March 2009


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.