli water, and salt. Stir well.
2.    Lower the heat, cover the pan with a lid, and cook the greens until tender. There should be very little water remaining.
3.    In a small frying pan, heat the oil on medium heat. Add the onions and fry until pale golden brown.
4.    Add the dried red chilli to the onions and let it sizzle until it turns a couple of shades darker. Add the red chilli powder, and give the mixture a stir.
5.    Pour the onion and chilli mixture into the cooked spring greens. Add the crushed black cumin and powdered ginger, and combine well. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve hot.

courgettefetablack-olive-omelette

This omelette is best served for brunch, lunch or supper with warm pitta bread and a chunky salad dressed with a sharp, piquant dressing. Serves 2 as a main dish, or 4 as part of a spread.

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil, Greek if you have it
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 large courgette, trimmed and thinly sliced
6 large eggs
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons milk
1 heaped teaspoon Greek dried wild oregano, crumbled
100g/ 4 oz feta cheese, diced into small cubes
50g/ 2 oz black olives, pitted and halved

1.    Heat the olive oil on very low heat in an omelette pan, and sauté the garlic and lemon zest for just a few seconds, being careful that they do not turn brown.
2.    Add the courgette slices, increase the heat to medium, stir, cover the pan with a lid, and cook for a few minutes until soft.
3.    Beat the eggs, add the salt, pepper and milk, and whisk again thoroughly.
4.    Remove the lid from the pan, pour in the eggs evenly and let the omelette cook for 5 – 7 minutes.
5.    Sprinkle the omelette with oregano, and dot the surface with the feta cubes and olives, spreading them around evenly.
6.    Place the pan under a low grill for just a few minutes, until the omelette is slightly brown at the edges, a little risen and completely cooked through – but make sure that the feta pieces or olives don’t burn. Serve warm, cut into wedges.

ricotta-coffee-dessert-with-biscotti

This traditional, elegant Italian dessert – ricotta al caffe – is so amazingly simple that I’m almost embarrassed to give you a recipe for it. However, it’s useful to have one on hand for days when you’ve spent hours slaving over a hot stove and are looking for an easy, fuss-free, but still satisfyingly indulgent dessert.

For best results, buy top quality, freshest ingredients you can find. Buy the ricotta from a speciality cheese shop, Italian deli or the supermarket fresh cheese counter – you really will be able to taste the difference. The coffee beans – or freshly ground coffee – could come from your local coffee shop. Serves 4.

10 oz/ 250g very fresh ricotta cheese
4 oz/ 100g white or light golden brown caster sugar
2 tablespoons finely ground fresh espresso coffee beans
2 tablespoons dark rum or brandy (optional)
A few drops natural vanilla extract
2 tablespoons toasted hazelnuts, finely chopped (optional)

To serve:
Double or whipped cream
Italian biscotti

1.    Remove any excess water from the ricotta. Sieve in a colander or through a piece of muslin (cheesecloth) if necessary.
2.    Add the sugar, ground coffee, rum/ brandy, and vanilla extract. Mix well.
3.    Refrigerate for at least 3 hours for the flavours to develop. The longer you leave it, the stronger will be the flavour.
4.    Sprinkle with toasted hazelnuts, if using. Serve with cream and biscotti in little coffee cups. See, I told you it was simple!

lebanese-aubergine-sandwiches

Fed up with your regular sandwich and looking to ring changes? Then look no further. These Lebanese sandwiches can be as simple or elaborate as you want. At their simplest, plain slices of aubergines can be grilled or cooked on a charcoal and stuffed inside hot flatbreads, sprinkled simply with coarsely ground salt and pepper. This is a more dressed-up version, which is a meal by itself.

Use any Middle Eastern flatbreads: the choice available in supermarkets and Middle Eastern delis these days is astonishing. I’m particularly fond of the sesame-studded variety. You can peel the aubergines if you like, as many Lebanese do. Peeled aubergines have an elusive, meat-like texture – though personally I’m happy to leave the peel on. Eat warm. Serves 4.

For the marinade:
Juice of 2 lemons
4 tablespoons virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon dried red chilli flakes
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced

For the sandwiches:
1 large aubergine (eggplant)
Approx 8 tablespoons olive oil
4 large pita breads, Middle Eastern flatbreads, or ordinary sliced bread
1 medium firm tomato, finely chopped
1 small red onion, trimmed, peeled and finely sliced
Small bunch mint leaves, torn
Small bunch flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
A few salad leaves (optional)
2 tablespoons red or yellow pepper, finely chopped (optional)
4 tablespoons diced or crumbled white cheese, any variety (optional)

1.    Make the marinade by combining all the marinade ingredients and mixing well.
2.    Slice the aubergine into 1-inch thick rounds. Working quickly, dip both sides of the aubergine slices in the marinade until you have used it all up. The liquid does not have to fully cover or soak the slices – just a touch is enough to give flavour.
3.    Heat the oil on low to medium heat in a frying pan, and cook the marinated aubergine slices in batches of 2 or 3 at a time. The cooking temperature is important here: too high and you’ll burn the aubergine slices and they will remain undercooked from inside; too low and they will absorb the oil, become greasy, and take a long time to soften. The aubergines should be light golden-brown and cooked through (pierce some slices with a knife, just to make sure). Drain on kitchen paper.
4.    Lightly grill (broil) the pita breads or any other bread that you are using.
5.    Stuff the breads with aubergine slices, tomatoes, red onions, herbs, and seasoning. Add the salad leaves, chopped pepper and cheese, if using. If eating as a main meal, serve with salad and a bowl of thick, creamy yoghurt.

blackeye-beans

mixed-nuts

Beans, nuts, vegetables… what could be healthier? In this version of a traditional Armenian dish that’s normally made only with blackeye beans and nuts, I have added a few vegetables to make it more colourful, interesting and nutritious. This dish doesn’t have a sauce – it’s meant to be sort of mushy, with some crunchiness coming from the nuts.

Eat with flatbreads along with some yoghurt mixed with fresh herbs and garlic; or Western-style, with baked/ mashed potatoes, accompanied by a green, leafy vegetable or a lemony salad. Any leftovers would be great as sandwich filling, or turned into veggie burgers. Serves 4.

150g/ 6 oz blackeye beans (blackeye peas)
100g/ 4 oz unsalted mixed nuts of your choice: almonds, brazils, cashews, walnuts
4 tablespoon groundnut (peanut) or corn oil
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 medium leek, trimmed and sliced
1 medium carrot, trimmed, peeled and chopped
1 medium green pepper (bell pepper), cored and chopped
4 medium mushrooms, quartered
4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped (tinned ones are fine)
1 tablespoon tomato puree
1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1.    Soak the black-eye beans for several hours. Cook in boiling water for 30 to 45 minutes until very tender. Drain.
2.    Coarsely chop the nuts in a food processor. Make sure the nuts retain some texture.
3.    Heat the oil in a saucepan, and cook the onion until slightly brown. Add the garlic and let it sizzle for a few seconds.
4.    Add the leeks, carrots, green pepper and mushrooms, and cook with the lid on until all the vegetables are tender.
5.    Add the tomatoes, tomato puree, cinnamon powder and seasoning. Cook for a further 10 minutes. For this recipe, the vegetables should to be soft to the point of falling apart – not al dente.
6.    Add the chopped nuts, beans, and parsley. Mash some of the beans with the back of a wooden spoon as you go. Stir frequently to prevent sticking.
7.    Adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve hot.

thai-vegetable-salad

This recipe is for Thai ‘dry yam’ – a type of strongly flavoured dish that’s a cross between a salad and a relish. There are dozens of regional variations all over Thailand. This recipe is pretty flexible, and you can increase or reduce the quantity – providing you roughly keep to the suggested ratio of vegetables and dressing.

