Cooking with alcohol


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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

ricotta-coffee-dessert-with-biscotti

This traditional, elegant Italian dessert – ricotta al caffe – is so amazingly simple that I’m almost embarrassed to give you a recipe for it. However, it’s useful to have one on hand for days when you’ve spent hours slaving over a hot stove and are looking for an easy, fuss-free, but still satisfyingly indulgent dessert.

For best results, buy top quality, freshest ingredients you can find. Buy the ricotta from a speciality cheese shop, Italian deli or the supermarket fresh cheese counter – you really will be able to taste the difference. The coffee beans – or freshly ground coffee – could come from your local coffee shop. Serves 4.

10 oz/ 250g very fresh ricotta cheese
4 oz/ 100g white or light golden brown caster sugar
2 tablespoons finely ground fresh espresso coffee beans
2 tablespoons dark rum or brandy (optional)
A few drops natural vanilla extract
2 tablespoons toasted hazelnuts, finely chopped (optional)

To serve:
Double or whipped cream
Italian biscotti

1.    Remove any excess water from the ricotta. Sieve in a colander or through a piece of muslin (cheesecloth) if necessary.
2.    Add the sugar, ground coffee, rum/ brandy, and vanilla extract. Mix well.
3.    Refrigerate for at least 3 hours for the flavours to develop. The longer you leave it, the stronger will be the flavour.
4.    Sprinkle with toasted hazelnuts, if using. Serve with cream and biscotti in little coffee cups. See, I told you it was simple!

spiced-tomato-vodka-jelly

I was so keen to give you a pretty, passion-coloured Valentine’s Day recipe that I decided to ignore the fact that it’s too cold in the UK to eat jelly, and that tomatoes are out of season.

This recipe is influenced by English and French cuisines – and cocktails – and feature East European and American ingredients, too. So it’s a truly fusion affair.

You can buy vegetarian gelatine from most supermarkets; and vegetarian Worcester sauce (without anchovies) is available in health food shops or vegetarian stores. Select a brand of horseradish sauce that’s little more than grated horseradish with cream, if you can – no mean feat, as most are packed with mayonnaise, additives and too much sugar.

I won’t bore you with clichés about how this recipe might spice up your love life, but it will certainly provide an interesting start to your evening. Whether or not you serve it on Valentine’s Day. Serves 2 generously as appetiser.

14 fl oz/ 400 ml tomato juice
1 teaspoon vegetarian gelatine (such as Vege-Gel)
2 scant tablespoons fresh lemon juice
6 tablespoons vodka
2 teaspoons vegetarian Worcester sauce
½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons very finely chopped red onion
2 tablespoons very finely chopped celery
2 tablespoons very finely chopped green pepper (bell pepper or capsicum)
1 tablespoon horseradish sauce
3 tablespoons single cream

Optional garnish (one or more of):
A little extra finely chopped red onion and celery
Fresh parsley
Watercress
Lettuce or lamb’s lettuce

1. Place the tomato juice in a saucepan, add the vegetarian gelatine, and stir until it has dissolved.
2. Then put the saucepan on low heat and gently bring the tomato juice to the boil.
3. Once it has reached the boiling point, remove from the heat immediately. Add the lemon juice, vodka, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, and seasoning. Stir the mixture thoroughly.
4. Place the chopped vegetables evenly in a heart shaped mould (or divide between two bowls or glasses).
5. Pour the tomato jelly on top and leave to set for 30 minutes. Leave the jelly in a cool place, but do not refrigerate.
6. When you are ready to serve, carefully unmould the jelly (if it has been set in a mould). Just before serving, mix the horseradish sauce with cream, and swirl some on top of the jelly. Garnish with extra onion and celery, if you like, and/ or fresh parsley. You can also serve the jelly on a platter lined with watercress or salad leaves, if you wish.

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