May 2009


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.

Advertisements

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.