You may use any vegetables you like, and either cook them or leave them raw – or combine both. Two or more of the following would be good: oriental broccoli (gai lan), fresh or (reconstituted) dried mushrooms (ideally oyster, enoki, or shiitake), baby corn, baby pak choi, white or red cabbage, water chestnuts, bamboo shots, beansprouts, carrots, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, spring onions (scallions), wing beans, ‘yard long’ beans, Thai ‘pea’ aubergines (eggplants), and so on.

You can add fruit, too, if you wish: pineapple, star fruit and pomelo go particularly well with the spicy dressing.

This salad is very strongly flavoured, and is meant to be eaten as part of a meal – not on its own – accompanied by other dishes, such as plain jasmine rice, a tofu dish, a curry or a stir-fry, and a soup. Alternatively, you may serve small quantities with alcoholic drinks, particularly spirits, as Thais do. Just place miniature quantities of the salad in small individual dipping plates, egg cups, or paper cones, and give everyone a small spoon or pastry fork to eat.

If you’re eating the salad as part of a meal, leave the vegetables chunky; or chop them very small if you’re serving it with drinks.

Add chillies according to taste. I like using 2 or 3 birdseye chillies in this recipe, but if you’re not used to spicy food, start with a quarter or half a chilli (birdseye chillies are very, very hot). You may deseed them if you wish. In Thailand, around half a dozen or more chillies would be used in this recipe. Serves 2 as part of meal, or up to 6 as accompaniment to drinks.

For the dressing:
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Fresh red or green birdseye chillies, to taste
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons light soy sauce
Salt and pepper

For the salad:
8 oz/ 200g mixed vegetables (see note above)

To serve:
A few lettuce leaves
1 tablespoon peanuts
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
2 shallots (preferably red or banana shallots), peeled and finely sliced into rings
Fresh coriander, or Thai green or red holy basil leaves for garnish

1.    Start by making the dressing. Pound the garlic and chilli in a mortar or spice grinder. Mix in the sugar, lemon juice, soy sauce, and seasoning. Try some of the dressing, and adjust it according to your taste – for instance, some people may prefer a little more sugar. You can thin down the dressing with a little groundnut (peanut) oil if you wish.
2.    Prepare the vegetables: trim, peel, slice or dice the raw vegetables, and lightly steam the ones you want cooked. Mix all the vegetables well and set aside.
3.    Dry roast the peanuts and the sesame seeds separately in a small frying pan. Let them cool a little, then crush coarsely in a mortar or spice grinder.
4.    When you are ready to serve, line a serving platter with the lettuce leaves. Pile in the salad in the centre. Pour over the dressing. Sprinkle with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds. Top with shallot rings, and garnish with coriander or basil leaves. Mix gently at the table before serving.

welsh-teabread-on-a-plate

I have never before posted two sweet recipes back to back on this blog. However, I had already prepared Welsh teabread and had planned to write about it next week, when I realised that 1st March is St David’s Day – Wales’ patron saint’s day. So I decided to swap my schedule around and put up this post this week, in case any of you are looking for traditional Welsh recipes for the weekend.

This is a simple and straightforward take on the famous Welsh teabread known as ‘bara brith’ – which simply means ‘speckled bread’. There are many versions, some made with yeast. Sweet, warm pudding spices, candied peel, and chopped nuts are often added; and sometimes the top of the bread is covered with crushed sugar cubes before baking. However, I prefer this unfussy version. In this unyeasted form, the bread will keep longer than yeasted loaf.

Variations of this bread are found all over Britain. In Scotland, you’ll find Selkirk bannock, and in Ireland, the barm brack – both are similar.

This recipe is easy to make even if you are unaccustomed to baking. If it sinks a little or there are cracks on top, it doesn’t matter – just make sure that the bread isn’t too hard, which is the only important bit.

Butter generously and eat with a pot of tea on a leisurely weekend afternoon. Accompany with plum jam or orange marmalade if you like. Makes one 2lb/ 1 kilo loaf.

6 oz/ 150g currants
6 oz/ 150g sultanas
8 oz/ 200g light muscovado sugar
10 fl oz/ 300 ml strong black tea, freshly made
A little softened butter, for greasing
10 oz/ 250g white self-raising flour
1 medium egg, beaten

1.    Start the preparations the night before, or a few hours in advance. Place the dried fruit and sugar in a bowl, pour over the hot tea, and leave overnight or for several hours.
2.    When you are ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 150C/ 300F/ gas mark 2.
3.    Lightly grease a 2 lb/ 1 kilo loaf tin. Line the base and the sides with lightly greased greaseproof paper.
4.    Add the flour and egg to the fruit and tea mixture. Mix thoroughly.
5.    Place the mixture into the prepared loaf tin, and level the surface.
6.    Bake in the pre-heated oven for 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes until well-risen and firm to the touch. A skewer or knife inserted into the centre should come out clean. If not, place the loaf back in the oven a little while longer, making sure not to overcook.
7.    Allow to cool in the tin for 10 – 15 minutes. Then turn out on a wire rack and cool completely.
8.    Slice and spread with butter (and preserves, if you like) before eating.

fried-date-cakes

If you like sweet, sticky Middle Eastern sweets but don’t want to spend too long in the kitchen preparing them, you’ll enjoy these quick and easy pan-fried date cakes. The flavour is reminiscent of the sweetmeats found in Lebanon and Morocco.

If you are vegan, substitute butter with light, unflavoured oil like sunflower, omit the honey and add a splash of orange juice with a little finely grated orange rind instead.

Add orange flower water only if you have it on hand: no need to buy it especially for this recipe, which will taste good without it anyway. Serves 4.

6 oz/ 150g plump, juicy, smooth-skinned dried dates
4 oz/ 100g whole almonds
4 oz/ 100g plain white flour
1 tablespoon orange blossom honey (or other honey)
2 teaspoons orange flower water (optional)
3 oz/ 75g butter, melted, plus more for greasing
1 oz/ 25g sesame seeds

To serve:
Plain yoghurt, double cream or vanilla ice cream
Honey

1.    Remove the stones from the dates. You should be left with approx 4 oz/ 100g date pulp.
2.    In a food processor, pulverise the almonds until they are coarsely crushed but still retain some texture. Add in the dates, and whizz again.
3.    Add flour, honey, orange flower water if using, and about half of the melted butter and whizz once more. Make sure everything is mixed thoroughly, but do not overprocess as the little cakes will lose their texture.
4.    With lightly greased palms, shape the date mixture into medium-sized patties. You should have around 10 to 12.
5.    Spread the sesame seeds on to a plate, and roll the patties in them until they are evenly coated.
6.    Heat the remaining butter in a non-stick frying pan. Fry the patties for 2 or 3 minutes on each side until lightly golden. Drain on kitchen paper.
7.    Serve hot with yoghurt, cream or ice cream, and a drizzle of honey. Some sliced fresh or grilled bananas (or grilled oranges) would also go well with these cakes.

socca

In the UK, 24th February 2009 is Shrove Tuesday or ‘Pancake Day’. Is it celebrated in your country? What sort of pancake will you be eating? Well, here it’s becoming increasingly popular – and commercialised. There are several fun pancake races in the morning, and many restaurants offer pancake menus. Speciality pancake restaurants – which are increasing in number – also hold pancake making demonstrations and competitions.

Pancakes are one of those foods that are found in some form or other in all countries and cultures. I’m sure you are familiar with the usual egg and flour versions, so I’m giving a recipe for socca – the legendary thin, crepe-like chickpea flour pancake from Nice. It happens to be vegan, probably gluten-free (though I don’t know for sure, so it’s best to check with a medical advisor if you have a gluten allergy), and baked in the oven rather than cooked on the stove top.

