Monthly Archives: August 2013

Fattoush for a final summer hurrah

I’m finding it hard to decide if summer is over. Is that it? Are we going to ease into chillier days via a bright, sunny but fairly fresh period of weather. Is it time to get out the lentils, pasta and various potato bakes? Well, not quite. I’ve still found that there is a warmth in the air in the early evening, so at the moment, I’m still quite happy to enjoy fresh salads before succumbing to cheese pasta bakes that will be on the menu come late September. Indeed, this weekend, it seems we are due to get another blast of heat from Continental Europe, so I’m sure we’ll get one last hurrah out in the park with a picnic before the chilly embrace of autumn comes upon us.

I’ve done posted a few salads recently, so today it’s more of the same I’m afraid. One of my favourites is the Middle Eastern fattoush, which is a lovely collection of fairly chunky vegetables, finished off with lots of crisp bread and flavoured with a sharp, lively dressing made with lemon and ground sumac.

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Fattoush can be made with pretty much whatever you have to hand – I’ve used a fairly traditional recipe with cos lettuce, tomato, red peppers, radishes, carrot, parsley, mint, spring onions and cucumber – and finished it with toasted flatbread and a dressing made with lemon juice and sumac (ground red berries that impart a fruity, sour flavour to the dish). This dressing is key – it needs to be fresh and it needs to be sour. However, you can of course add whatever other vegetables you fancy – like shredded red cabbage, mushrooms or onions – there are no hard or fast rules. In fact, onion is fairly traditional, but it can be a little overwhelming in a fresh salad, so I tend to omit it (and anyway, the milder spring onions seem to do the trick here).

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Now, the bread. This is so fundamental to fattoush that it is often called a toasted bread salad. I’ve seen various versions of fattoush that suggest using any sort of bread that you can lay your hands on. I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that this isn’t really the case. When made with things like cubes of sourdough bread, the effect is something more like large croutons than a salad that suggests the warm evening air of the Levant. No, I prefer to use flatbreads (the ones that look like a cross between a tortilla and a pitta), tear them up and toss in olive oil. Popping the bread into a hot oven allows you to keep a close eye on it, so you get pieces that are golden, toasted and crisp, but with none of the burnt bits that you can get it you shallow-fry the bread in a pan.

My three top tips for making excellent fattoush are fairly simple. First, the ingredients should be fresh but at room temperature. Carrots, tomato and radishes taste so much better if they are not icy-cold and straight from the fridge. Second, make sure the dressing is properly sour, made with lemon juice and sumac. This is the proper flavour of this salad. And third, keep the toasted bread apart from the rest of the salad, and only combine the vegetables, bread and dressing just before serving. This will keep the green leaves perky and the bread crisp. The salad tastes so much better if you have all the contrasting textures as you eat it. Colourful, tasty and healthy – you can you resist?

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To make Fattoush:

For the salad:

• 1 large flatbread
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1/2 cucumber, halved and sliced
• 1 cos lettuce, chopped
• 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
• 6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
• 6 radishes, trimmed and sliced
• 1/2 red pepper, de-seeded and chopped
• small handful fresh mint leaves, finely shredded
• small handful flat parley
• 1 spring onion, finely sliced
• zest of a lemon

For the dressing:

• 2 teaspoons ground sumac
• 1 tablespoon boiling water
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• salt, to taste

1. Tear the bread into pieces. Add the olive oil, tossing the bread to coat it, and place on a tray and bake in the oven at 180°C (350°F) until golden brown (watch it like a hawk – it goes from golden to burn quite rapidly). Remove and allow to cool.

2. Put the rest of the ingredients into a large bowl and toss to mix.

3. Make the dressing: put the sumac in a jam jar and add the boiling water. Allow to sit for a few minutes. Add the lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Seal the jar and shake vigorously until you have a smooth dressing. Add more lemon juice or olive oil as needed.

4. Serve the salad – add the bread to the salad, add the dressing and toss to ensure everythign is coated. Serve immediately.

Worth making? This is a great salad with lots of tastes and textures, and very fresh thanks to the use of lemon, parsley and mint. Good for a summer’s day as part of a picnic!

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Bath Buns

A few months ago I turned my hand to Sally Lunn buns, a rich bread associated with the English city of Bath. When I made them, I promised to have a go at another bun that hails from the same place. Today I present the “other” buns, the unsurprisingly named Bath Buns.

