July 2009


South Indian green beans with coconut

My South Indian friend, Thiru, is renowned for his lavish weekend brunches, when he cooks up a large variety of traditional dishes that he learnt from his mother: spongy white rice cakes known as ‘idli’, accompanied by ‘sambhar’, a spicy lentil and vegetable gravy, along with the popular rice and lentil pancakes called ‘dosa’ and a plethora of green and red chutneys, pickles and dips. He often puts vividly coloured, quickly cooked vegetable dishes on the table, too – this being one of them.

I spent a recent weekend morning watching Thiru speedily whip up all these dishes, and wrote down the recipe for green beans exactly as he dictated it. My friend tells me that it can be made from other vegetables, too, such as green cabbage, carrots, beetroot (beets), green bananas, or other varieties of green beans like runner beans. In fact, I’ve tried a version of this dish in upmarket Indian restaurants in the UK made from asparagus, which I’m going to have a go at cooking next.

If you don’t have a well-stocked Indian larder, a trip to an Indian grocer will be necessary – or at least a visit to the ‘ethnic’ section of a large supermarket. Yes, the mustard seeds need to be black, not the more commonly found yellow, and the mild red chillies could be ones labelled as ‘Kashmiri’. Lentils are often used in South Indian cooking as a spice. If you can’t find urid dal – which is a type of white lentil with a distinctively nutty, ever so slightly smoky taste – then use ordinary red lentils. They’re there to provide crunch and texture, so it doesn’t really matter which type of lentil you use.

If you can’t get hold of fresh curry leaves and fresh coconut – both of which are also available frozen in Asian grocers – it’s not really worth attempting this recipe. Well, you can reconstitute dried desiccated coconut in boiling water before use, but the dish won’t taste as it’s meant to. Asafoetida is a type of powdered resin with a strong, pungent aroma (which mellows after cooking, giving the dish a distinctive taste), so it should be used sparingly.

I was a bit hesitant about posting this recipe, as it requires so many specialist ingredients. But I don’t believe in adapting recipes to suit western kitchens – it’s patronising and, after all, speciality ingredients are widely available in most large cities if you know where to find them. (If you don’t, ask members of the particular community whose recipe you’re cooking, and they will be more than happy to advise you). Besides, I would be assuming that all my readers live in western countries, which is not the case – one of the best things about having a blog, especially a global recipe blog such as this, is that you have readers from around the world!

This dish doesn’t have a sauce or gravy, and it needs to be cooked quickly (especially steps 2 to 5) to prevent burning. Don’t be daunted though – it’s light, refreshing, nutritious, flavour-packed, and easy to cook.

Serve the green beans with plain rice, plain yoghurt, poppadams and an Indian ginger pickle. The dish won’t keep long because of the fresh coconut, so leftovers would be delicious stuffed in warmed pita breads or toasted sandwiches, or turned into half-moon shaped pasties made from ready-rolled puff pastry. Serves 4.

1 lb/ 500g fresh fine green beans
4 tablespoons corn or sunflower oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
Dried large, mild whole red chillies, to taste
1 tablespoon urid dal (or red lentils)
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
8 – 10 fresh curry leaves
¼ teaspoon asafoetida
Salt
2 oz/ 50g finely grated fresh coconut
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
A squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice (optional)

1.    Trim the green beans at both ends. Either leave them whole, cut them in half, or chop them small. If you leave them whole or halve them, steam the beans for 3 to 4 minutes until tender but still crisp. (You won’t need to follow this step if you chop them small, as South Indians do, as they will cook quickly).
2.    Heat the oil in a frying pan. When very hot but not smoking, add the mustard seeds and remove from the heat immediately. Cover the pan with a lid and let the mustard seeds pop. They should become dark grey, but must not burn.
3.    Once the mustard seeds have stopped making the popping noise, place the pan back on the heat, and immediately add the dried chillies and urid dal. Stir once or twice.
4.    When the chillies turn a couple of shades darker and the urid dal starts turning pinkish-brown, add the sesame seeds and curry leaves. Stir again.
5.    Finally, when the curry leaves become crisp and turn a shade or two darker, and the sesame seeds start turning pale brown, remove the pan from the heat, and add the asafoetida. Let everything sizzle for just a few seconds.
6.    Place the pan back on heat, immediately add the green beans and coat them evenly in the spice mixture. Add the salt, and let them cook with the lid on until the beans are tender but have still retained their bright green colour.
7.    Top the cooked beans with coconut and coriander, and stir a couple of times. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice if you wish. Remove the red chillies and curry leaves before serving – or let your guests fish them out from their own plates, as South Indians do – and eat immediately.

