December 2008


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.

panettone-bread-and-butter-pudding

Did you have a good Christmas? Do you, like me, have a lot of leftover panettone (the marvellous Italian fruit bread) to use up? This recipe is an Italian twist on the classic English bread and butter pudding (which is often served with custard). I have given only the basic recipe, but each year I vary it slightly. Sometimes I spread the panettone slices lightly with orange marmalade; on other occasions I add dried fruit (such as cranberries, cherries, blueberries, or sultanas) soaked in brandy in between each layer. Or I might chop up some leftover glace fruit or marron glace, and add that in, too.

The pudding is very, very rich, but I make no apologies as it is still the festive season. You can make a low fat version by omitting the ricotta cheese and icing sugar altogether, replacing the double cream with single cream, and reducing the quantity of cream and sugar – but, trust me, it won’t taste as good. Just serve in small portions, and think of it as an annual treat. Serves 4.

6 oz/ 150g leftover panettone
3 oz/ 75g ricotta cheese (or butter if you prefer)
2 medium eggs
½ pint/ 300ml double cream
3 oz/ 75g white sugar
Icing sugar for dusting

Mascarpone cheese or ice cream (vanilla, orange, rum and raisin, or chestnut flavours are recommended), to serve

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/ 350F/ gas mark 4.
2. Slice the panettone fairly thickly, and spread each slice with ricotta cheese (or butter). If you wish, you can toast the slices very lightly under a grill (not in a toaster as it can get a bit messy). However, I prefer to leave them untoasted.
3. Beat the eggs well with cream and sugar.
4. Layer the panettone slices in a greased baking dish, ricotta side down. Pour over the egg mixture evenly, and bake in the oven for 25 minutes until golden brown.
5. Remove from the oven and leave the pudding to stand for 5 minutes. Dust with icing sugar, and serve with a blob of mascarpone or a scoop of ice cream. If you got jars of fruit preserved in alcohol (such as oranges in rum) for Christmas, spoon a couple of tablespoons of their content along the side. Enjoy without guilt!

glogg

This potent drink is the Swedish version of mulled wine or gluhwein. It is served in small glasses at festive parties, alongside saffron and raisin buns or gingerbread with blue cheese. Water is not normally used to dilute it, but you can add a cup if you wish. For a non-alcoholic version, follow the recipe using blackcurrant or red grape juice. Serves 6.

1 bottle inexpensive, medium-bodied red wine
6 tablespoons unflavoured Schnapps, vodka or brandy (optional but good)
1-inch piece whole dried ginger (or fresh ginger, peeled and bruised)
2 sticks cinnamon
2 cardamom pods, bruised
6 cloves
1 long strip dried orange peel (or fresh, if you can’t find it)
6 tablespoons brown sugar, or to taste
6 tablespoons raisins
6 tablespoons almonds, blanched, peeled and left whole

1.    Place the wine, Schnapps/ vodka/ brandy, all the spices and orange peel in a non-metallic saucepan or bowl. Leave to marinate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
2.    When you are ready to serve, divide the almonds and raisins between 6 mugs.
3.    Add sugar to the wine mixture, and heat it gently until it is almost boiling. Do not let it boil, or the alcohol will evaporate. Use a cooking thermometer if you want to be accurate.
4.    Taste the hot wine to ensure that it has the right amount of sugar and spice for your taste; then dilute the wine with water, or add more alcohol or sugar if you wish. Pour the wine through a small sieve into individual glasses. Serve immediately.

WISHING ALL THE READERS MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

saffron-and-champagne-risotto

This is essentially the classic Italian risotto alla Milanese, given a festive touch. Not only does it taste delicious, but the dramatic presentation I have suggested can be something of a party trick! Serve with steamed or roasted asparagus, or a spinach and avocado salad. It can also be eaten Italian-style as a first course. Serves 4.

2 pints/ 1 litre well-flavoured vegetable stock (ideally home-made)
4 oz/ 100g unsalted butter
2 tablespoons good-quality virgin olive oil
4 large shallots OR 2 small white onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 very small bottle champagne
14 oz/ 350g vialone nano risotto rice
¼ to ½ teaspoon top-quality saffron strands, crushed in a mortar
Salt and pepper
4 oz/ 100g vegetarian parmesan (or similar hard Italian cheese)
4 tablespoons single cream
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley leaves