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Bath Buns are large, sweet yeasted buns with…well, at this point, it all goes a bit haywire. There are lots of recipes for finishing off these buns – using currants, sultanas or candied peel (or some combination of all three), and flavoured variously with nutmeg, caraway or rosewater. Crushed sugar tends to feature on top of the buns, and often in the buns during baking. So what’s the real deal and how close could I get at home?

Their origins are said to lie with a certain Dr William Oliver who lived in Bath in the 18th century. He developed these buns as a way of providing sustenance to his patients, but discovered that when you feed people warm buns with lots of butter, sugar and spices, they tend to consume them in volume. A a result, patients who had come to Bath to take the waters and obtain relief from rheumatism (and perhaps obtain a slimmer figure?) would end up waddling their way back to London. He soon switched his rich buns for rather less appealing dry biscuits. And the Bath Oliver biscuits is still made today!

If you would like to get an idea of how appealing the Doctor’s famous buns (ooh-err!) were at the time, here is a contemporary description from “Chambers Journal” published by W. Chambers in 1855:

The Bath-bun is a sturdy and gorgeous usurper—a new potentate, whose blandishments have won away a great many children, we regret to say, from their lawful allegiance to the plum-bun. The Bath-bun is not only a toothsome dainty, but showy and alluring withal. It was easier for ancient mariners to resist the temptations of the Sirens, than it is for a modern child to turn away from a Bath-bun. This bun is rich and handsome, yellow with the golden yolk of eggs that mingles with its flour, wealthy in butter and sugar, adorned with milk – white sugar – plums, curiously coloured comfits, and snowy almonds. Large, solid, and imposing, it challenges attention, and fascinates its little purchasers. Take a child into a confectioner’s shop, ask it what it prefers, and, ten to one, its tiny finger will point to where, among tartlets and sausage-rolls, nestles the Bath-bun.

All sounds rather delicious, yes? So when I was making these buns, I needed to start with a rich brioche dough. I livened this up with a good dash of freshly grated nutmeg, lemon zest and – crucially – some lightly crushed caraway seeds. Caraway? Yes. Rather surprising in baking (but delicious in these biscuits), but this is a nod to the comfits that were used in the past. Comfits were simply sugared seeds (various things like aniseed, caraway or fennel) rather like sugared almonds, that would impart sweetness and flavour. As you can see, I also finished the buns with more caraway seeds and some crushed sugar given the, eh, lack of easy access to medieval comfits in the modern city.

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These buns also have a little secret. It is traditional to add crushed sugar and put this inside the bun. During baking, this will disappear and leave lovely patches of sticky goodness inside the bun. In addition to the sugar, I also added a handful of currants to vary things a little.

The results are fantastic – the buns are soft and fluffy, the richness coming from rather a lot of eggs, butter and milk, while the sweetness comes only from the crushed sugar (there’s little sugar in the dough itself). Keeping the caraway seeds whole means the flavour of the buns gets little spicy punches as you nibble on them. They certainly make a most pleasing medicine, and you will rather quickly understand why those genteel lords and ladies found it hard to stop at just one.

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However…all is perhaps not so rosy with the reputation of the Bath Bun.  Their name apparently took a bit of a battering as a result of the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was the grand fair in London which gave us the now sadly-gone Crystal Palace but also featured Bath Buns. These proved very popular with visitors (like those 18th century visitors to Bath…) with nearly one million of them consumed over five months. However, the inevitable the dash for cash led to cheaper and cheaper ingredients being used to make the buns (for example, the butter was replaced with lard). These less-luxurious buns got the moniker “London Bath Buns” or “London Buns” and today have evolved (minus the lard, and with the butter back in) into simple buns leavened with baking powder, similar to rock buns.

If you’re in the need for some restorative baking, these buns are excellent. I think they are at their best when very fresh – serve while still just warm, or at a push, make the night before and serve the following morning. My recipe includes a sugar glaze – it’s important not to skip this, as it helps to keep the surface of the buns soft and prevents them drying out. Now – try to stop at just one of these tasty treats!

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To make Bath Buns (makes 12):

For the dough:

• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 3 large eggs
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 400g strong white flour
• 100g unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 45g caster sugar
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 teaspoon caraway seeds, crushed
• ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

For the filling:

• 100g caster sugar
• cold water
• 50g currants

1. Make the dough.

If using a bread machine: throw 2 1/2 eggs and the rest of the ingredients into the bowl and run the dough cycle. Reserve the rest of the egg.