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Moroccan vegetable kebabs

The versatile chermoula serves as a sauce and a marinade in a wide variety of Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian dishes. Although traditionally used with seafood, it is also mixed with pureed tomatoes to create a delicious sauce for green beans, broad (fava) beans or carrots. Recipes vary widely, often containing ingredients like finely chopped pickled lemons. In this dish, my Moroccan-recipe chermoula imparts a wonderful flavour to fresh vegetables. Serving little saucers of ground cumin on the side is the tradition in Morocco.

Serve the kebabs with plenty of couscous flecked with saffron, finely chopped herbs such as parsley and mint, and sliced nuts like almonds and pistachios. If you are serving the kebabs as part of a barbecue spread, you can also grill freshly made or shop-bought flatbreads on the barbecue, along with skewers of cubed white cheese. A big bowl of green salad, and a side salad of sliced oranges, red onions and black olives would be perfect, along with little saucers of pickled lemons and harissa or chilli sauce on the table. Serves 4.

For chermoula:
½  pint/ 300 ml virgin olive oil (Moroccan, if you have it)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon saffron strands
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons ground dried ginger
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
Small bunch fresh coriander (cilantro), trimmed and minced
Fine grain sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

For the kebabs:
1 small cauliflower, trimmed and separated into florets
1 medium aubergine (eggplant), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 small fennel bulbs, trimmed and quartered
1 courgette (zucchini), sliced into 1-inch pieces
1 red and 1 green pepper (bell pepper), trimmed and cut into 1-inch squares
12 tiny baby onions, trimmed, peeled and left whole

To serve:
2 tablespoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and coarsely crushed

1.    To make the chermoula, combine all the chermoula ingredients in a small bowl and mix until well-blended. Set aside.
2.    To make the kebabs, blanch or steam the cauliflower, aubergine and fennel for 5 – 7 minutes. They should be fairly soft, but not falling-off-the-fork tender, otherwise they will become mushy. Drain and cool.
3.    Place the par-boiled and raw vegetables together in a large bowl. Add the marinade, gently rubbing it all over the vegetables so that they are evenly coated. Cover and set aside for between 30 minutes to 4 hours, tossing the vegetables occasionally.
4.    About 15 – 20 minutes before you are ready to eat, heat up the barbecue or grill (broiler). Thread the marinated vegetables on metal skewers, reserving the marinade for basting.
5.    Barbecue or grill the skewers, rotating them carefully and basting the vegetables several times until lightly and evenly browned.
6.    Serve hot with the crushed cumin on the side.

Mexican green pea soup

I love shelling peas – somehow it makes me feel like a proper, grown-up cook. I imagine Elizabeth David used to shell tender peas in her garden on warm sunny days, pick a few herbs and sauté her green treasures together in unsalted butter. Simple but, I’m sure, utterly delicious.

I unfortunately made the mistake of declaring to my friends and family members how much I love shelling peas and how therapeutic I find it – because now, almost every time they see me in the summer, they give me a big bowl of peas to shell.

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbour Laura went one step further. We were sitting down watching tennis during the Wimbledon Championships, when she put an enormous BUCKET of pea pods in front of me and asked – in a terribly polite, gentle, unassuming British manner – whether I would very much mind shelling them. It took me two hours to get through the lot – thankfully, it was a five-set match – and once I was done, she asked me to cook with them!

This is the soup I made with some of the peas (the rest were subsequently used in pasta, risotto and curry). The soup is known as sopa de chicharos, and versions of the recipe, often made with dried green split peas, are found all over Mexico as well as Cuba.

