Snacks


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.

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.

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.

lebanese-aubergine-sandwiches

Fed up with your regular sandwich and looking to ring changes? Then look no further. These Lebanese sandwiches can be as simple or elaborate as you want. At their simplest, plain slices of aubergines can be grilled or cooked on a charcoal and stuffed inside hot flatbreads, sprinkled simply with coarsely ground salt and pepper. This is a more dressed-up version, which is a meal by itself.

Use any Middle Eastern flatbreads: the choice available in supermarkets and Middle Eastern delis these days is astonishing. I’m particularly fond of the sesame-studded variety. You can peel the aubergines if you like, as many Lebanese do. Peeled aubergines have an elusive, meat-like texture – though personally I’m happy to leave the peel on. Eat warm. Serves 4.

For the marinade:
Juice of 2 lemons
4 tablespoons virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon dried red chilli flakes
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced

For the sandwiches:
1 large aubergine (eggplant)
Approx 8 tablespoons olive oil
4 large pita breads, Middle Eastern flatbreads, or ordinary sliced bread
1 medium firm tomato, finely chopped
1 small red onion, trimmed, peeled and finely sliced
Small bunch mint leaves, torn
Small bunch flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
A few salad leaves (optional)
2 tablespoons red or yellow pepper, finely chopped (optional)
4 tablespoons diced or crumbled white cheese, any variety (optional)

1.    Make the marinade by combining all the marinade ingredients and mixing well.
2.    Slice the aubergine into 1-inch thick rounds. Working quickly, dip both sides of the aubergine slices in the marinade until you have used it all up. The liquid does not have to fully cover or soak the slices – just a touch is enough to give flavour.
3.    Heat the oil on low to medium heat in a frying pan, and cook the marinated aubergine slices in batches of 2 or 3 at a time. The cooking temperature is important here: too high and you’ll burn the aubergine slices and they will remain undercooked from inside; too low and they will absorb the oil, become greasy, and take a long time to soften. The aubergines should be light golden-brown and cooked through (pierce some slices with a knife, just to make sure). Drain on kitchen paper.
4.    Lightly grill (broil) the pita breads or any other bread that you are using.
5.    Stuff the breads with aubergine slices, tomatoes, red onions, herbs, and seasoning. Add the salad leaves, chopped pepper and cheese, if using. If eating as a main meal, serve with salad and a bowl of thick, creamy yoghurt.

socca

In the UK, 24th February 2009 is Shrove Tuesday or ‘Pancake Day’. Is it celebrated in your country? What sort of pancake will you be eating? Well, here it’s becoming increasingly popular – and commercialised. There are several fun pancake races in the morning, and many restaurants offer pancake menus. Speciality pancake restaurants – which are increasing in number – also hold pancake making demonstrations and competitions.

Pancakes are one of those foods that are found in some form or other in all countries and cultures. I’m sure you are familiar with the usual egg and flour versions, so I’m giving a recipe for socca – the legendary thin, crepe-like chickpea flour pancake from Nice. It happens to be vegan, probably gluten-free (though I don’t know for sure, so it’s best to check with a medical advisor if you have a gluten allergy), and baked in the oven rather than cooked on the stove top.

There are countless versions of socca all over Italy, India, and other parts of the world, too. So chickpea flour is available in large supermarkets, Indian stores, and Italian and French delicatessens.

In Nice, socca is eaten as a fast food snack wrapped in a newspaper – much like fish and chips in Britain, except that it is much healthier. My recipe is for a plain pancake, but you can add finely chopped fresh herbs (particularly a little rosemary) if you wish.

Socca is packed with protein, and makes excellent accompaniment to ratatouille, lightly braised vegetables such as fennel and chicory, and delicate stews made from haricot and flageolet beans. Or it can be eaten on its own with a hot or cold drink as a snack. Serves 4 as snack or accompaniment.