If making by hand: throw 2 1/2 eggs and the rest of the ingredients apart from the butter into a large bowl. Reserve the rest of the egg. Mix until you have a soft, elastic dough (around 5 minutes), then work in the softened butter. Cover and leave in a warm place until doubled in size.

2. While the dough is proving, prepare the filling for the buns. Put the sugar and some water into a small saucepan. Boil gently, stirring all the time, until the sugar crystallizes (it should be white, not caramelised). Acting quickly, turn the mass onto a greased baking sheet and spread out using a metal spoon. Leave to cool. Break into pieces, taking 12 pieces the size of a sugar cube (or 3-4 pieces that would add up to a sugar cube) and put to one side. Crush the rest of the sugar roughly, then put into a sieve – you should be left with coarse pearl sugar lumps for the tops of the buns.

3. Next, shape the buns. Divide the dough into twelve equal pieces. Put the lumps of sugar and a small handful of currants into each bun, then seal the base and place seam-side down onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper.

4. Leave the buns to rise again, until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

5. Take the reserved egg and mix with two tablespoons of water. Brush the buns with the egg glaze, then sprinkle immediately with caraway seed and crushed sugar (do them one bun at a time, so the glaze does not dry out – otherwise the sugar and caraway won’t stick). Bake the buns for 15-20 minutes until golden – the should sound hollow when tapped.

6. While the buns are baking, make the sugar syrup – take all the remaining sugar that you didn’t use to make the sugar lumps/pearl sugar (I had 50g), and add three tablespoons water. Heat until all the sugar has dissolved (add a drop more water if needed), then boil for one minute. Brush the buns with the warm sugar syrup while still warm.

Worth making? Definitely. The above recipe can take a while if you’re going to do the sugar yourself, but you can take a short-cut if you buy rough-style sugar cubes and pearl sugar to save time. But cutting down on the butter…don’t you dare!

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Keepin’ it Cool

It feels a little like the tail end of summer at the moment. The heatwave has gone (even it if did hint at a comeback this weekend), but I feel that we are slipping slowly but inexorably towards autumn. Ripe blackberries are starting to appear, and the days seem to be getting just a little shorter.

However, I’m being optimistic. I’m hopeful we’ll have another hot spell in the next few weeks, so my various strategies to keep cool should stand me in good stead. Lots of water, beer, chilled white wine and icy glasses of Pimm’s (filled with strawberries, mint and cooling cucumber) are perennial favourites. And warm weather also allows the mind to wander to what may well be one of the most curious of English foods, the cucumber sandwich. This is a staple of afternoon tea and garden parties, and it is quite frankly amazing how much divergence of opinion there is about something that is fundamentally sliced gourd on soft white bread.

These sandwiches are very curious. They contain very little by way of nutrition, and even if you were to scoff a whole plate of them, they’re hardly going to fill you up. But, of course, they had their heyday back in the Victoria era, when the rich could afford to sit around, take tea and nibble on curious items like this. They feature as a motif for the upper classes in literature, and even today, they’re hardly the go-to item when you’re starving. They’re a bit of fun, and served really for their novelty value than anything else.

There are actually lots and lots of different ways to make these sandwiches, from the type of bread, whether to use butter or something else, and how to prepare the cucumber. Here’s my take on them, which make a rather fun and frivolous addition if you’re serving cake and scones for afternoon tea. I’m sure Downton Abbey’s Dowager wouldn’t attend tea if these sandwiches weren’t on offer!

First things first…the bread. People sometimes get rather sniffy about using the a good old British sliced white loaf, but it traditional in making these sandwiches. If you can’t quite bring yourself to use white, you could opt for brown. Whichever you go for, try to get thin slices. Doorstep loaves are not synonymous with elegance! However, using malted, wholegrain or rustic sourdough is probably going a little bit too far – cucumber doesn’t have the sort of flavour that stands up to a really robust bread flavour. You’ve got to think about this bread being used for making elegant finger sandwiches, and crusty and rustic don’t really fit the bill for our purposes. If you still can’t bring yourself to use sliced white bread, then you could try to get posh and refined by using brioche, but I’ve never tried it and have absolutely no idea how that would work. If you try it, do leave a comment and let know.

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Having decided on the bread, next thing to sort out it the filling. There are two parts to this – the cucumber itself, and any sort of spread you might want to use (butter or cream cheese – this is essential to stop the water from the cucumber making the bread soggy).