There are countless versions of socca all over Italy, India, and other parts of the world, too. So chickpea flour is available in large supermarkets, Indian stores, and Italian and French delicatessens.

In Nice, socca is eaten as a fast food snack wrapped in a newspaper – much like fish and chips in Britain, except that it is much healthier. My recipe is for a plain pancake, but you can add finely chopped fresh herbs (particularly a little rosemary) if you wish.

Socca is packed with protein, and makes excellent accompaniment to ratatouille, lightly braised vegetables such as fennel and chicory, and delicate stews made from haricot and flageolet beans. Or it can be eaten on its own with a hot or cold drink as a snack. Serves 4 as snack or accompaniment.

5 oz/ 125g chickpea flour (garbanzo flour)
8 fl oz/ 200 ml water
½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
4 tablespoons virgin olive oil (Provencal, if you have it)

To serve:
Coarsely ground rock salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1.    Pre-heat the oven to 220 C/ 425 F/ gas mark 7.
2.    Place the chickpea flour in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Add water, and whisk the flour and water together until well amalgamated.
3.    Add salt and 2 tablespoon of the olive oil. Mix thoroughly. If necessary, strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove any lumps, pressing down firmly on the mixture. (Alternatively, steps 2 and 3 can be followed using an electric hand blender to make the task easier). You should be left with smooth, thin chickpea flour batter.
4.    Swirl the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy, non-stick round baking pan or gratin dish. Heat the oiled dish in the pre-heated oven for 5 minutes.
5.    Then remove the dish from the oven, and pour in the batter evenly, taking care not to splatter in the hot oil. Bake the pancake for about 10 minutes. Do not overcook. Meanwhile, pre-heat the grill (broiler) on medium heat.
6.    Remove the pancake from the oven, and place under the grill until the surface is dotted with a few brown spots.
7.    Remove from the grill, and let the pancake cool in its pan for a couple of minutes. Cut into wedges, and sprinkle with coarsely ground salt and black pepper. Serve hot.

pickled-black-beans-with-rice

This is the traditional Peruvian dish, frijoles negros escabechados: spiced black beans marinated in red wine vinegar. The black beans to use here are black turtle beans. Chinese black soy beans, Japanese black aduki beans, or Indian black urad beans are not really suitable for this recipe.

Black turtle beans have only been available in the UK for the past few years and, sadly, they are under-utilised. This is a shame because they have a sweet, floury earthiness that makes them very versatile.

I don’t normally like the combination of sweet and sour flavours, but I really enjoy the sweet, tart and deeply savoury tastes in this recipe. So much so that I always try to sneak this dish into the menu whenever I’m cooking Latin American food.

Serve the beans at room temperature with plain, steamed white rice, as Peruvians do. Alternatively, they are excellent as a salad or side dish, served on a bed of shredded lettuce and accompanied by avocado slices. Serves 4 to 6.

6 oz/ 150g black turtle beans, soaked overnight, or for several hours
4 oz/ 100g raisins
¼ pint/ 150 ml red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons corn oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon red chilli flakes (or to taste)
2 large onions, trimmed, peeled and finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Salt and pepper
4 oz/ 100g pitted black olives
2 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and quartered

To serve:
Cooked white long-grain rice

OR

Shredded lettuce
Avocado slices

1.    Drain and rinse the soaked beans. Cover them with fresh water, bring to the boil, and cook vigorously for 10 minutes. Drain and rinse again thoroughly to remove any toxins. (It is believed that some varieties of beans contain toxins, so this procedure is recommended when cooking black turtle beans). Cover with more fresh water, bring to the boil, and cook for an hour or so until the beans are tender. Now drain the cooked beans and set aside.
2.    Meanwhile, soak the raisins in the vinegar.
3.    Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the cumin seeds and chilli flakes, and let them sizzle for a few seconds until they are a shade or two darker.
4.    Add the onions, and fry until lightly tinged with golden brown colour.
5.    Add the garlic and raisins (leave the vinegar aside) and sauté for a few minutes.
6.    Add the cooked beans and seasoning, and mix well.
7.    Pour in the vinegar in which the raisins have soaked. Add some water if necessary. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. The dish should be fairly moist – neither dry, nor too sauced. Adjust the seasoning.
8.    Garnish with black olives and hard-boiled eggs. Serve at room temperature.

passionfruit-muffins

These American-style muffins are quick and easy to make, and infused with a distinct tropical fragrance: the sweet, sharp, and hauntingly elusive tanginess of passion fruit will instantly transport you to a far-off island. They are ideal for breakfast for the day after Valentine’s Day…

You can make the muffins more elaborate by adding a splash of orange juice, a little finely grated orange zest, and a pinch of freshly ground allspice berries. You can ice them, too, with fresh orange or passion fruit flavoured icing if you like. I prefer them plain, however, accompanied by tropical preserves, and extra passion fruit pulp squeezed over the top.

I have suggested you remove the seeds from the fruit because I personally don’t like the crunch of the seeds in this recipe – but you can leave them in if you wish. Makes 12 muffins.

6 passion fruits
2 oz/ 50g softened butter, plus extra for greasing
10 oz/ 250g plain white flour, sifted
1 heaped tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 heaped tablespoon sugar
8 fl oz/ 250 ml milk
1 egg, lightly beaten

1.    Pre-heat the oven to 220C/ 425F/ gas mark 7. Thoroughly grease 12 large paper muffin cups.
2.    Halve the passion fruits. Scoop out the pulp, and put through a fine mesh sieve, pressing it down firmly with the back of a spoon. You should be left with only pulp and juice. Discard the seeds.
3.    In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar, and mix well.
4.    In another bowl, mix together the passion fruit pulp with milk and egg.
5.    Tip the liquid ingredients into the dry ones. Mix everything together quickly with a light hand, just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Do not beat the mixture.
6.    Divide the mixture between the greased muffin cups, and place each in a 12-cup muffin tray. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until they are well-risen, and a skewer inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out clean.
7.    Remove the muffins from the tray, and leave them (in their paper cups) on a wire rack for 2 or 3 minutes to cool.
8.    Serve warm or cold with butter and preserves (particularly Jamaican guava jam, if you can find it, or pineapple or papaya jam). Fromage frais, or thick creamy yoghurt with extra passion fruit pulp poured over it, goes well with the muffins, too.

spiced-tomato-vodka-jelly

I was so keen to give you a pretty, passion-coloured Valentine’s Day recipe that I decided to ignore the fact that it’s too cold in the UK to eat jelly, and that tomatoes are out of season.

This recipe is influenced by English and French cuisines – and cocktails – and feature East European and American ingredients, too. So it’s a truly fusion affair.

You can buy vegetarian gelatine from most supermarkets; and vegetarian Worcester sauce (without anchovies) is available in health food shops or vegetarian stores. Select a brand of horseradish sauce that’s little more than grated horseradish with cream, if you can – no mean feat, as most are packed with mayonnaise, additives and too much sugar.

I won’t bore you with clichés about how this recipe might spice up your love life, but it will certainly provide an interesting start to your evening. Whether or not you serve it on Valentine’s Day. Serves 2 generously as appetiser.

