June 2009


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.

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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.