Tag Archives: cucumber

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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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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Beaches and Buckwheat

It was a scorcher last weekend. Virtually no cloud for about three days, but it looks like we are in the final moments as there have been a few April showers since Monday. Update: by the time I got round to posting, it was decidedly cooler, but hey – good for the garden!

Like about two-thirds of the UK population with access to a car, I took the opportunity on Sunday to head to the coast and soak up some rays at the picturesque Camber Sands in Sussex, just along from the very pretty town of Rye. It used to be on the coast, but over time, the coastline moved out, and now it is about two miles inland. Well worth a visit to see the cobbled streets and charming old houses.

Camber Sands has fantastic sand dunes (some of the best in Southern England), lots of open beach and, of course, the chilly waters of the English Channel reminding those that ventured into the sea that it was still early April. I’ll be back when they water has warmed up though!

Everyone brought along a few things for the picnic. I had a green salad, various crackers and dips, and a buckwheat salad. Yup, buckwheat.

Buckwheat is a funny, some might say gritty little grain. Try one – that’s the texture, right? It appears in blinis, galettes bretonnes, poffertjes, soba noodles and…not much else, at least in terms of my cooking repertoire. Fair to say, it’s also not a frequent star on British dining tables. Bit of a shame, as they are also quite a pretty, jaunty little grain, which just happens to be gluten-free, so useful if you’re unable to eat wheat, or are just trying to cut down (personally, I’m far from being gluten free, and will happily wolf down anything a bakery throws at me…).

I’ve recently made a lot using cous cous, from the fine French type to the large-grained Palestinian variety, so I wondered if I could do something similar with buckwheat as the main grain in a dish. But how to cook the stuff? Oh, what to do?

Boiling is one (obvious) option, but that tends to be rather aggressive and can make grains break down into a gloopy, soupy, starchy mess. So I opted for the gentler option of soaking the grains overnight, then rinsing them and steaming for about 30 mins.

The result was, quite simply, amazing. Far better than I hoped for in fact. The grains became soft and plump, but stayed fluffy and kept their shape. Then I just mixed the buckwheat with some sliced vegetables and added a simple dressing for a healthy, filling dish. Also doubled up later in the week as a tasty supper.

At this stage, I realise this is sounding like every stereotype of vegetarian cooking you could possibly imagine, short of this being used to make a lentil nut loaf. Well, rest assured, the result is delicious and filling, with plenty of taste. I had meat eaters chowing down on this with glee. I put part of this down to the dressing, which contained sesame oil and a little bit of chili, so it still packed a flavourful punch and had plenty of interesting textures.

So next time you want to make a dish for a picnic, give the pasta a break and perhaps try that funny little packet of buckwheat you’ve been wondering exactly what to do with.

To make buckwheat and green bean salad (side dish for 4, main for 2):

For the salad:

• 200g buckwheat
• 100g cherry tomatoes
• 1/4 cucumber
• 1 small celery stick
• 200g green beans

For the dressing:

• 6 tablespoons dark sesame oil
• 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
• 2 tablespoons rice vinegar / white wine vinegar
• 1/2 teaspoon sambal/harisssa paste (or chili)
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• pinch of sugar

The night before, soak the buckwheat in a pan of cold water.

The next day, rinse the buckwheat well in cold, running water. Drain and place in a steamer (*). Cook for around 30 minutes. The grains are done when they are plump and soft – you may want to fluff the buckwheat every 10 minutes to ensure it is cooked evenly.

While the buckwheat is cooking, prepare the tomatoes, cucumber and celery by cutting into pieces according to your mood (chunks or paper-thin slices, as you like it!). Shred the green beans on the diagonal, and add to the steamer for the last 10 minutes of the cooking process (**). Once the buckwheat/green beans are done, put in a salad bowl with the rest of the vegetables.

Next, make the dressing – combine the ingredients in a jam jar, and shake it madly until smooth. Check the flavour and adjust to taste (you might want more oil, or vinegar, or soy, or chili…go with what tastes right to you). Pour the dressing over the salad and mix well until everything is well-coated.

Serve the salad warm or at room temperature (***).

(*) I don’t own a steamer. I improvise with a metal sieve placed in a saucepan of boiling water,and place a saucepan lid inside the sieve. It forms a pretty good seal, and seems to do the job. Might be an idea for the kitchen wish list…

(**) This way, no extra pot to clean!

(***) As the grains don’t really absorb the dressing, you can easily mix everything ahead of time, rather than waiting until just before serving.

Worth making? I was pleasantly surprised how this method of cooking buckwheat worked out. It has texture and a nutty taste, and cooked in this way with vegetables and a robust, flavourful dressing, it makes for a filling supper or a nice picnic side dish. G’won. Try it!

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Chicory and Peanut Salad with Chilli-Lime Dressing

I’ve noticed I’ve got a bit of a habit of favouring complex or time-consuming recipes. To make up for this, here is a quick and easy salad with an Asian twist to it.

I made this a few days ago to accompany a chickpea and squash curry. I liked the idea of the crisp, fresh vegetables with a sharp citrus and chilli dressing to contrast with the rich, spicy curry, and the two dishes worked together really well. The salad was huge, but it all went between three people. I think the “lightness” of the salad meant it was easy to keep picking at it once we had finished the main course, although I must confess that the raw veggies also were also perfect for dipping into the remaining satay sauce…

For the salad:

• 2 heads of chicory
• 1 large carrot
• 1/2 cucumber
• 3 spring onions
• 75g peanuts
• handful coriander
• 5-6 mint leaves, finely chopped

Place the peanuts on a baking tray and toast in the oven at 180°C until lightly golden. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and chop roughly.

Cut the chicory in half, then slice each of the halves into very fine strips lengthways.  Peel the carrot, and slice into fine strips lengthways with a vegetable peeler. Cut the cucumber into quarters, and remove the seeds. Cut into thin batons. Top and tail the spring onions, and cut – you’ve guess it – lengthways into thin strips.

Place the sliced vegetables in a bowl and toss gently. Sprinkle over the peanuts, coriander and mint. Just before serving, pour on the dressing.

For the dressing:

• 1 red chilli
• 1 unwaxed lime (rind and juice only)
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar

Remove the seeds and veins from the chilli, and chop finely. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk. Allow to sit until you are ready to serve the salad, and whisk again just before using.

Worth making? Yes. There is a nice mixture of textures and flavours here, with the bonus that there is very little salt in this recipe (apart from the soy sauce). Nothing here is particularly unusual, which made the end result all the more impressive, and I am sure that the basic recipe would lend itself to easy adaptation (cos lettuce in place of chicory, adding beansprouts or pea shoots…so many options!).

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