14 fl oz/ 400 ml tomato juice
1 teaspoon vegetarian gelatine (such as Vege-Gel)
2 scant tablespoons fresh lemon juice
6 tablespoons vodka
2 teaspoons vegetarian Worcester sauce
½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons very finely chopped red onion
2 tablespoons very finely chopped celery
2 tablespoons very finely chopped green pepper (bell pepper or capsicum)
1 tablespoon horseradish sauce
3 tablespoons single cream

Optional garnish (one or more of):
A little extra finely chopped red onion and celery
Fresh parsley
Watercress
Lettuce or lamb’s lettuce

1. Place the tomato juice in a saucepan, add the vegetarian gelatine, and stir until it has dissolved.
2. Then put the saucepan on low heat and gently bring the tomato juice to the boil.
3. Once it has reached the boiling point, remove from the heat immediately. Add the lemon juice, vodka, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, and seasoning. Stir the mixture thoroughly.
4. Place the chopped vegetables evenly in a heart shaped mould (or divide between two bowls or glasses).
5. Pour the tomato jelly on top and leave to set for 30 minutes. Leave the jelly in a cool place, but do not refrigerate.
6. When you are ready to serve, carefully unmould the jelly (if it has been set in a mould). Just before serving, mix the horseradish sauce with cream, and swirl some on top of the jelly. Garnish with extra onion and celery, if you like, and/ or fresh parsley. You can also serve the jelly on a platter lined with watercress or salad leaves, if you wish.

veg-cocido

This is my inauthentic vegetarian version of cocido, the classic soup-stew from Madrid. Cocido is one of Spain’s national dishes – old-fashioned fare that harks back to medieval times, with origins in a Sephardic Jewish recipe. It is made with a range of meats and sausages, combined with chickpeas and vegetables; and each region has its own variation. A Spanish person would argue at length as to what constitutes real cocido.

Traditionally, cocido is served elaborately in two or three courses. First, the broth is separated and cooked with rice or vermicelli and served as a light soup. Next, the chickpeas and vegetables are served separately; and finally, the meat is eaten on its own. The soup used to be ubiquitous in Spain, but nowadays is served mainly on special occasions. In Madrid, it is often sold in restaurants on Tuesdays – though I have not been able to find out the significance of this tradition.

I have retained the authentic combination of vegetables, but the herbs and spices are my own touch. They give the soup a bright, sprightly flavour. (If you want a denser, meatier flavour, omit the saffron and mint, and add a couple of cooked, sliced vegetarian sausages along with a little bit of smoked paprika. If you go down this ‘meaty flavour’ route, serve the soup with cornichons and pickled vegetables).

The cooking technique is somewhat unusual in that everything is boiled together, with olive oil added only at the end for a rich mouthfeel (rather than frying the vegetables in oil first, as is the case with many recipes). Many soups around Europe use this technique.

Cocido is a meal by itself, but you may serve it with Spanish bread, garlic bread, or any other bread of your choice. Serves 4.

350g/ 14 oz chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
4 pints/ 2 litres water
4 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
1 large onion, peeled, trimmed and sliced
1 large leek, trimmed and thickly sliced
1 large potato, peeled and chunkily diced
1 large carrot, trimmed, peeled and chunkily diced
2 small turnips, trimmed, peeled and quartered
1 very small cabbage, trimmed and cut into 4 or 8 wedges
2 oz/ 50g green string beans, trimmed and halved
1 level tablespoon sweet paprika
¼ teaspoon Spanish saffron, crushed in a mortar and soaked in a tablespoon of water
Bouquet garni made by tying together several sprigs of fresh parsley, thyme and bay leaves inside a piece of muslin (cheesecloth)
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil (Spanish, if you have it)
Salt and pepper
4 oz/ 100g fine vermicelli, lightly broken if preferred
A few fresh parsley and mint leaves to garnish
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling (optional)

1.    Soak the chickpeas overnight, or for several hours. When you’re ready to cook, rinse and drain the chickpeas.
2.    In a large soup pot, cover the chickpeas with the water, and boil them for an hour or so until tender.
3.    Add all the vegetables to the saucepan, including garlic and onions. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, and add paprika, saffron, bouquet garni, olive oil, and seasoning. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or so until all the vegetables are tender.
4.    Towards the end of the cooking time, add vermicelli and cook, uncovered, for the length of time stated on the packet instructions (usually between 2 to 5 minutes).
5.    Add more stock if you wish.  Adjust the seasoning to taste. Remove the bouquet garni.
6.    Ladle the soup into individual bowls. Garnish with parsley and mint leaves, and pass around the extra olive oil for drizzling on top.

mexican-green-rice

This delicious recipe is for the classic Mexican arroz verde – a wonderful accompaniment to all kinds of tortilla and bean dishes. Or, if you are like me, you can make a meal of it with the addition of some protein such as fried eggs or grilled white cheese, accompanied by a few slices of avocadoes.

I like to use serrano chillies in this dish, but you may use anaheim, which are milder. Grilling the vegetables tones down their fieriness and earthiness, and gives them a smoky, succulent flavour that contrasts beautifully with the fresh, spiky grassiness of the herbs.

Over the years, I have always cooked this rice with lettuce, but I have suggested spinach as a substitute for those readers who think the idea of putting salad leaves in a cooked rice dish might be a little strange.

Today, UK has had the biggest snowfall in – according to some reports – nearly 20 years. All around me is decked out in thick tapestries of gleaming, milk-white snow. I can’t wait to get into the kitchen and cook up a spicy, hot Mexican fiesta to bring forth the promise of colour, warmth and sunshine. Serves 4 as an accompanying side dish.

8 oz/ 200g long-grain white rice
1 medium onion, trimmed, peeled and quartered
2 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
1 medium green pepper (capsicum or bell pepper), deseeded and quartered
2 green chillies, trimmed and halved
3 large Cos lettuce leaves (or a handful of spinach leaves), roughly chopped
1 oz/ 25g fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 oz/ 25g fresh coriander (cilantro)
½ to ¾ pint/ 275 to 450 ml water
Salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons corn oil

1.    Pre-heat the grill on medium heat.
2.    Wash the rice until the water runs clear. Soak in absolute minimum amount of cold water while you prepare the ingredients for this dish.
3.    Place the onion, garlic, green pepper and chillies under the grill, turning them from time to time with tongs, until they are soft and blistered and have black patches on their surfaces.
4.    Remove from the grill, and cool a little. Peel off the skin from the green pepper.
5.    In a food processor, finely grind the grilled vegetables with the lettuce, parsley, and coriander. Add the water and seasoning, and whizz until you have a fairly thick sauce of pourable consistency. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. (Bear in mind that it should have a little more salt and pepper than you would like because you haven’t added the rice yet).
6.    Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Drain the rice thoroughly and add it to the pan. Sautee until the grains are shiny and translucent.
7.    Add the green vegetable sauce to the rice, and mix well.
8.    Lower the heat to minimum, cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, and cook the rice for around 20 minutes. Do not open the lid while the rice is cooking, do not disturb the rice, do not fluff it up, do nothing – just leave it be.
9.    After 20 minutes or so, check to see that the grains have absorbed the sauce and indentations have appeared on the surface of the rice. If not, leave it on very low heat for a little while longer.
10.    Remove from heat, and let the rice stand with the lid on for 10 minutes. Then fluff it up, and serve hot.

baked-pears-with-fudge-sauce-on-blue-plate

Ok, so you’ve been good all month. You’ve eaten healthily… most of the time. You’ve kept to all your new year resolutions (well, you have, haven’t you?). So you certainly deserve a little treat.

This is a slightly elaborate dessert of pears stuffed with dried fruit and nuts, bathed in a sweet spice-infused honey and citrus sauce, dolloped with hot chocolate fudge sauce. What’s more, the heart-shaped fruit is perfect to feed your loved one on Valentine’s Day. Tempted?

So how does this healthy but indulgent treat fit into the concept of ‘global veggie’? Well, it’s loosely inspired by the poached pear desserts of Italy (I also make those), the stuffed baked apple puddings of England (I spent my childhood making those), and the classic Pears Belle Helene of French cuisine. But to be honest, I never need an excuse to whip up a sweet treat.