Laura and I wolfed down the vibrant emerald-hued soup with sweetcorn and red chilli muffins straight from the oven – but it goes equally well with cornmeal bread, wholemeal pumpkin seed bread, or tortilla chips. Serves 4 – 6.

2 oz/ 50g finely minced flat-leaf parsley
3 oz/ 75g butter
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt
Freshly ground white pepper
1 medium egg
2 medium onions, trimmed, peeled and thinly sliced
2 pints/ 1 litre well-flavoured vegetable stock
1 lb/ 450g fresh green peas (shelled weight)
1 large avocado, peeled, halved, stoned and thinly sliced

1.    Mix the parsley with 1 oz/ 25g butter, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
2.    Lightly beat the egg and combine well with the parsley butter. Set aside for about 15 minutes.
3.    Heat the remaining butter in a large saucepan, taking care not to burn it. Fry the onions until soft but not browned.
4.    Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Add the peas, lower the heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes with the lid on.
5.    Remove the lid, and carefully drop in the parsley mixture one teaspoon at a time.
6.    Cover again with the lid, and cook for 10 or 15 minutes or until the peas are tender.
7.    OPTIONAL STEP: If you want smooth-textured soup with a glossy sheen, blend the soup using a hand blender. Otherwise leave it as it is. (This is my own preference – a clear soup with whole green peas and fluffy, eggy bits floating on top – but many people prefer it blended).
8.    Season the soup to taste. Serve in bowls garnished with the sliced avocado.

Chilled Japanese buckwheat noodles

This simple, austere, no-frills dish – known as ‘zaru soba’ in Japan – is perfect for hot weather. Well, it’s simple if you shop in Japanese stores regularly, or have all the ingredients on hand – otherwise a trip to a Japanese food emporium is absolutely necessary. The noodles are traditionally served on square wooden zaru soba dishes, but woven bamboo plates or chilled china plates are also suitable.

Use all the ingredients exactly as specified – do not substitute, say, ordinary ramen noodles for the soba, red radish for the white radish, and so on. Not only will it not taste the same, but the dish will lose its distinctive identity. If you’re not used to cooking Japanese food, this recipe is a good excuse to play around with unfamiliar ingredients and flavours. Ready-made dipping sauce and instant vegetarian dashi are perfectly good in this fuss-free, easy-to-make dish, but if you do want to make your own, I have given the recipes below.

Chilled buckwheat noodles are best eaten as a snack or for light lunch in the garden, accompanied by a bowl of clear, delicate miso soup, some chilled silken tofu or a few pieces of tempura (which can be dunked into the same dipping sauce). It’s also fun to make, and the presentation over ice adds a touch of drama and a talking point. Serves 4.

14 oz/ 350g dried soba (Japanese buckwheat) noodles
4-inch piece white daikon/ mooli radish, peeled
8 spring onions, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal
2 teaspoons wasabi (Japanese green horseradish) paste
4 sachets ajitsuke nori seaweed, finely shredded with scissors
One 330 ml/ approx 11 fl oz bottle of tempura-tsuyu dipping sauce (I like the ‘Yamasa’ brand which is delicious and suitable for vegetarians), chilled in the refrigerator

1.    TO PREPARE SOBA NOODLES IN THE AUTHENTIC JAPANESE WAY FOR THIS RECIPE: Bring plenty of water to boil in a large saucepan. When it’s boiling rapidly, add the soba noodles. Return to the boil. Add a mug of cold water and bring to the boil again. (If you want to be a purist, repeat the process twice with a further two mugs of cold water). Lower the heat and simmer rapidly without the lid for about 10 minutes, or until the noodles are just cooked. Remove the pan from heat, drain the noodles, and plunge them in a large bowl of cold water under a running tap. Stir gently to separate the strands, and drain again, very thoroughly. When the noodles have cooled, cover and chill them in the refrigerator. Just before you are ready to eat, place the noodles on a decorative platter over a large container/ bucket of ice.
2.    Finely grate the daikon radish and leave on kitchen paper to drain. Do not squeeze.
3.    To serve, divide the noodles between four square wooden zaru soba dishes (or on bamboo sushi mats arranged on pretty Japanese pottery). Sprinkle nori seaweed strips over each portion. Neatly arrange a mound of spring onions, a dab of wasabi, and a small cone-shaped portion of grated daikon around the noodles. Give each person a small dipping bowl filled with chilled tempura-tsuyu dipping sauce.
4.    To eat, mix the wasabi, grated daikon and spring onions into the tempura-tsuyu dipping sauce. Using chopsticks, take a portion of noodles and submerge them into the dipping sauce before eating.

