Tag Archives: garlic

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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Pumpkin Gnocchi

Yes, I am back from my big holiday in the US – lots of pics and a write-up coming soon! In the meantime…my “back from holiday” recipe

If you’re anything like me, you will have recently gotten into the Halloween spirit and bought lots of pumpkins and squashes, carved them, and then been left with some amazing lanterns plus lots of pumpkin flesh. So what can you do with it? Well, I made the lot into soup, but got back from holiday this week, and still found an assortment of squash in the fruit bowl. So…

While I think I have a pretty amazing pumpkin soup recipe (I usually enhance the flavour with lots of spice and top it off with toasted pumpkin seeds for a bit of crunch) as with so many things, there comes a point where you want something a bit more creative than soup. Back at home, suitcase in hand, I wanted to make something that did not involve a trip to the shops – I’d just “enjoyed” 8 hours in a plane, two busy airports, a severe lack so sleep, jet lag and a trip on the tube, which made a trip to the local store unappealing. So I came up with the idea of making pumpkin gnocchi with the stuff I had in the fridge and cupboard.

At this point, I can imagine some Italians clasping their hands to their faces in horror as an outsider commits culinary heresy with their classic little potato dumplings, but this was a tasty little dish so frankly, I’m not too worried. Indeed, there’s actually a lot of variety out there with gnocchi seemly made from just about anything you can imagine, so there may even be a strand of Italian authenticity in here somewhere.

This is a remarkably easy dish to make, provided you’ve got a little time to dedicate to it (i.e. quite good when you’re unpacking cases and making the washing machine work overtime). The squash is roasted in the oven with a little oil and garlic until tender, then mixed up with cheese and flour to make the dough. What was a sheer delight when making the dough was the colour – somewhere between the deep orange of the squash flesh and the sort of vibrant yellow you get from using saffron. My picture doesn’t really do it justice, but it is very firmly on the jaunty side of things.

One realisation I had in making this is that while you want the squash to be soft, you also want it to be on the dry side. I would therefore avoid steaming (which will get you a soft texture, but increases the moisture in the dough) and instead opt for roasting. Pop the squash pieces in a dish, mix with a little olive oil, add some garlic, then cover in tin foil and bake until tender, before uncovering and allowing the edges of the squash to caramelise. This imparts flavour, and keeps moisture levels down. The result? You need less flour in the gnocchi.

I actually made this gnocchi in two batches – one for pictures and a quick bite to eat after my travels, and another the next day for lunch (yup, I’d taken an extra day off to get over the jet lag). The first attempt was based on making large gnocchi. Or at least, these were my attempt at normal-sized gnocchi, they just turned out slightly larger. I had them with a little butter, black pepper, nutmeg and pecorino cheese. While they might look a little large on the place, they were very tasty, with a clear flavour of squash.

For the second version, I rolled the dough into very thing strands, and cut out what were really tiny gnocchi (the side of peanut M&Ms). They looked very pretty when cooked, piled up on the plate, but this time I made a change when serving them. I added only a tiny knob of butter, and instead used a dash of pumpkin oil to impact a rich toasted flavour to the dish. This combination was, frankly, sensational, giving two very different pumpkin flavours in the same dish.

So here you have it – squash gnocchi, made with butternut squash and goat cheese. Now all I need to get hold of is one of those proper little gnocchi rollers to get the ridges right!

To make pumpkin gnocchi:

• 400g squash, peeled and cubed (I used butternut squash)
• 2 cloves of garlic
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 100g soft goats cheese
• 1 egg
• 25g pecorino cheese, grated
• 200-225g plain flour
• salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat the oven to 200°C (390°F). Place the squash pieces in an ovenproof dish. Add the olive oil and garlic cloves, and mix. Cover with tin foil, and roast until tender (at least 30 minutes). Once ready, remove the tin foil and continue to roast until the edges of the squash are just starting to brown and caramelise. Remove from the oven and allow to cool – if the squash seems watery, reduce the heat to 150°C (200°F) and cook uncovered for another 5 minutes, then check again.

2. Put the cooled squash into a bowl (make sure to peel the garlic and discard the skin). Mash, then add the goat cheese, egg and pecorino cheese. Add enough flour to make a soft dough – it will still be quite sticky, so be careful not to over-work. Try to keep your hands and surfaces well-floured to prevent sticking, rather than adding more and more flour to the dough.