Ideal for dinner parties, these pears can be served with the sauces on their own, or accompanied by double cream, mascarpone, or vanilla ice cream for an extra flourish of extravagance. Serves 6.

For the pears:
6 ripe but firm, unblemished pears (any variety)
2 oz/ 50g hazelnuts, toasted and finely chopped
2 oz/ 50g almonds, toasted and finely chopped
2 dried ready-to-eat apricots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon apricot jam
Amaretto liqueur, to taste

A little softened butter, for greasing

For the honey and citrus sauce:
5 oz/ 125g aromatic honey (such as orange blossom)
3 fl oz/ 100 ml orange juice
Juice of 1 lemon
3 fl oz/ water
2 cloves
1-inch piece cinnamon

For the hot fudge sauce:
3 oz/ 75g unsalted butter
1 oz/ 25g good-quality cocoa powder
1 oz/ 25g good quality dark chocolate, finely chopped or grated
6 oz/ 150g white or light golden brown sugar
3 fl oz/ 85 ml evaporated milk
Small pinch of salt
A few drops vanilla essence

Edible flowers for garnish (optional)

1.    First, prepare the pears. Peel them, but leave the stems intact. Using a corer, carefully remove the cores from the bottom end of the pears.
2.    Mix together the nuts, apricots, jam and liqueur. Stuff the mixture into the pears, packing in firmly.
3.    Grease a baking dish that’s just large enough to hold the pears. Arrange the pears so that they are closely huddled together, stem side up.
4.    Heat the oven to 180C/ 350F/ gas mark 4.
5.    Combine all the ingredients for the honey and citrus sauce in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil.
6.    Pour the honey and citrus sauce over the pears. Cover the dish with a lid or a piece of aluminium foil, and bake in the pre-heated oven for approximately 40 to 50 minutes. The pears should be tender, but not falling apart. Take the baking dish out of the oven every 15 minutes or so, and baste the pears with the sauce.
7.    Meanwhile, make the hot fudge sauce. Melt the butter in a non-stick saucepan, add the cocoa powder, and whisk until smooth.
8.    Stir in the chocolate, sugar, and evaporated milk. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring continuously so that it doesn’t stick. Remove from the heat immediately.
9.    Add a pinch of salt and a few drops of vanilla essence, and mix well. Cool a little.
10.    Place the pears in individual serving dishes along with any remaining honey and citrus sauce, and pour the hot fudge sauce over each pear. Garnish with edible flowers, if you like.

citrus-spiked-chinese-noodle-salad

As it’s the Chinese New Year – the year of the Ox – I wanted to share a recipe for Chinese noodles. Uncut and unbroken noodles are eaten during the New Year in China as they symbolise longevity. Here they are coated in a spicy lemon and orange sauce and served at room temperature. Leftovers are excellent for lunchboxes, or eaten straight from the fridge.

If you can’t find Chinese sesame paste in Asian grocers, use tahini, peanut butter, or 1 teaspoon pan-roasted sesame seeds, crushed and blended with 1 tablespoon cold water. Cider vinegar can be substituted for the rice wine vinegar; and the chilli oil should not be the sort of chilli-infused olive oil found in supermarkets. Sichuan peppercorns have a distinctive, subtly hot, spiky flavour and fragrance – but if you dislike their grainy texture, use ordinary black pepper.

The addition of oranges and lemons to the aromatic sauce will brighten up the greyest of winter days. Serves 2 as light meal, or 4 as appetiser/ side dish/ snack.

For the sauce:
Finely grated zest of 1 medium organic orange
Finely grated zest of 1 organic unwaxed lemon
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon groundnut (peanut) oil
1 heaped tablespoon Chinese sesame paste
4 spring onions, trimmed and sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon Chinese white rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Chinese dark soy sauce
¼ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, finely crushed
1 tablespoon Chinese chilli oil
½ teaspoon red chilli flakes
A pinch of sugar, to taste
Salt to taste

For the noodles:
9 oz/ 225g dried egg noodles, OR 1 lb/ 500g fresh egg noodles
1 tablespoon dark toasted sesame oil

Fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves for garnish

1.    To make the sauce, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Set aside, or chill until ready to use.
2.    Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions. Drain and plunge in cold water to prevent further cooking. Drain again, and toss in sesame oil. Set aside until ready to use.
3.    Just before serving, toss the noodles with the spicy citrus sauce. Garnish with coriander leaves Serve at room temperature (or chilled).

stack-of-breakfast-pancakes

This recipe isn’t traditionally Swiss – but the original, rather plain and straightforward version (simply comprising Swiss muesli, eggs and milk) was given to me by a Swiss chef in Switzerland. Hence ‘Swiss inspired’. I have adapted it quite a bit, adding fresh and dried fruit. I have suggested apricots and figs to keep with the ‘Swiss muesli breakfast’ theme, but use any dried fruit of your choice.

The batter for these pancakes should be fairly thick, but add a splash or two of more milk if you think it needs it. The pancakes are similar in concept to drop scones. They are ideal for a leisurely weekend breakfast, especially when you have guests staying over. Serve with fresh fruit or fruit compote, honey, or thick creamy yoghurt. Makes around 24 small pancakes/ serves 6.

2 oz/ 50g medium oatflakes
1 large egg, beaten
5 fl oz/ 150 ml milk
Small pinch of salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
4 ready-to-eat dried apricots, chopped
2 ready-to-eat dried figs, chopped
2 tablespoons sultanas or raisins
1 tablespoon chopped mixed nuts
1 small apple, cored and coarsely grated
1 small baby carrot, trimmed, peeled and coarsely grated
Small pinch of cinnamon powder

Mixture of unsalted butter and light, unflavoured oil for frying

Icing sugar for dusting

1.    Combine well all the ingredients for the pancakes in a bowl. Leave the mixture to rest for 30 to 60 minutes, so that the oatflakes have a chance to plump up.
2.    Heat a mixture of butter and oil in a non-stick frying pan, a little at a time. Turn the heat to very low. Drop in the pancake batter by tablespoonful, two or three at a time. Flatten the pancakes into circular shapes with the back of a spoon. Cook gently for approximately 3 minutes until the edges begin to set. Flip over and cook the other side until lightly browned. Repeat the process until the mixture is used up, working as quickly as you can (use another frying pan if necessary).
3.    While you are making the pancakes, place the cooked ones on a warmed plate, and wrap them in a clean tea towel so that they don’t go cold.
4.    Dust the pancakes with icing sugar. Serve as warm as possible.

stir-frying-broccoli-and-tofu

I realised with some alarm that I hadn’t yet done a broccoli dish on this site. This is most unusual, as my passion for broccoli borders on obsession. This pretty emerald-coloured vegetable is the ‘default’ item that I put in my shopping basket whenever I haven’t worked out my menu plan, because I know that I’ll always find a use for it. If I don’t eat broccoli at least once or twice a week, I’ll start having serious cravings for it. I cook the vegetable in many different ways – but because I cook it so frequently, I’m always on the lookout for new broccoli recipes, so if you know any good ones, do let me know!

This authentic Chinese recipe is one of my favourite ways of cooking broccoli. It’s based on two cooking techniques commonly used in Chinese cookery: stir-frying and braising. I adore tofu, too – especially its texture – and in this recipe, it absorbs the sauce, giving it a lot of flavour.

Use light soy sauce for a lighter colour, as the addition of dark soy sauce will give it a darker colour and denser flavour. Using preserved black soy beans will give the dish an earthy depth; but go easy on the quantity, otherwise the dish will taste ‘muddy’. (About 7 times out of 10 when making this dish, I omit the black beans).