First, the cucumber. You can either leave on the skin (more cucumber flavour) or peel it, and leave the seeds in or take them out (a point to note – the original domestic goddess Mrs Beeton recommends peeling, but not de-seeding). Leaving on the peel will give you more dark green in the finished sandwiches. However, where you will want to have a view on to salt or not to salt. If you just slice the cucumber, it can get rather wet and make the bread soggy (not good). The trick to solve this is very simple – pop the cucumber slices into a colander, then sprinkle with salt and toss lightly. Leave to drain for about half an hour, and you should find that most of the moisture has been drawn out of the cucumber. Then simply dry with kitchen paper, and you’ve managed to avoid soggie sarnies. By using the salt technique, you also add a little flavour enhancement to the cucumber, which also means that you can avoid using salted butter.

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Next, should you use butter or cream cheese? I prefer to use softened butter (unsalted), but you can also use cream cheese, which can be jazzed up with fresh chopped herbs and mint. Butter is the traditionally British approach, with cream cheese more American. What you use is up to you, but the key is to get an even spread, so that you coat the bread and prevent the cucumber turning the bread soggy.

Finally, assemble the sandwiches! I find the best way is the spread two slices of bread with either soft butter or cream cheese. Spread over the salted, drained and dried cucumber, then add the top slice of bread. Now, at this stage, you’ll come to the one things that is pretty much non-negotiable with cucumber sandwiches – trim off all the crusts to deliver dainty finger sandwiches that suggest the hight of refinement. Use a serrated knife, and press lightly and let the knife do the work. If you press too hard, you’ll squash the bread, and we want it all to look soft and light. I find the best way is to trim off all the crusts, then cut the trimmed bread into three of four fingers (depending on bread size).

So there we have it – how to make classic British cucumber sandwiches. Goes perfectly with scones and jam, cakes and lots of tea in the afternoon.

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Tabbouleh

I’m probably veering into dangerous territory here, by making a classic Middle Eastern dish that has so many “correct” versions. If you’ve got opinions, then great, leave a comment! I’m always happy to work towards perfection. But when it comes to tabbouleh, what is pretty clear is that this should be first and foremost a parley salad, and on that point, I’m not keen to be persuaded otherwise. How you make it…well, this is where it’s all up to you.

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Now, I say that this should be a parsley salad, but all too often you find this tends to be served up as a large cous cous dish with some parley strewn through it. Wrong. It’s all about parsley, with a few goodies thrown in there for flavour and texture. And it’s not cous cous that you use, but bulgar wheat.

My approach starts with the “low effort” route, beginning with the dressing. This involves little more than olive oil, lemon juice, seasoning and a little chopped tomato and red onion, which is left with a few spoons of uncooked bulgar wheat. Easy to do the night before, so you can leave it in the fridge to sit overnight. This is the easy bit.

The other part of making tabbouleh is something that can be tedious – picking all those leaves off some bunches of parsley. It might take some time, but it is the perfect job for when you’re listening to a radio play and are not in a hurry. However, if you’re the sort of person that doesn’t like to wait, then you could just chop the parsley as is, stalks and all, and just tell your guests “this is the traditional way to make it“. However, I prefer to pick the leaves off in the patient way, and them leave them pretty much whole in the salad as I like the shape they give the salad. You can, of course, chop up the leaves if you like. Then, when you’re ready to serve, dress the parsley with the sauce (if you’re making ahead of time, wait until the last moment before mixing everything).

If you make this, it sort of goes without saying that you need to really like parsley. Done in this way, tabbouleh makes an excellent side dish – add some grilled halloumi, some hummus, toasted pitta and some sliced tomatoes, and you’ve got a (fairly) quick and delicious light lunch for a summer’s day.

To make tabbouleh (a side dish for 4):

• 2 large tablespoons bulgar wheat
• 1 lemon, juice only
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 tomatoes, de-seeded and finely chopped
• 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
• salt
• freshly ground black pepper

• 2 bunches of flat leaf parsley
• 8 mint leaves, shredded

1. Soak the bulgar wheat in cold water for 15 minutes. Drain.

2. Mix the bulgar wheat, olive oil, lemon, tomatoes and red onion in a bowl. Add salt and black pepper to taste. Leave to sit for at least an hour or overnight, until the bulgar what is soft and the dressing a little thicker.