To serve:
Gold leaf (optional)
1 normal-sized bottle champagne, chilled

1.    Bring the stock to a boil, reduce the heat to very low and keep it just below the simmering point.
2.    Meanwhile, melt the butter and oil together in a saucepan. Add the shallots and sauté for 5 minutes until soft but not brown.
3.    Add 6 tablespoons of the stock to the shallots, along with the contents of the small bottle of champagne. Heat until the mixture is reduced by half.
4.    Add the rice and cook on a medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring continuously.
5.    Add the saffron and seasoning. Then add the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring the rice between each addition. Make sure that the rice absorbs the liquid and that the liquid reduces in quantity before you add the next ladleful. This process takes patience as you have to constantly stand at the stove, stirring the rice as you go. Do not be tempted to tip all the liquid into the rice at the same time. The rice should take about 20 minutes to cook. The consistency should be soupy, and the grains of rice should be tender and mushy.
6.    Remove from the heat, and stir in the cream and some of the parmesan and parsley. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
7.    To serve the risotto: Working quickly so that it doesn’t get cold, pile the risotto onto a large, heated serving platter. (Use a black one for dramatic effect). Garnish the risotto with gold leaf, if using. Make a small ‘well’ in the centre of the risotto. Wipe the bottle of champagne with a dry cloth, and place it in the ‘well’. Then carefully uncork the bottle while it’s still standing on the platter, so that the bubbles drip down into the risotto beneath. Once your guests’ ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ have died down, scoop the risotto into individual serving dishes and sprinkle with the remaining parmesan and parsley. Pour the remaining champagne into glasses and drink it with the risotto.

roquefort-souffle

I love soufflés. I love the fact that they’re light and fluffy, yet have a distinctly ‘special occasion’ feel to them. For someone to make an effort to make you soufflé, they must really love you. Which is why my advice is: don’t be nervous of making soufflé. So what if it sinks? Your friends and family will adore you all the same.

The secret of a successful soufflé lies in folding in the egg whites correctly – with long and semi-circular movements with a palette knife – and in not stirring the mixture too much, certainly not in heavy-handed way.

This recipe is very French in its influence – though the cranberry sauce is a non-French festive touch. You can leave it out if you wish, and simply serve the soufflé with steamed baby vegetables, or a crisp salad made from sliced apples, rocket (arugula), chicory and red radicchio.

This recipe is dedicated to those vegetarians who are looking for something light yet indulgent, and would never go near a hale and hearty nut roast! Serves 6.

For the cranberry sauce:
7 oz/ 175g cranberries
5 oz/ 125g white caster sugar
Juice and finely grated zest of ½ orange
1 teaspoon allspice berries, finely crushed in a mortar

For the soufflé:
2 oz/ 50g hazelnuts
2 oz/ 50g unsalted butter + extra for greasing
2 oz/ 50g plain white flour
8 fl oz/ ½ pint whole milk (not low fat)
2 dried bay leaves
4 oz/ 100g roquefort cheese, crumbled
3 eggs, separated
4 oz/ 100g celeriac (celery root), peeled and finely grated
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper

1. Start by making the cranberry sauce. Wash the cranberries and, with just the amount of water clinging to them, heat them in a saucepan on gentle heat for 10 minutes until they are soft.
2. Add the sugar, orange juice and zest, and ground allspice. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes until the sauce acquires a jelly-like consistency. Set aside to cool.
3. To make the soufflé, pre-heat the oven to 375 C/ 190 C/ gas mark 5.
4. Grease 6 individual ramekins. Toast the hazelnuts in a small frying pan without any oil or butter. Cool, and coarsely grind in a small mixer. Lightly coat the base and sides of the ramekins with half of the ground hazelnuts.
5. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and cook for a minute, stirring continuously.
6. Pour in the milk and bay leaves and cook until the sauce thickens. (You will need to stir the mixture frequently to make sure that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, and also to avoid lumps from forming). Cook for a couple of minutes, then cool slightly.
7. Add the roquefort, egg yolks, grated celeriac, thyme leaves, seasoning, and the remaining hazelnuts, and stir gently.
8. Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Fold them into the celeriac mixture.
9. Remove the bay leaves, and pour the soufflé mixture into the prepared ramekins. Place the ramekins into a roasting pan and add enough boiling water to reach two-thirds of the way up the sides of the dishes.
10. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes until well risen and golden. Serve immediately with a little of the cranberry sauce.

english-veggie-pie1

I was wary of doing another white bean recipe so soon after the recent two. But when you are vegetarian, there’s no such thing as ‘too many bean recipes’, right?