TO MAKE YOUR OWN TEMPURA-TSUYU DIPPING SAUCE:

12 tablespoons dashi, or light vegetable, mushroom or seaweed stock
4 tablespoons mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine)
4 tablespoons sake (fortified Japanese rice wine)
4 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce

Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan and heat until the mixture just comes to boiling point. Remove from the heat immediately, and allow to cool at room temperature. For the zaru soba recipe above, chill in the refrigerator. (Otherwise this dipping sauce is eaten warm or lukewarm with tempura).

TO MAKE YOUR OWN VEGETARIAN DASHI:

Follow either of my two vegetarian dashi recipes: the more complex one incorporated into the Vegetarian Oden recipe posted on 7th January 2009, or a simplified version that’s part of the Agedashi Tofu recipe written on 31st October 2008.

Wimbledon cake

I love tennis. Or more accurately, I love the time of Wimbledon Championships. You get glimpses of Ye Olde England – the near-mythical age of fogs and mists, men walking around in top hats and ladies nibbling on crustless cucumber sandwiches.

I must admit that, other than a few glorious heatwave-friendly salads (the one with miniature baby potatoes, fresh peas, mozzarella, wild rocket, toasted pine nuts and extravagant quantities of silky green asparagus was particularly delicious), I haven’t done much cooking since the Championships began. I have either travelled down to London to visit Wimbledon, or have been glued to my TV watching Wimbledon, or have been sitting in my garden with strawberries and Pimms imagining myself to be at Wimbledon.

Except for this cake. I wanted to concoct a strawberry and cream cake that could be enjoyed not only during Wimbledon, but on all special summer occasions – of which there are plenty. Since there’s enough cream in the filling, I didn’t put any butter in the cake (only small quantities needed for greasing the cake tin). Happily, it works. The semolina gives the cake a slightly crunchy, dense texture.

I used strawberry jam that I had made last month from tiny little strawberries that grow in my garden. I was going to post the recipe, but given that some food bloggers are sharing recipes for exotic and imaginative jams and marmalades, my own humble effort felt a little, well, humble.

Serve the cake with crustless white cucumber or watercress sandwiches, plump scones, a pot of tea, and a glass of champagne or Pimms for the taste of England in summertime. Makes one 8-inch cake.

For the cake:
Unsalted butter, softened, for greasing

3 eggs, separated
4 oz/ 100g caster (powdered) sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
3 oz/ 75g semolina

For the filling:
8 oz/ 200g strawberry jam or coulis
A few fresh strawberries, finely sliced (optional)
5 fl oz/ 150 ml clotted or whipping cream, lightly whipped

To finish:
Icing (superfine) sugar
Fresh strawberries, sliced or left whole (optional)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/ 350F/ gas mark 4. Grease a deep, round 8-inch (20 cm) cake tin and line it with buttered greaseproof paper (butter side up).
2. Place the egg yolks, sugar, grated orange zest and juice and the semolina into a bowl and mix well until thoroughly combined.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry, then gently fold them into the orange and semolina mixture. Pour into the prepared cake tin.
4. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30-35 minutes until well-risen and pale golden brown. The top of the cake should spring back when lightly pressed with a finger.
5. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out and leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
6. Meanwhile, heat the strawberry jam or coulis on gentle heat until it is runny. (I’m suggesting 200g, but adjust the quantity – half a jar, whole jar – to suit your own taste). Let it cool a little at the same time the cake is cooling.
7. To fill, carefully split the cake in half horizontally and fill with the strawberry jam, the clotted or whipped cream and, if using, a few sliced strawberries.
8. Just before serving, sift some icing sugar over the top and, if desired, decorate with fresh strawberries. Enjoy the cake a little warm or at room temperature – but it must be eaten on the same day as it won’t keep.