Street food


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.

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.

veggie-oden

This is a vegetarian version of the classic Japanese stew that’s normally made from meat, seafood, vegetables and tofu. It is ubiquitous in Japan during winter months and sold everywhere from street stalls to smart shops, where there might be a pot bubbling away behind the counter. I’m surprised it’s not better known in the West – or, at least, it is virtually unknown in the UK.

Don’t be intimidated by the ingredients, as the stew itself is simple to cook. Admittedly, it is time-consuming and involves several components, so a leisurely weekend would be the best time to prepare it. To cut down on the cooking time, you can use prepared mustard paste (available in little tins or tubes in Japanese shops); and, instead of making your own dashi, use mildly flavoured vegetable stock or instant vegetarian dashi powder (though the latter is not easy to find – you’ll have to make sure it doesn’t contain bonito fish flakes).

A very simple version of dashi can be made from soaking dried shiitake and kombu, and using the strained soaking water as stock. However, if you make Japanese food – or even only miso soup – regularly, it is a good idea to make your own dashi in large quantities and freeze it in ice cube trays for future use. Which is why I am giving a recipe here.

Konnyaku is speckled grey, gelatinous root of the ‘devils tongue’ plant. It is believed to be extremely low in calories, and regularly used by the Japanese for detoxing. Numerous health benefits are associated with it.

All the specialist ingredients can be bought from Japanese shops, but if you can’t find them, substitute vegetables such as baby turnips, baby pak choi, sweet potatoes, Japanese kabocha squash, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, etc. Stick to oriental roots, starches, greens or mushrooms as much as you can (rather than using, say, bell peppers, courgettes, etc). Indeed, aburage, fu, and konnyaku are used more for texture than flavour. You can make a simplified version of this dish using only two or three ingredients, and it will still taste good.

Oden is a unique combination of hearty and filling, yet light at the same time. It can be eaten on its own, or with plain white rice and pale pink Japanese ginger pickle. It should always be eaten with hot mustard, which is essential for this dish (it just won’t taste the same without it).

Here in the UK, the weather continues to be absolutely freezing – with snowfall and sub-zero temperatures all around – so the combination of ginger and mustard would certainly help clear the sinuses! Serves 4.

For the mustard condiment:
4 tablespoons Japanese (or English) mustard powder
Approx 12 tablespoons cold water

For the vegetarian dashi:
Approx 10-inch piece kombu (kelp) seaweed
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
4 pints/ 2 litres cold water
1 oz/ 25g tororo-kombu seaweed (or use nori if you can’t find it)
4 tablespoons sake (rice wine)
1 tablespoon mirin (sweet rice wine)
½ teaspoon sugar
5 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce

For the stew:
6 sheets aburage (flat sheets of fried tofu), or fu (small pieces of dried gluten)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 oz/ 250g firm tofu, drained on kitchen paper and cut into triangles
3 pints/ 1.5 litres vegetarian dashi (as above)
4 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce
4 tablespoons mirin
½ teaspoon sugar
2-inch piece kombu
2 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced chunkily
8oz/ 200g daikon radish, peeled and sliced chunkily
8oz/ 200g konnyaku, cut into triangles (similar to the tofu)
6 oz/ 150g fresh or prepared lotus root, sliced horizontally
4 large hardboiled eggs, shelled and left whole
Salt

1.    Prepare the mustard condiment first. Combine the mustard powder with water, making sure that the consistency is thinner than you would like (as it will gradually thicken). Set aside.
2.    Next make the dashi. Clean the kombu with dry kitchen paper to remove any grit, but do not wash otherwise it will lose its flavour. Snip into large pieces with scissors.
3.    Steep the kombu and dried mushrooms in a saucepan of water, and set aside for 3 or 4 hours.
4.    Gently heat the saucepan until the liquid reaches just below the boiling point. Remove the kombu and discard.
5.    Add tororo-kombu to the pan, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
6.    Add the remaining dashi ingredients. Again bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for a further 2 minutes.
7.    Drain through a sieve, and discard the seaweed and mushrooms. Set the dashi aside. It should have a pure, clean taste.
8.    Now make the stew. If using the aburage sheets, steep them briefly in boiling water to remove excess liquid. Rinse in cold water, squeeze between the palm of your hands, drain, and cut into 1-inch squares.
9.    Heat the oil in a small wok, and fry the tofu triangles until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper.
10.    Heat the dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sugar and kombu in a large saucepan, and bring to the boil. Add potatoes and carrots, and bring to the boil again. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes until almost tender.
11.    Add the daikon radish, konnyaku, and lotus root, and simmer for another 10 minutes.
12.    Add tofu, aburage (or around 16 pieces of fu), hardboiled eggs and salt, and simmer for 5 minutes. Check each vegetable for doneness, and adjust the seasoning.
13.    Remove the piece of kombu and discard. Carefully lift out each egg, cut it in half, and place the halved eggs back into the stew.
14.    Ladle the oden into individual bowls, and serve with small quantities of hot mustard.

These moreish dumplings – also known as pampushki – are served as street food in Ukraine, Bulgaria and Russia. They are usually sweet and made with a yeast dough – rather like doughnuts – but this sweet-savoury version is made from potatoes and is homely and hearty. Serves 4.

1 lb 10 oz/ 750g potatoes, peeled
12 oz/ 300g cooked mashed potato
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil for deep-frying

For the cheese and cherry filling:
4 oz/ 100g cream cheese
3 oz/ 75g dried sour cherries
1 teaspoon caster sugar
Grated rind of 2 lemons
1 teaspoon fresh dill, finely chopped (optional)
Salt and pepper

1. Coarsely grate the potatoes in a food processor.
2. Place in a colander, press down with the palm of your hand, and squeeze out as much liquid as you can.
3. Put the grated potatoes in a large bowl, and mix well with the mashed potatoes and a little seasoning.
4. Make the filling by combining cheese, cherries, sugar, lemon rind, dill if using, and seasoning.
5. Grease your palm with a little oil, and place a dollop of the potato mixture, spreading it slightly. Put a teaspoon of the cheese and cherry mixture in the middle of the potato round and fold over the edges. The dumplings should be sealed properly, otherwise the filling will leak out, making a mess.
6. Repeat the process until you have used up all of the potato and cheese mixtures. Place the finished dumplings on a tray and cover with a damp tea towel while you are working so that they don’t dry out.
7. Heat the oil, and when very hot, deep-fry the dumplings until they are lightly golden brown.
8. Serve hot as a snack with jams or preserves.