5 oz/ 125g chickpea flour (garbanzo flour)
8 fl oz/ 200 ml water
½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
4 tablespoons virgin olive oil (Provencal, if you have it)

To serve:
Coarsely ground rock salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1.    Pre-heat the oven to 220 C/ 425 F/ gas mark 7.
2.    Place the chickpea flour in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Add water, and whisk the flour and water together until well amalgamated.
3.    Add salt and 2 tablespoon of the olive oil. Mix thoroughly. If necessary, strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove any lumps, pressing down firmly on the mixture. (Alternatively, steps 2 and 3 can be followed using an electric hand blender to make the task easier). You should be left with smooth, thin chickpea flour batter.
4.    Swirl the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy, non-stick round baking pan or gratin dish. Heat the oiled dish in the pre-heated oven for 5 minutes.
5.    Then remove the dish from the oven, and pour in the batter evenly, taking care not to splatter in the hot oil. Bake the pancake for about 10 minutes. Do not overcook. Meanwhile, pre-heat the grill (broiler) on medium heat.
6.    Remove the pancake from the oven, and place under the grill until the surface is dotted with a few brown spots.
7.    Remove from the grill, and let the pancake cool in its pan for a couple of minutes. Cut into wedges, and sprinkle with coarsely ground salt and black pepper. Serve hot.

citrus-spiked-chinese-noodle-salad

As it’s the Chinese New Year – the year of the Ox – I wanted to share a recipe for Chinese noodles. Uncut and unbroken noodles are eaten during the New Year in China as they symbolise longevity. Here they are coated in a spicy lemon and orange sauce and served at room temperature. Leftovers are excellent for lunchboxes, or eaten straight from the fridge.

If you can’t find Chinese sesame paste in Asian grocers, use tahini, peanut butter, or 1 teaspoon pan-roasted sesame seeds, crushed and blended with 1 tablespoon cold water. Cider vinegar can be substituted for the rice wine vinegar; and the chilli oil should not be the sort of chilli-infused olive oil found in supermarkets. Sichuan peppercorns have a distinctive, subtly hot, spiky flavour and fragrance – but if you dislike their grainy texture, use ordinary black pepper.

The addition of oranges and lemons to the aromatic sauce will brighten up the greyest of winter days. Serves 2 as light meal, or 4 as appetiser/ side dish/ snack.

For the sauce:
Finely grated zest of 1 medium organic orange
Finely grated zest of 1 organic unwaxed lemon
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon groundnut (peanut) oil
1 heaped tablespoon Chinese sesame paste
4 spring onions, trimmed and sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon Chinese white rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Chinese dark soy sauce
¼ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, finely crushed
1 tablespoon Chinese chilli oil
½ teaspoon red chilli flakes
A pinch of sugar, to taste
Salt to taste

For the noodles:
9 oz/ 225g dried egg noodles, OR 1 lb/ 500g fresh egg noodles
1 tablespoon dark toasted sesame oil

Fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves for garnish

1.    To make the sauce, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Set aside, or chill until ready to use.
2.    Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions. Drain and plunge in cold water to prevent further cooking. Drain again, and toss in sesame oil. Set aside until ready to use.
3.    Just before serving, toss the noodles with the spicy citrus sauce. Garnish with coriander leaves Serve at room temperature (or chilled).

Paneer is Indian cheese that is widely available in supermarket cheese sections. Besan or chickpea flour is also now available in the larger supermarkets. Both can, of course, be bought from Indian grocers – and, in fact, you might also find chickpea flour in Italian and French delis. This hot spicy snack is ideal served with chilled beer on a cold evening. Serves 4.

200g/ 8 oz block of paneer, cut into 8 large cubes
½ teaspoon red chilli powder
½ teaspoon salt

For the spice paste:
½-inch piece ginger, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled
4 black peppercorns
2 cloves
Seeds of 2 green cardamoms
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, lightly roasted in a pan
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, lightly roasted in a pan
½-inch piece cinnamon
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon white poppy seeds
2 tablespoons water

For the flour coating:
4 tablespoons besan (chickpea flour)
2 tablespoons plain yoghurt
1 tablespoon fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped
½ teaspoon black onion seeds

Groundnut or corn oil for deep-frying

1. Sprinkle the paneer with salt and chilli powder, mix gently so that the paneer doesn’t crumble and set aside.
2. Grind all the spices into a paste in a mixer or coffee grinder.
3. Marinate the paneer pieces in the spice paste, cover and refrigerate for at least half an hour.
4. Heat the oil in a frying pan until hot but not smoking.
5. Mix together the ingredients for the flour coating. Sprinkle on the marinated paneer, and rub the flour mixture in gently, making sure that the paneer pieces are evenly coated.
6. Deep fry 2 paneer cubes at a time until golden brown, and drain on kitchen paper.
7. Serve with Indian coriander and mint dip, some plain yoghurt or tomato ketchup, accompanied by onion rings, lemon wedges and green salad.

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