This pie is very typical of what vegetarians in the UK eat at around this time of the year. Similar pies also feature on the menus of the British restaurants that are currently very trendy (yes, many of us Brits are re-discovering how delicious properly made regional British dishes can be – and falling in love with grandma-style hearty pies, stews, breads, cakes and puddings all over again!).

Artisanal virgin cold-pressed rapeseed oil (as opposed to pale, bland supermarket imitations) is worth hunting down. It has delicious, slightly sharp and herby flavour. It’s no wonder it’s currently all the rage: produced in the English countryside, it has been hailed by many as ‘the new olive oil’.

This recipe is wonderful served English-style with well-flavoured gravy and plenty of side vegetables. Serves 4.

PLEASE NOTE: I will post a Christmas-friendly recipe on this blog every day until 23rd December.

6 oz dried butterbeans, soaked for a few hours, OR 1 x 425g can
4 tablespoons rapeseed oil (if you want to be truly English about it) or vegetable oil
2 large onions, peeled and chopped
4 celery sticks, peeled and thickly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 level tablespoons plain white flour
½ pint/ 300 ml vegetable stock
¼ pint/ 150 ml pale beer, or lightly flavoured mushroom stock
2 dried bay leaves
1 level tablespoon Marmite
1 heaped tablespoon wholegrain English mustard
Salt and pepper
9 oz/ 225g carrots, trimmed, scraped and thickly sliced
9 oz/ 225g swede or pumpkin, peeled and chunkily diced
9 oz/ 225g leeks, trimmed and thickly sliced
9 oz/ 225g baby turnips, trimmed, peeled and halved
4 oz/ 225g chestnut mushrooms, wiped with a wet cloth and halved
4 oz/ 100g small pearl onions, peeled and left whole
Scant tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Scant tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
Scant tablespoon fresh sage leaves, chopped
Scant tablespoon fresh marjoram, chopped (optional)
2 heaped tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
12 oz/ 400g fresh ready-rolled puff pastry
Beaten egg whites, cold milk or cold water to glaze

1. Soak the butterbeans for 3 or 4 hours. There is no need to soak them any longer otherwise, whilst cooking them, you’ll find yourself with pearlescent water – with no sign of the butterbeans! Cook for 30 – 45 minutes or until tender. Alternatively, rinse and drain canned butterbeans.
2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add the onions and celery, and sauté until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and let it sizzle for a few seconds.
3. Lower the heat, sprinkle in the flour, and stir for a minute or so until it becomes a couple of shades darker and gives off ‘cooked’ aroma. Pour in the vegetable stock, beer or mushroom stock, and bay leaves, and cook until the liquid has thickened slightly.
4. Add the Marmite, mustard, seasoning, carrots, swede or pumpkin, leeks and turnips. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and cook for 10 – 15 minutes until the vegetables are al dente.
5. Add the mushrooms, baby onions, all the fresh herbs except parsley, and the cooked butterbeans. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes until all the vegetables are tender, and the beans have absorbed the flavours of the sauce. The vegetables should look chunky and not turn into a mush, so do keep an eye on the cooking time.
6. Add the parsley, adjust the seasoning, remove the bay leaves, and leave the mixture aside to cool. It should be somewhat runny but not too liquid – you don’t want the pie to be too sloppy or too dry, so it’s essential to get the consistency right.
7. Heat the oven to 200 C/ 400 F/ gas mark 6.
8. Lightly roll the pastry sheet once or twice with a rolling pin. Measure it against the top of a medium pie dish and cut around with a sharp knife, leaving a generous 1-inch edge all around that’s a little bigger than the dish. Cover the pastry lid with a damp tea towel to prevent it from drying out, and set aside.
9. Scrunch the excess remaining pastry into a ball, then roll it out until you have a thin pastry sheet. Cut this sheet into long, narrow strips.
10. Brush the rim of the pie dish with egg whites, milk or water. Brush the pastry lid and the pastry strips with the same.
11. Lightly grease the pie dish, and place the vegetable filling inside, levelling it out evenly. Arrange the pastry strips around the top of the rim, pressing down firmly.
12. Then carefully place the pastry lid on top, pressing it down firmly around the edges so that the pastry strips and the pastry lid fuse together. This is important, otherwise the filling will ooze out of any gaps in the pastry. Crimp the sides if you like, and make decorative designs on top if you wish. Pierce a tiny hole in the pastry lid to let the steam escape.
13. Bake the pie in the pre-heated oven for 20 minutes until puffed up and golden brown.
14. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve with a red onion or mushroom gravy, if you like, alongside mashed or roast potatoes and steamed green vegetables like brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale or seasonal green cabbage like January King.

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