Use any sort of broccoli you like – Chinese (gai lan), ordinary, or tenderstem – but not purple sprouting, as its taste and texture is too coarse for this dish. I have tried numerous variations over the years – mixing the broccoli with cauliflower, pak choi or cashew nuts, for instance – but I always come back to this basic combination. I have to admit that I’m a little precious about this recipe – which is why my cooking instructions are more than usually detailed.

As it is so delicious, I cook this dish frequently. I like eating it with plain, steamed white basmati rice. I know Chinese short-grain rice would be more authentic, but I like the way the intense earthy savouriness of the dish plays off with basmati’s floral, exotic perfume. Serves 4.

For the sauce:
3 teaspoons cornflour (cornstarch)
12 fl oz/ 350 ml mild vegetable stock made with instant stock powder
2 tablespoons Chinese shaohsing wine (rice cooking wine), or dry sherry
2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon preserved Chinese black soy beans, rinsed and chopped (optional)

For the broccoli and tofu:
9oz/ 225g broccoli
9oz/ 225g plain firm or silken tofu (both will give a different texture)
4 tablespoons groundnut (peanut) or corn oil
2-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 or 2 fresh red birdseye chillies, sliced (optional)
6 spring onions, trimmed and sliced widely on the diagonal
Salt

1.    Start by making the sauce. In a bowl, place the cornflour and gradually add 4 fl oz/ 125 ml of the vegetable stock (leave the rest for the braising that’s required later in the cooking process). Mix well, making sure there are no lumps. Add the wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, and black beans if using. Combine thoroughly and set aside. (Incidentally, this basic sauce is wonderful for any vegetable stir-fries).
2.    Cut the broccoli flowerets in medium pieces. Peel the stalks, and chop them in similar-sized pieces to the flowerets.
3.    Drain the tofu on several layers of kitchen paper, then cut into cubes, long slices, or triangles.
4.    Heat a wok on medium heat. When it’s hot but not smoking, lower the heat and add the oil. Then add the ginger, garlic, and chillies (if using), and let them sizzle for a few seconds. They should not become brown or burn.
5.    Add the spring onions and broccoli, and stir-fry for a couple of minutes. Add the remaining 8 fl oz/ 225 ml stock and salt, and bring to the boil. (Go easy on the salt – because the vegetable stock and soy sauce are already salty, you won’t need much – if at all). Lower the heat, and simmer with the lid on for a couple of minutes until the broccoli is tender but still al dente. Do not overcook – the broccoli should preserve its vibrant green colour.
6.     Remove the broccoli from the wok with a slotted spoon and set aside. (Some of the spring onions clinging to the broccoli will come out, too – this is okay!).
7.    Turn the heat to very, very low, and add the tofu pieces to the remaining liquid. (If you’re using silken tofu, handle it gently as this is the point where it’s likely to break up).
8.    Once the tofu is heated through, give the cornflour-based sauce a stir and pour it in. Mix very gently. Cook until the sauce begins to thicken and reduce in quantity.
9.    Add the cooked broccoli back to the wok. Once again, mix gently and thoroughly, so that the broccoli and tofu are coated with the sauce.
10.    Once the sauce has thickened, remove the wok from the heat. Serve immediately.

sweet-potatococonutpistachio-cake

I have a friend who maintains that drinking is good for him – because he only drinks organic wines and beers. I feel similar way about this recipe – it’s packed with vegetables and nuts, so surely it must be good for you… even if you are detoxing?

Traditional Caribbean cakes are scented rather heavily with sweet spices and essences. While they are delicious – especially with a cup of coffee made from freshly ground Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans – I have reduced the amount of spices that would normally be used in this cake, and have made the essences optional. This suits my own personal tastes but you can, of course, be more liberal with them if you wish.

For the best flavour and an appealingly moist texture, use freshly grated coconut. However, if it isn’t readily available or is too much of a hassle to prepare, desiccated coconut (sweetened or unsweetened) will still be delicious. You may reconstitute it in hot water, if you wish – though this is not strictly necessary for this recipe. If you use dried desiccated coconut, the cake will keep longer than it would if you were to use fresh or reconstituted coconut.

Use any kind of nuts you like – cashews, almonds and walnuts are all traditional, and I often ring changes by using different varieties in this recipe. If using pistachios or almonds, you may want to dip them in boiling water for a minute or so and remove their coarse skins – but again, this is not strictly necessary.

This is an old-fashioned cake recipe that’s quite forgiving – you can put as much or as little effort into it as you like, and the end result should still be finger lickin’ good. The only thing you have to remember is not to be heavy-handed in mixing the cake mixture, and not to over-cook the cake. Serves around 6.

9 oz/ 225g orange-fleshed sweet potatoes
Juice and finely grated zest of ½ lemon
4 oz/ 100g fresh grated or desiccated coconut
3 oz/ 75g sultanas
3 medium eggs
4 oz/ 100g white or pale brown caster sugar
6 oz/ 150g unsalted butter, softened
9 oz/ 225g wholemeal flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cinnamon powder
¼ teaspoon allspice berries, freshly ground
A couple of drops natural almond or vanilla extract (optional)
2 oz/ 50g unsalted, shelled pistachio nuts, chopped

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/ 350F/ gas mark 4. Grease a deep, 8-inch round cake tin, and line the base and all the sides with lightly buttered greaseproof paper.
2. Just when you’re ready to bake, peel and grate the sweet potatoes (not too far ahead in advance, otherwise they’ll start turning grey-black). Combine them with lemon juice and zest, coconut, and sultanas.
3. Beat the eggs, and whisk in the sugar and butter. Add to the sweet potato and coconut mixture, and mix well.
4. Sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and all the spices, and fold them into the cake mixture. Add the almond or vanilla extract, if using, and the chopped pistachios.
5. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Bake for 1¼ to 1½ hours. Pierce a skewer or knife into the centre of the cake to make sure it comes out clean. If not, place the cake back into the oven until done, taking care not to overcook.
6. Leave the cake in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out on a wire rack to cool before serving warm or at room temperature.

lentil-and-root-veg-stew-with-topping2

This recipe isn’t authentically Middle Eastern – but it’s authentically credit crunch-friendly. And, let’s face it, we could all do with a few of those right now!

Normally, when I go out for food shopping, I automatically reach for green leaves and brassicas (which I simply can’t get enough of), or buy glamorous veggies like aubergines, artichokes, asparagus or wild mushrooms. So my rather idiosyncratic new year resolution is to try and incorporate more root vegetables in my diet. After all, they are tasty, healthy, filling, and economical.

The tempering technique used here is found in Middle Eastern as well as Asian cuisines. So if you want this stew to have, say, Indian flavour, omit the thyme and parsley, and replace them with fresh coriander leaves (cilantro). Then cook in water rather than vegetable stock, and add a little red chilli powder and garam masala to the onion-garlic mixture. Again, not totally authentic, but delicious nonetheless.

In fact, that’s what I like about this recipe – that you can change its identity completely by changing the flavour profile. Which just goes to show how connected cuisines from different parts of the world are, and how historically they have influenced each other.

Eat the stew with warm pita bread, and some green salad if you like. Serves 3 to 4.