3. Prepare the parsley – remove the leaves from the stalks. Chop roughly if you want a finer texture (use a big, sharp knife, and try to keep the parsley fairly dry – I prefer to keep the leaves whole). Add the dressing and shredded mint, toss and transfer to a serving dish.

Worth making? Yes – this is a light, fresh salad. Great as part of a summer lunch or dinner.

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Highland Jam

I’ve just spent a few days up in Scotland. Lots of fresh air, scenic landscapes and – gasp – sunshine. Well, to be fair, the days were peppered with a few fleeting light showers, just to keep everyone on their toes, but it was mostly a case of blue skies with fluffy white clouds.

The first stop was Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. It’s a compact city on the banks of the River Ness, and was a good place for a few pints of local beer before venturing off inland.

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The main draw was a weekend in the small town of Muir of Ord on the Black Isle (actually a peninsula, not an island). The origin of this dramatic name is unknown, but there are suggestions that it can be traced back to the thick, dense forests that once covered this land, or the dark, fertile soil which grows the barley used in whisky making.

No trip to the Highlands is complete without a long walk, ideally up a large hill. The local focal point is Ord Hill, which took me past fields of cows, through pine forests and up onto the hill itself. Up on top, you could see the imposing Grampian Mountains to the south and, to the east, three firths (a Scots term which roughly means where a river meets the sea) – the Cromarty, Beauly and Moray Firths. I know this because, as our little group was sitting at the top, a man ran past, stopped, gave us the tourist low-down, then carries on running. Good timing indeed!

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When you look at much of the Scottish landscape, it is often called “bleak” or “rugged”, and people think it’s heather and not much else. Well, that’s not really true. Large parts of the country are covered in forests of pine, beech or birch, and in the middle of all these woodlands, you can find all manner of fruits ripe for the picking. Well, ripe when they are in season – Scotland is not, generally, that warm, so you do need to be patient!

One of my favourites is the blaeberry, the European cousin of the blueberry. While the American berries are large and grow in little bunches that make then fairly easy to pick, blaeberries are tiny – less than the size of a small pea! This means that if you’re lucky enough to find them, you’ll easily find yourself down on the ground rummaging around in bushes looking for your precious treasure. The plant grows very close to the ground, so you really need to be willing to crouch down, or, in my case, to reach up into awkward places along a footpath. As a result of my efforts while walking up Ord Hill, I managed to come away with a small bag of berries, as well as an elbow that had been sliced open as I tried to reach a good patch of berries, only for my foot to give way on the soft earth (luckily – superficial damage only!).

Now, I was faced with a bit of a quandary. I had easily picked more blaeberries than I had ever managed to collect in my life, but not quite enough to make something. Was it going to be a case of just eating them on muesli and yoghurt for breakfast? Well, of course not. Luckily, a bit further down the hill there were lots of wild raspberries, so I was presented with a perfect opportunity to gather some of these jaunty little red fellows.

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Now, wild raspberries are also smaller than their cultivated relatives, but they are also about six times the size of blaeberries, as well as growing on bushes. Much easier to pick! If you’ve never tried them, wild raspberries are sharper and more tart than normal raspberries, and absolutely delicious. Adding the raspberries to my blaeberry haul meant that I ended up with a large bag of free, fresh and organic berries.

I’m telling you all this because I have, for many years, harboured a fantasy that I would one day gather enough blaeberries to make jam. That way, I would be able to enjoy their flavour and bright purple colour all year round, and not just for those few months in autumn. While my little hike up Ord Hill did not quite allow this to come true, I was able to combine the blaeberries with the wild raspberries. And as it turns out, this combination is a popular flavour in Scandinavia, known in Sweden as Drottningsylt (“Queen’s Jam”). If this combination is fit for a queen, then who am I are to argue?

The recipe itself is very simple – equal parts of raspberries and blueberries, and then almost the same again of sugar (I aim for about 80% of sugar to berries by weight).

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At this point, you may wonder where I made the jam. In some kitchen up north while on holiday? Nope. I did it the hard way – transporting the berries back from Scotland to London. I was, of course, completely paranoid that they would leak juice all over my luggage, so these things were packed in multiple plastic bags, just in case. Luckily, there was no juice incident, and the fruit arrived intact, ready for a jam session.

