April 2009


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.