1.5 lb/ 750g mixed root vegetables: choose any combination of potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, swedes (rutabaga), kohlrabi, and celeriac (celery root)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, trimmed, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 sticks celery, peeled and sliced
150g/ 6 oz dried split red lentils, rinsed and drained
1.5 pints/ 750 ml vegetable stock (instant is fine)
2 dried bay leaves
8 oz/ 200g tomatoes, peeled and chopped (canned ones are fine)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (optional)
Salt and pepper
Juice of half a lemon

For the tempering:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, trimmed, peeled and finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 level tablespoon ground cumin
1 level tablespoon ground coriander

Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
Lemon wedges, to serve

1. Trim, peel and dice the vegetables in even-sized pieces, so that they all cook together consistently. (You can boil the discarded peel and trimmings with water to make vegetable stock – or not, as you prefer).
2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan, and cook the onions until they are slightly golden. Add the garlic and celery, and sauté for a few minutes, taking care not to burn.
3. Add the prepared vegetables and lentils, and sauté for a further 5 minutes.
4. Add the stock, bay leaves, tomatoes, and thyme. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower the heat, cover the pan with a lid, and simmer for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and the lentils cooked.
5. Meanwhile, for the tempering, heat the oil in a small frying pan on medium heat. Add the sliced onion and fry for 5 – 10 minutes until it’s golden brown.
6. Add the garlic until it’s tinged with light brown colour. Add the spices, and let them sizzle for a few seconds until they are cooked and they perfume your kitchen. Remove from the heat immediately and set aside.
7. Add the seasoning and lemon juice to the stew, and mix well. Then pour in the spice tempering (or, alternatively, the tempering could be poured onto individual servings). Garnish the stew with chopped parsley, and serve with lemon wedges.

potato-croquettes-in-a-pan

This is comfort food, plain and simple. And anyway, when is the last time you made croquettes? Potato croquettes are found all over Italy (and other parts of Europe), but the addition of chilli flakes is a typical Sicilian touch. These flavourful specimens are a fry cry from the bland, greasy abominations that go in the name of ‘vegetarian croquettes’ in supermarket chiller cabinets.

Don’t use your best extra virgin olive oil for this recipe – use a combination of light olive oil (which is more suitable for frying) and a mild vegetable oil, such as sunflower. Use a good quality potato variety with floury (rather than waxy) texture.

Serve with salad for a simple lunch or supper; or with plain steamed spinach, buttered sweetcorn, and grilled tomatoes for a more substantial dinner. Makes 8 croquettes/ serves 2 (for main meal) to 4 (as appetiser).

1 lb/ 500g large potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 oz/ 100g parmesan, pecorino, or locatelli cheese, grated
1 oz/ 25g mozzarella cheese, grated
1 teaspoon red chilli flakes
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
4 oz/ 100g plain white flour or semolina
5 oz/ 125g fresh or dried unflavoured breadcrumbs
Mixture of olive oil and sunflower oil for frying

1.    Boil or steam the potatoes until very tender. Drain in a colander, and cool a little.
2.    Mash the potatoes until they are creamy, making sure that there are no lumps. Cool thoroughly.
3.    Beat one egg and add it to the mashed potato, along with parsley, garlic, the cheeses, chilli flakes, nutmeg and seasoning. Mix thoroughly with lightly greased palms, and divide the mixture into 8 pieces. Roll the mixture into cylindrical croquette shapes.
4.    Sift the flour onto a large plate. Roll the croquettes in the flour so that each side is coated evenly.
5.    Beat the second egg and pour it into another plate. In a third plate, spread the breadcrumbs. Lightly roll each flour-coated croquette in turn in the beaten egg, and then in the breadcrumbs.
6.    Pour the oils in a frying pan so that they cover about ¼ inch of the base. Heat on medium heat until the oil is hot but not smoking. Fry the croquettes in batches of 2 or 3, turning them from time to time so that they are evenly browned on all sides.
7.    Drain on kitchen paper. Serve hot.

veggie-oden

This is a vegetarian version of the classic Japanese stew that’s normally made from meat, seafood, vegetables and tofu. It is ubiquitous in Japan during winter months and sold everywhere from street stalls to smart shops, where there might be a pot bubbling away behind the counter. I’m surprised it’s not better known in the West – or, at least, it is virtually unknown in the UK.

Don’t be intimidated by the ingredients, as the stew itself is simple to cook. Admittedly, it is time-consuming and involves several components, so a leisurely weekend would be the best time to prepare it. To cut down on the cooking time, you can use prepared mustard paste (available in little tins or tubes in Japanese shops); and, instead of making your own dashi, use mildly flavoured vegetable stock or instant vegetarian dashi powder (though the latter is not easy to find – you’ll have to make sure it doesn’t contain bonito fish flakes).

A very simple version of dashi can be made from soaking dried shiitake and kombu, and using the strained soaking water as stock. However, if you make Japanese food – or even only miso soup – regularly, it is a good idea to make your own dashi in large quantities and freeze it in ice cube trays for future use. Which is why I am giving a recipe here.

Konnyaku is speckled grey, gelatinous root of the ‘devils tongue’ plant. It is believed to be extremely low in calories, and regularly used by the Japanese for detoxing. Numerous health benefits are associated with it.

All the specialist ingredients can be bought from Japanese shops, but if you can’t find them, substitute vegetables such as baby turnips, baby pak choi, sweet potatoes, Japanese kabocha squash, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, etc. Stick to oriental roots, starches, greens or mushrooms as much as you can (rather than using, say, bell peppers, courgettes, etc). Indeed, aburage, fu, and konnyaku are used more for texture than flavour. You can make a simplified version of this dish using only two or three ingredients, and it will still taste good.

Oden is a unique combination of hearty and filling, yet light at the same time. It can be eaten on its own, or with plain white rice and pale pink Japanese ginger pickle. It should always be eaten with hot mustard, which is essential for this dish (it just won’t taste the same without it).

Here in the UK, the weather continues to be absolutely freezing – with snowfall and sub-zero temperatures all around – so the combination of ginger and mustard would certainly help clear the sinuses! Serves 4.

For the mustard condiment:
4 tablespoons Japanese (or English) mustard powder
Approx 12 tablespoons cold water

For the vegetarian dashi:
Approx 10-inch piece kombu (kelp) seaweed
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
4 pints/ 2 litres cold water
1 oz/ 25g tororo-kombu seaweed (or use nori if you can’t find it)
4 tablespoons sake (rice wine)
1 tablespoon mirin (sweet rice wine)
½ teaspoon sugar
5 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce

For the stew:
6 sheets aburage (flat sheets of fried tofu), or fu (small pieces of dried gluten)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 oz/ 250g firm tofu, drained on kitchen paper and cut into triangles
3 pints/ 1.5 litres vegetarian dashi (as above)
4 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce
4 tablespoons mirin
½ teaspoon sugar
2-inch piece kombu
2 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced chunkily
8oz/ 200g daikon radish, peeled and sliced chunkily
8oz/ 200g konnyaku, cut into triangles (similar to the tofu)
6 oz/ 150g fresh or prepared lotus root, sliced horizontally
4 large hardboiled eggs, shelled and left whole
Salt

1.    Prepare the mustard condiment first. Combine the mustard powder with water, making sure that the consistency is thinner than you would like (as it will gradually thicken). Set aside.
2.    Next make the dashi. Clean the kombu with dry kitchen paper to remove any grit, but do not wash otherwise it will lose its flavour. Snip into large pieces with scissors.
3.    Steep the kombu and dried mushrooms in a saucepan of water, and set aside for 3 or 4 hours.
4.    Gently heat the saucepan until the liquid reaches just below the boiling point. Remove the kombu and discard.
5.    Add tororo-kombu to the pan, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
6.    Add the remaining dashi ingredients. Again bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for a further 2 minutes.
7.    Drain through a sieve, and discard the seaweed and mushrooms. Set the dashi aside. It should have a pure, clean taste.
8.    Now make the stew. If using the aburage sheets, steep them briefly in boiling water to remove excess liquid. Rinse in cold water, squeeze between the palm of your hands, drain, and cut into 1-inch squares.
9.    Heat the oil in a small wok, and fry the tofu triangles until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper.
10.    Heat the dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sugar and kombu in a large saucepan, and bring to the boil. Add potatoes and carrots, and bring to the boil again. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes until almost tender.
11.    Add the daikon radish, konnyaku, and lotus root, and simmer for another 10 minutes.
12.    Add tofu, aburage (or around 16 pieces of fu), hardboiled eggs and salt, and simmer for 5 minutes. Check each vegetable for doneness, and adjust the seasoning.
13.    Remove the piece of kombu and discard. Carefully lift out each egg, cut it in half, and place the halved eggs back into the stew.
14.    Ladle the oden into individual bowls, and serve with small quantities of hot mustard.

koreanbeansproutsoup

Nutritious, low in calories, filling, tasty, easy to make, and widely regarded in Korea as the perfect hangover cure – this is the ideal recipe for those of you who are detoxing.