If you’re making this with foraged blaeberries and raspberries, then chances are this is a jam you would only every be able to make in small batches. However, if you’re keen to make bigger batches, or just don’t fancy all that crouching over small shrubs, you can buy blueberries and raspberries for a similar effect. You’ll still end up with a fruity, deep red jam that is delicious on toast, croissants or stirred through yoghurt. Of course, made with berries you picked yourself…then you know it’s going to taste just that much better!

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To make blaeberry and wild raspberry jam (makes 2 small pots):

• 200g mixed blaeberries and raspberries
• 180g white sugar
• 3 tablespoons water

• 1/2 teaspoon pectin

1. First, the boring bit. sterilise some jam jars(*), and put a plate into the freezer – you’ll need this to test when the jam is set.

2. Rinse the fruit, removing any bad berries. Mix the sugar and pectin, and throw into a saucepan with the berries and water.

3. Place the pan on a medium heat. Bring to the boil, and use the back of a spoon to burst the blaeberries are they cook (the raspberries will break up on their own). Keep the jam on a slow rolling boil for around 10 minutes. Start to check for a set every minute or so – put some jam on the cold plate, leave for a moment to cool, and if it wrinkles when you push with your finger, it’s done.

4. Once the jam is ready, ladle into the prepared jars, seal, label and hide it somewhere to enjoy later.

(*) To sterilise jam jars: wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well. Place upside-down in a cold oven, and heat to 90°C for 15 minutes. Leave in the oven to cool down while you are making the jam . To sterilise the lids, wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well, place in a saucepan with boiling water for 5 minutes.

Worth making? Yes – it’s perfect!

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Watermelon and Feta Salad

So we’re still in the middle of a heatwave…so today I’ve got a suggestion for a salad that is part tasty feta, olives and herbs, and part refreshing, juicy watermelon. It’s a funny old time of year. The things I usually love to eat – pasty, pastry, curry or warm lentils – are all just too, too heavy to enjoy when it’s hot by day and still warm by night. This has been driving me to try some new ideas, and this classic Greek combination has been part of my attempts to eat well while still also staying cool.

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Most recipes for watermelon and feta salad seem to be fairly simple – just add some dressing and a few black olives, with perhaps a dash of mint. However, I have a garden and windowsill that have really taken off in the heat, so I was able to pick a selection of baby herb leaves to add to the salad which added some aromatic flavour to the dish. Baby basil, rocket micro-leaves, thyme, oregano and parsley. There would have been dill in there too, but my plant had wilted, but I think it would also make a nice addition. The overall effect of deep pink fruit, white feta, black olived and bright green leaves is really quite stunning on the table.

One little tip – I am normally an advocate for taking fruit out of the fridge well ahead of serving to allow it to come up to room temperature – the flavour is so much better. However, in this dish, you really want the watermelon to be chilled, and if it’s ripe, you’ll still be able to enjoy the flavour of sweet melon with the salt of the feta. One of those dishes that sounds strange, shouldn’t work, but does, and works really well!

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To make a Watermelon and Feta salad:

• 1/2 medium watermelon, peeled and cubed
• 1/2 red onion, finely sliced
• 200g feta
• 70g black olives, quartered
• 2 limes, juice only
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• handful of mint leaves, finely shredded

• 2 handfuls of other herb leaves (depending on what is to hand)

1. Make the dressing – put the lime juice and olive oil in a jam jar. Shake vigorously. Add the red onions and leave to sit for 15 minutes.

2. Put the watermelon in a large serving dish. Add half the mint and half the other herbs, then toss lightly. Add the black olives and crumbled feta, trying to arrange them artfully on top (presentation is all!).

3. Pour the dressing over the salad, then sprinkle over the rest of the mint and the herbs, and serve right away.

Worth making? This salad is super-easy to make and fantastic as part of a casual lunch in the garden. It’s also very more-ish, and oh-so-easy to keep picking at pieces of feta and watermelon.

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Ajo Blanco

Do you remember the first time? By which I mean the first time you tried certain foods. There are a lot of things (Cake! Chips! Pasta!) that have just always been there, but then there are foods that I very firmly do remember trying for the first time. I can point to a family holiday to Port de Pollença on the north side of Mallorca as the first time I tried gazpacho. Sachertorte was at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna. Kanelbullar firs experienced in Stockholm’s Old Town. These are all pleasant memories as I liked the thing I was trying. You can probably guess where I am going with this…

Anyway, my first experience of ajo blanco was all rather different. It’s a cold Spanish soup, made with almonds and garlic, served with green grapes and olive oil. Sounds nice and refreshing, yes? Perfect in hot weather perhaps?