3. On a floured surface, roll out the dough into strands, then cut into pieces. You’ve made the gnocchi!

4. To cook the gnocchi, bring a pan of salted water to the boil. In the meantime, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and pour into a serving dish. Once the water is boiling, drop the gnocchi into the water. They are done when they float (around 2-3 minutes). As the gnocchi reach the surface, remove with a slotted spoon and place into the serving dish. Serve immediately.

To serve, add the sauce of your choice. I like to coat them in butter, add a little nutmeg and black pepper, and top with pecorino. If you have pumpkin oil, try adding a dash of that too.

Worth making? Easy? Yes. Quick? Not especially, but these are fun to make and delicious solid fare for cold days, so overall, worth the effort.

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Fiery Lentil Soup

So what are you up to for Bonfire Night? Baked spuds around the fire, sweets or messy toffee apples?

Personally, I’m a big fan of a flask of soup with some bread to keep the cold out, and I’ve got a recipe that is a guaranteed winter warmer. It’s good old-fashioned lentil soup, which is probably one of the easiest soups to make and I think by far and away one of the most satisfying.

I’ve recently been adding a lot more spices to my food, and that includes a lot more chilli. I’ve actually started to get quite experimental, and I can only apologise to everyone who has been surprised to find allspice cropping up in a range of dishes (albeit – no disasters so far!).

However, today is not an exercise in culinary risk-taking. Rather, it’s my “normal” lentil soup which has been fortified by a sharp twist of lemon juice at the end, and a swirl of chilli paste (in the form of sambal olek). The result is something that is robust, satisfying and packs rather a punch in the flavour department. However, if you’ve got folks around who perhaps prefer things a little milder, adding the chilli at the end avoids them running around looking for glasses of water to kill the heat.

So if you’re off to some Bonfire Night festivities, wrap up warm, keep your pets safe, and have a great evening!

For spicy lentil soup (serves 4, easy to double/triple):

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• knob of ginger, peeled and finely grated

• 3 clove garlic, finely chopped
• 2 teaspoons ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon mild curry powder
• 2 carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
• 250g red lentils
• 1 stock cube
• 1 litre hot water
• salt and pepper, to taste
• lemon juice and chilli paste, to serve

1. Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onions and cook on a medium heat until translucent (five minutes).

2. Add the ginger and garlic, and cook for two minutes (don’t let them burn). If they get too brown or start to stick, add a dash of water.

3. Add the spices and cook for 30 seconds. If it seems too dry, add some water – this will form a thick paste, and as the water evaporates, it will become oily and cook the spices. Don’t be tempted to add more oil.

4. Add the lentils and carrots and cook briefly, then add the water.

5. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the stock cube, and keep simmering until the lentils are tender. Add more water if the soup is too thick, then add some salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, add a dash of chilli paste and a squeeze of lemon juice, erring on the side of caution!

Worth making? I think the addition of the chilli takes this from a good soup to a great soup. An excellent choice to keep the chill at bay this week!

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Fourth of July: Boston Baked Beans

Today it’s the Fourth of July – so let’s make something traditionally American, the good old-fashioned Boston Baked Beans!

Well, I say “good old-fashioned” but actually, I don’t know very much about them other than I like their name, so I thought it was about time to give them a bash. And a recipe from The Well-Cooked Life looked just perfect.

I know some people get terribly snobbish about baked beans and don’t like the tinned ones, but I’m not one of them. One of life’s greatest pleasures is a Saturday morning involving toast covered in cheese, grilled and then topped with baked beans. Delish.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea of making beans from scratch that had a bit more pep to them. A few minutes on Google told me that they are normally made with salted pork and molasses, so you’ve got a powerful savoury/salty yet sweet flavour. Clearly the pork was not going to happen in my case, so I added a bit of soy sauce instead to get more “savoury” than just salt would contribute. The other ingredients also promised something rather grand – lots of spices, hotness from sambal (my preferred way of adding heat to a dish), sweetness from molasses and fried onions and sharpness from some cider vinegar.

Boston Baked Beans are also a complete doddle to make, albeit a little planning is needed to make sure that the beans are properly soaked and cooked, but it’s mainly a case of soak, boil beans, mix sauce, bake.

One little wrinkle that affected my beans – I didn’t have dinky little beans (like you get from the tinned ones) so I used the ones I had in my cupboard, which were crab-eye beans. They were a little larger, and stayed a little firmer when cooked. They were still delicious, but when I make these again, I’ll be using the smaller beans in the future.