Buy long, plump soybean sprouts from Korean or Japanese shops, where they come with their brown, stringy roots already removed – so you don’t have to go through the mundane and time-consuming process of doing it yourself. You can use mung bean sprouts if you can’t find soybean sprouts – but, please, not the insipid, watery variety sold in sweaty supermarket plastic bags.

For the best flavour, use homemade Asian stock – made from a few Asian vegetables such as dried shiitake mushrooms and fresh daikon (mooli) radish. Most Western-style stocks will interfere with the flavour of this dish (unless you can get a plain, neutral-tasting one. In the UK and Europe, Marigold brand is suitable).

Korean chilli powder and chilli threads are available in some Korean delis (in the UK, a few in New Malden stock them). If you can’t find chilli threads – which taste quite mild and ever so slightly smoky – use red chilli flakes instead.

This is such a simple recipe that its success depends on top quality ingredients. Serves 4 to 5.

2.5 pints/ 1.25 litres Asian-style vegetable stock or water
2 lb/ 1 kilo soybean sprouts, trimmed
4 tablespoons soy sauce
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2-inch piece ginger, peeled and finely shredded
1 tablespoon dark toasted sesame oil
½ teaspoon Korean chilli powder, or any other chilli powder
Salt to taste
8 spring onions (scallions), trimmed and sliced
Korean chilli threads, to taste

1.    Boil 1 pint/ 0.5 litres of the stock or water in a large saucepan. Add the beansprouts, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 10 minutes.
2.    Add soy sauce, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, chilli powder and salt. Then add all the remaining stock or water, and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for another 10 minutes.
3.    Add the spring onions, and simmer for 2 more minutes.
4.    Ladle into soup bowls. Snip the Korean chilli threads with scissors, and garnish each bowl of soup with a few. Serve hot.

What will be the first dish that you eat on New Year’s Day? Will it involve fresh truffles, rare cheeses, dark chocolate or champagne? Or will you be using (out of season) strawberries, asparagus or morel mushrooms?

My first dish is always the same: a mixture of lentils and noodles. So why am I choosing such mundane ingredients in favour of luxurious ones? There are two reasons.

The first and foremost reason is: noodles represent longevity in Chinese and other Asian cultures and are always eaten at new year; whereas lentils are believed to bring good luck by people of Italy and other Mediterranean countries, and are traditionally eaten at new year, too. So if you combine noodles and lentils, you are bound to receive a double dose of longevity and luck. Not a bad start to the year!

The second reason is simply that after all the rich, heavy foods consumed during Christmas, this simple, down-to-earth, unpretentious dish brings me comfort and keeps me grounded. And if you have a reasonably well-stocked larder, you won’t have to do any shopping either.

The spices help to kick-start the post-festive jaded palate. I use rather a lot of spices, onions and garlic in this recipe – otherwise it would be plain and bland, as it has no main ingredients other than starch – but you can adjust the quantity to suit your taste.

Like Syrians, I like to eat this dish as it is. However, you can add fresh tomatoes while cooking; or serve it with a simple tomato sauce (not one with too many herbs), or plain yoghurt mixed with some fresh parsley. You may add a squeeze of lemon too, if you like. (If you use any of these suggested embellishments, you might want to reduce the quantity of spices – otherwise there could be too many clashing flavours).

Accompany with a bowl of soup and a crisp mixed salad; or serve with a platter of grilled Mediterranean vegetables – aubergines go especially well. Serves 4.

7 oz/ 175g whole brown or green lentils OR 1 x 16 oz can
1 level tablespoon cumin seeds
1 level tablespoon coriander seeds
2 cloves
1-inch piece cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon allspice berries
½ teaspoon hot red chilli powder or chilli flakes
8 oz/ 200g Middle Eastern rishta noodles (or thick vermicelli, egg noodles, wheat noodles, spaghetti, linguini or fettuccini)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, peeled and chopped or finely sliced
8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Salt and pepper
2 oz/ 50g butter, melted
Chopped flat-leaf parsley, to garnish

1.    Wash the lentils, cook until tender (between 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how old they are), and drain. If using tinned lentils, rinse and drain thoroughly.
2.    In a small frying pan, toast the cumin and coriander seeds, cloves, and cinnamon until they are just a few shades darker and become aromatic. Take care not to burn them. Let them cool a little, then crush them in a mortar or pulverize them in a spice grinder, along with allspice berries (which don’t need toasting). Add the chilli powder or flakes to the spice mixture, and set aside.
3.    Cook the noodles according to packet instructions, drain and plunge in cold water to prevent them from cooking further.
4.    In a wide, heavy saucepan, heat the oil on medium heat and cook the onions until they are golden brown. Turn the heat to very low, add garlic and spice mixture, and stir for a few minutes until it perfumes your kitchen. Make sure it doesn’t go too dark in colour, or it will taste bitter.
5.    Add the cooked lentils, noodles and seasoning. Mix gently and thoroughly so that the noodles and lentils are evenly coated with spices.
6.    Pour over the melted butter and garnish with parsley before serving.

WISHING ALL THE READERS A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!

tropical-fruit-punch

I was thinking of offering a special occasion recipe for new year’s eve – but I gave plenty of festive recipes in the run up to Christmas, so I thought I would take a break! So here’s an easy exotic fruit punch instead.

Actually, winter is the ideal time to buy tropical fruit as there’s such little choice of native fruit in the market anyway. This Caribbean-style non-alcoholic drink will bring the taste of sunshine to the greyest of days, and will make designated drivers at your new year’s eve party feel special. If there’s any left over, it also has the advantage of being a healthy drink to kick-start your new year’s day.

Buy tropical fruits from ethnic greengrocers as they will be fresher and cheaper, and you will have more variety to choose from. Add lemon/ lime juice and sugar according to taste (it depends on the ratio of sweet and sour fruit you use).

If possible, buy artisanal lemonade (which is pale, milky yellow) and ginger ale, available from delicatessens. These are drinks produced by small companies that have less sickly-sweet, more home-style taste than the larger commercial brands. Serves around 10 to 15.

2 lb/ 1 kilo fresh tropical fruit – mixture of pineapple, mango, papaya, guava, kumkquat, mangosteen, star fruit, persimmon, lychee, banana etc (as many varieties as you like)
Pulp of 4 passion fruits
Juice of 6 ortaniques or oranges
1 large or 2 medium bottles lemonade, chilled
1 medium bottle ginger ale, chilled
Juice of lemons or limes, to taste
Lots of crushed ice
Caster sugar, to taste (optional – you’ll only need it if you’re using too much sour fruit)

1. Trim, peel, and slice or dice all the fruit fairly small. Set some aside for garnish (say, a few slices of star fruit, for instance).

2. Place all the ingredients in a large punch bowl and mix well. Pour into glasses and garnish with the reserved fruit.

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