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Well, the first time I tried ajo blanco is still seared into my memory in vivid detail. I was at a Spanish restaurant somewhere on the fringes of Shoreditch, the distinctly non-latin sounding Eyre Brothers. Looked great, friendly service, and then we came to order. Bread, olive oil, olives all consumed with glee, and then it came to choosing what to eat. While Spanish food has a reputation as being very meaty (and thus not very veggie-friendly), I don’t find this to be the case. There is usually enough in terms of vegetables, bread and cheese to keep me happy.

Anyway, on this occasion, they were serving ajo blanco which I remember being described as an almond soup with garlic. As I’d never seen it before, I thought I should take the plunge. I mean – it’s cold soup, how bad could it ever be?

Well, I expected some garlic, but this stuff took your breath away, almost literally. Pleasantly creamy to begin with, it broke down in the mouth within seconds into pure, pungent garlic, complete with an unpleasant burning sensation on the tongue and throat. Now, I like garlic, but lots of the raw stuff can be just horrible, which tends to lead to garlic oil seeping from every pore. I made it half-way through before giving up, but by this point, the meal was spoiled. The garlic had overpowered everything else. For the rest of the meal, all I could taste was garlic. Patatas bravas? No, garlic. Green salad? No, garlic. Frozen turrón dessert? Nope, still the all-pervading taste of garlic. Yes, I did mention to the staff that the soup was too strong, and one of the serving ladies was very sympathetic, but this little episode did put me off ajo blanco for years.

That is, until yesterday. I thought I would try making it myself as part of my attempts to make refreshing summer meals.

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So I got my little mixer ready, and had a little think. Would I use garlic this time? Or more…dare I use garlic?

Well, I reasoned that the use of garlic was traditional, so it just had to go in there, somehow. Then I remembered a Pho soup I had made where garlic was added to the stock, and at the end of cooking, it was soft, mild and not pungent at all. This seemed like the perfect solution to my garlic issue, and so I blanched some cloves for a few minutes. Job done – garlic flavour, not garlic nightmare. However, you might find this approach to be a little mild. It you’re still after a little more “zing” you might want to rub the bowl with a cut clove of raw garlic before adding the other ingredients. That should still ensure your guests take notice, without gasping throughout dinner.

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The rest was a complete breeze – throw stale white bread, water, almonds, seasoning, garlic and olive oil into a blender and liquidise until everything is smooth and white. One little tweak that I did make was to add a handful of pine nuts. They give a little extra flavour, but also help to emulsify the soup and get a great texture.

Once made, all that remains to be done is to make sure the soup is completely chilled, then serve. The traditional way is with a drizzle of olive oil and some sliced green grapes. This might sound strange, but the combination of fresh, juicy grapes and the chilled, creamy ajo blanco is fantastic. It’s also not that common, so makes a nice change from gazpacho when you’re looking for a chilled soup as a starter when it’s pushing 33°C outside (yes, that’s how hot it got today in London!).

And with that – my fear of ajo blanco has been overcome!

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To make Ajo Blanco (serves 4):

For the soup:

• 3 cloves garlic
• 150g whole almonds
• Handful of pine nuts
• 80g stale white rustic bread (crusts removed)
• 4 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
• 200ml water

To serve:

• olive oil
• 12 green grapes

1. Put the bread and water in a bowl. Leave to soak for 15 minutes.

2. Peel the garlic, slice in half and remove any green bits. Blanch for 3 minutes in a small pot of boiling water. Drain and leave to cool.

3. Skin the almonds – bring another pan of water to the boil, add the almonds and simmer for two minutes. Drain, and squeeze the almonds out of the skins (you can discard them – we only need the nuts!).

4. Put the garlic, bread, almonds, pine nuts, olive oil, salt and vinegar into a blender and blitz until very smooth. You may need to add more water to get the right consistency (think single cream). Pour into a large bowl and adjust the seasoning as needed – more oil, salt or vinegar according to taste. Cover the bowl and chill for at least two hours or overnight.

5. To serve, divide between four bowls. Slice the grapes in half and divide between the bowls, finishing with a drizzle of olive oil.

Worth making? Definitely! This is a really easy recipe to make, while the almonds and bread mean that it is light and fresh but still substantial.

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury