August 2009


Mexican watermelon ice

So, summer is drawing to a close. I first realised this when I saw plants and bushes slowly shrivelling, ready to turn into skeletons, marvelled at apple and pear trees already heavy with fruit, and experienced the crunch of brown leaves under my feet. Actually, it dawned on me even sooner: when my brother got his ‘A’ level results, I started seeing ‘back to school’ notices everywhere, and somebody invited me to an end-of-summer ball.

This simple, 3-ingredient watermelon ice is typical of what you would buy from a street vendor in Mexico. Everywhere in Mexico you see vendors proffering fresh fruit, from the mundane to the paradisiacal. The fruit may be peeled, sliced and ready to eat, or pureed and blended with mineral water for liquid refreshment, or even poured over crushed ice and served as a slush in a wax-paper cone. Whatever the form, the basic notion is essence of fruit. Watermelon ice is delicious served with cookies for a dessert: Mexican wedding cookies (available in some delis), lime cookies or chocolate cookies are all ideal.

The tequila is optional, but it does more than add flavour: the alcohol prevents the mixture from freezing so solid that you can’t spoon it out without completely defrosting it. You can use cantaloupe, honeydew or any other type of melon in this recipe, or even substitute mangoes or berries. However, the watermelon gives it a richly seductive, sinful scarlet colour. And why not? This may be your final fling of the summer: the sunny season’s last hurrah. Until next year, of course…. Serves 4.

4 lb/ 2 kg ripe watermelon (weight after removing rind and seeds)
2 oz/ 50g to 3 oz/ 75g caster (superfine) sugar, depending on the fruit’s sweetness
3 tablespoons tequila (optional)

1.    Roughly dice the watermelon and puree it in a food processor.
2.    Transfer the puree to a large bowl. Stir in the sugar to taste, and the tequila, if using. Mix well to dissolve the sugar.
3.    Place the fruit mixture in the freezer and chill for about 2 hours, or until it begins to freeze around the edges and across the top.
4.    Remove from the freezer and whisk to break up and mix in the ice crystals. Return to the freezer and chill for about 2 hours more.
5.    Once again, remove from the freezer and whisk again, breaking up the ice crystals and remixing into an evenly granulated mixture. Cover with a plastic wrap and return to the freezer until frozen through – from another 2 to 3 hours, up to several days.
6.    Remove from the freezer 45 minutes before serving so that the ice softens enough to spoon it out. Serve in attractive glasses, sundae dishes or paper cones.

Grilled vegetable and butterbean gazpacho

I first fell in love with gazpacho when I visited a small Andalusian village on the hills as a child with my parents. Some years ago, watching the hit Pedro Almodovar movie ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (in which gazpacho plays a significant part) cemented my passion for the chilled Spanish tomato and raw vegetable soup.

Over the years I have tasted several variations, including white gazpacho made from almonds and grapes, and the newly fashionable (at least in the UK) watermelon gazpacho, which is a little too sweet and insubstantial for my taste.

This recipe started life as simply grilled vegetable gazpacho, which I prepared one lunchtime from leftover barbecued vegetables, including roast potatoes. More recently, when I made the soup again, I substituted the carb-laden potatoes with protein-rich butterbeans. It worked perfectly well as the beans provided the creamy texture just as the potatoes had done. This soup is rather like salmorejo – the thick Andalusian tomato and bread soup – in texture. It is at once hearty, tangy, savoury, refreshing and redolent with tastes of the Mediterranean summer.

The butterbeans I use in this recipe are the large Mediterranean variety called ‘gigante’. They’re available in delis, health food stores and department stores’ food halls. (In the UK, you can often buy them in jars from Sainsbury’s ‘Special Selection’ section). You may use regular butterbeans, or even chickpeas (garbanzo beans) which are common in Spanish cuisine.

Use any combination of Mediterranean vegetables – adjusting the solids to liquids ratio accordingly – and hand around a good variety of toppings so that your guests can choose what they like. Just make sure that your summer tomatoes are very red, ripe, juicy and packed with flavour, otherwise the soup will be insipid.

I often serve regular red gazpacho at the start of a barbecue, but this recipe is substantial enough to be almost a meal by itself. Serves 4.

8 medium tomatoes, halved
1 medium red bell pepper, trimmed, seeded and halved
1 medium green bell pepper, trimmed, seeded and halved
1 medium courgette (zucchini), trimmed and thickly sliced
1 small baby aubergine (eggplant), trimmed and cut into chunks
6 spring onions, trimmed
Approx 4 tablespoons cooked gigante butterbeans (large lima beans), drained
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
4 fl oz/ 125 ml tomato juice, chilled
12 fl oz/ 350 ml vegetable stock, chilled or at room temperature
3 tablespoons olive oil (Spanish, if you have it)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar, or more to taste
A pinch of paprika
A pinch of ground cumin
A pinch of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
Fine grain sea salt
Ice cubes

Optional toppings (Prepare a few of the suggested garnishes for your guests to choose. Don’t use them all though, otherwise the flavours will clash or dominate!):

Very finely chopped red onion
Very finely chopped yellow bell pepper
Very finely diced cucumber
Diced avocado, drizzled with lime juice
Finely sliced celery
Finely sliced pickled gherkins
A few pickled green peppercorns in brine, drained
Smoked paprika
Handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
Whole almonds, blanched, skinned and lightly toasted
Hard-boiled egg, shelled and finely diced
Croutons

1.    From tomatoes to spring onions listed above, barbecue, roast or grill all the vegetables until tender.
2.    Once cooked, peel and core the tomatoes and peel the peppers. Roughly chop all the vegetables and allow them to come to room temperature.
3.    In a liquidizer or food processor, combine the chopped grilled vegetables with the cooked beans, garlic and tomato juice and blitz for a few seconds.
4.    Add the stock, oil, vinegar, spices and seasoning and blitz the mixture until it is smooth but still retains plenty of texture. Add a little cold water if the texture is too thick.
5.    Refrigerate the soup for 1 or 2 hours. Serve chilled with ice cubes, and hand around optional garnishes of your choice.

Italian tomato tart

This Italian tomato tart – crostata di pomodoro – is so amazingly easy that even my 11-year old niece, Ellie, can make it. In fact, she just did! It’s simply made from puff pastry topped with fresh tomatoes, garlicky olive oil, basil and toasted pine nuts. It’s very light as there is no cheese – though you may add some if you want a pizza-like flavour.

Because the recipe is so simple, it is more than usually important to use only the best-quality ingredients. Buy puff pastry from a good bakery. (Although when I’m in the UK, I always keep Jus-Rol brand’s ready-rolled puff pastry in the fridge. With tomatoes from my garden in the summer, I’m able to whip up this tart in no time at all).

I have suggested Italian plum tomatoes to be authentic – they are fleshy with fewer seeds and ideal for this recipe – but you can use multi-coloured tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, or any variety of top-quality tomatoes. Use only the finest, sunniest, plumpest specimen you can find – it really will make a difference to the taste.

You can, of course, add other ingredients like olives, onions and so on. But I think less is definitely more in this recipe, and I like allowing the uncluttered tangy, grassy, herby, fruity taste of summer tomatoes to shine through.

This tart is perfect for picnics and light lunches, served with a salad, or wonderful cut into small squares and served with wine as an appetiser. Serves 4 – 6.

4 tablespoons Italian extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
7 medium Italian plum tomatoes
1 sheet uncooked puff-pastry, rolled to approx 12 by 12 inches
1 medium egg yolk, beaten
Small bunch basil leaves, torn
2 oz/ 50g pine nuts, lightly toasted in a small saucepan

1.    Combine the olive oil with garlic, salt and pepper and set aside.
2.    Thinly slice the tomatoes, removing as many brown cores and seeds as you can. Leave to drain on paper towels.
3.    Place the puff pastry square on a lightly floured surface. Cut ½-inch strips of pastry from all four sides.
4.    Brush the egg on the edges of the pastry square and arrange the strips along the top edges. Press down gently with a light hand – you should be left with a square puff pastry case.
5.    Lightly prick the bottom of the pastry case with a fork. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
6.    About 10 minutes before you are ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 400F/ 200C/ gas mark 6.
7.    Bake the pastry case for 10 minutes, or until it rises and turns light golden-brown.
8.    Let the pastry cool a little, and brush the inside with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and garlic mixture and sprinkle with half the basil. Arrange the tomato slices over the top. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and garlic mixture.
9.    Bake for 10 minutes until the pastry is golden-brown and the tomatoes have softened but are still intact.
10.    Cool the tart slightly. Sprinkle with the pine nuts and the remaining basil. Serve warm or at room temperature.

lavender, gin and honey ice cream with lavender biscuits

August is one of my favourite times of the year. I try to take a break from my relentless work-related travelling, even if it’s just for a few days, to spend quality time with family and friends. My Aunt Christina owns an enormous farmhouse in a breathtakingly beautiful, tiny village in Provence. All the siblings and cousins have a great big pre-Christmas get together throughout the month, travelling in from all over the world. Some, like my cousin Amy who is a recently-qualified doctor, can only stay for a couple of days, while others, like all the little nephews and nieces, stay for several weeks, typically running riot. It’s one heck of a party.

My aunt’s farmhouse is surrounded by acres of picturesque lavender and sunflower fields. The distinctively musky perfume of lavender is heady to the point of being overwhelming.  This year I was determined to make cooking with lavender a success. This is no mean feat: use too much lavender and your dish will taste like shower gel (or “dear old Victorian ladies’ undergarments”, as my cousin Jonathan put it – an image I would rather not linger on for too long); too little and it will taste like an unfulfilled promise: all fragrance and no flavour. The trick is in getting the balance of floral flavour right.

My attempts at raspberry and lavender preserve, lavender bread and butter pudding, and lavender crème brulee have ended in disaster in previous years. So would I get it right this year? Well the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The ice cream and biscuits were polished off within minutes.

This isn’t really a French recipe. I have simply taken Provencal lavender, which grows abundantly in most English gardens anyway, left it to dry for a couple of days on strings and, with the addition of gin, I’ve concocted a sort of English summer garden recipe. Or maybe it’s Anglo-French. Oh, I don’t know. All I know is that the recipe – or rather, recipes, as I have done two this week – tastes pretty spectacular. You can, of course, eat the ice cream or biscuits on their own, but together they’ll seduce you with sunshine-infused magic that will linger in your memory for days. Makes 2 pints/ 1 litre ice cream and approximately 25 – 30 small or 12 – 15 large biscuits. Serves around 6.

For the ice cream:
5 tablespoons gin
1 level tablespoon dried lavender flowers
6 medium egg yolks
¼ pint/ 150 ml honey (ideally lavender or other flower honey)
½ pint/ 300 ml double (thick) cream
Fresh lavender flowers to garnish (optional)

For the biscuits:
9 oz/ 225g unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing
4 oz/ 100g white caster (superfine) sugar
I medium egg, lightly beaten
7 oz/ 175g self-raising white flour
1 level tablespoon dried lavender flowers

To make the ice cream:

1.    In a small saucepan, warm the gin slightly, and then pour it over the lavender flowers in a small bowl. Cover tightly with cling film, and leave to infuse for an hour or so.
2.    Sieve the lavender-infused gin through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing the flowers against the sieve with the back of a spoon to extract all the flavour. Discard the flowers. You should end up with about 3 tablespoons of strongly-flavoured gin. If it is a little under, top it up with some plain gin from the bottle.
3.    In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with an electric whisk (or a wire, balloon-type whisk) until they are very light and fluffy.
4.    Heat the honey in a small saucepan until it reaches the boiling point, then remove from the heat.
5.    Pour the hot honey in a thin, steady stream over the egg yolks, whisking continuously. Keep whisking vigorously until the mixture has cooled and the yolks have increased in volume. This should take about 2 – 3 minutes if you’re using an electric whisk, or 5 – 10 minutes by hand.
6.    Add the flavoured gin and stir thoroughly to combine.
7.    Whip the double cream into soft peaks. Carefully fold it into the egg yolk mixture, blending everything well.
8.    Pour the mixture into a bowl or container and freeze for 8 hours. There is no need to remove the ice cream at regular intervals and beat it (as is the case in many freezer ice cream recipes) – simply leave it be. Just before serving, garnish with fresh lavender flowers, if using.

To make the biscuits:

1.    Pre-heat the oven to 350F/ 180C/ gas mark 4. Line a baking tray with lightly buttered non-stick baking paper.
2.    Cream the butter with the sugar (this is easily done in a food processor). Add the egg and beat well.
3.    Add the flour and mix thoroughly. Mix in the lavender flowers, and stir with a light hand until well-blended.
4.    Place small teaspoonfuls of the mixture on the prepared baking tray, shaping them in circles with the back of the spoon and allowing plenty of space around for them to spread. (Alternatively, place tablespoonfuls of mixture on the tray, and shape them into medium-sized oblong or rectangular shapes).
5.    Bake for 15 – 20 minutes or until the biscuits are pale golden in colour (be careful not to let them get too brown). They will not feel crisp to the touch until they have cooled.
6.    Allow the biscuits to cool thoroughly on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container until ready to serve with the ice cream. As both the ice cream and biscuits are very rich, serve in small, European portions!