What you do need to be prepared for is that these beans are not a neon orange hue – all that molasses or treacle makes the sauce a rich red-brown colour. However, the flavour is completely, totally, utterly sensational. The sum is greater than the individual parts – and actually, that makes this a rather fitting dish for Fourth of July.

To make vegetarian Boston Baked Beans (adapted from here):

• 350g beans
• water
• 3 tablespoons oil
• 1 clove garlic, chopped
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 white onions, chopped
• 2 heaped teaspoons paprika
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 2 large pinches ground cloves
• 2 tins chopped tomatoes
• 2 tablespoons concentrated tomato puree
• 1 teaspoon of chili or sambal
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 240ml treacle or molasses

• 120ml cider vinegar

1. Soak the beans overnight in cold water.

2. The next day, cook the beans according to instructions on the packet (how long you boil and simmer depends on the type). When cooked, drain the beans.

3. In the meantime, make the sauce. Fry the onions in the oil until golden. Add the garlic, cook briefly, then add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes.

4. Mix the cooked beans and the sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning as required.

5. Pour the beans into an ovenproof dish. Cover and bake in the oven at 160°C (320°F) for 2-3 hours until the sauce is thick and the beans are soft. If the beans get too dry, top up the water.

Worth making? This is a complete flavour explosion, and utterly delicious. The basic recipe should appeal to most tastes, and you can tweak and adjust the spices to suit what you like. Definitely worth having a go at.

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Tumbet

There has been a distinct Spanish flavour to a lot of my posts recently…and today, we’re keeping that going.

I’ve been making a dish called tumbet rather a lot recently. It’s traditionally from Mallorca, and it’s really just about the simplest thing you can make. Chances are, you’ve got just about everything in the kitchen right now. Look at this lot – nothing too fancy here, eh?

But what is this dish? Well, it’s clearly a lot of potato, peppers and aubergine. It’s all sliced up, fried in a little olive oil, then topped off with a thick tomato sauce that’s rammed with lots of garlic. There seem to be quite a lot of variations out there (which is only to b expected with such a traditional dish), but I’ve made a tweak and added a few slices of Spanish Manchego cheese before pouring over the tomato sauce to add a bit more substance so that this makes a tasty and filling main dish.

Now, a lot of blogs feature recipes that are “simple” or “easy” or “a breeze”. I’m not going to lie – this is one that’s easy, but its not quick. I think this tastes best when you can leave the vegetables to fry gently on a very low heat, rather than cremating them over a hot flame. If you’re able to multi-task and do something else at the same time (which coudl involve, perhaps, glasses of wine in the sunshine) then it is indeed simply. It’s just that some thing cannot be rushed.

This a really nice dish that works either as a cold tapas-style nibble with drinks (serve it up with bowls of olives, almonds and patatas bravas with garlic mayo with a few glasses of chilled white wine), or have it as a main dish with a large green salad. Either way – delicious, and you get the feeling of just a little summer sunshine as you eat it.

To make tumbet (as a side dish for four, main for two):

For the sauce:

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
• pepper, to taste

• salt, to taste
• 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
• 1 tin chopped tomatoes (400g)

Heat the oil over a low heat. Add the garlic and fry very gently for about a minute (it shouldn’t brown). Add the salt, pepper, oregano and chopped tomatoes. Cover the sauce, and leave to simmer for 30 minutes. If the sauce is too dry, just add a little more water.

For the layers:

• 300g potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
• 1 aubergine, sliced
• 2 peppers (I used one red, one yellow), cut into sticks
• 75g Manchego cheese, sliced
• olive oil, for frying

Fry the potatoes in a little olive oil until they are starting to turn golden brown. Put in the bottom of an ovenproof dish.

Brush the aubergine slides with a little olive oil, and fry gently until soft and browned on both sides. Place on top of the potatoes.

Finally, fry the peppers until soft. Put on top of the aubergine, then arrange the slices of cheese on top.

Pour over the sauce and spread evenly on top of the vegetables.

Worth making? This is a tasty dish with lots of flavours and textures, and in my view, makes a nice change from lasagna, moussaka or the dreaded mushroom risotto(*) if you have to serve something to a veggie guest.

(*) Acutally, I love mushrooms risotto – it’s just that it tends to be the only thing on the menu is so many place in London these days!

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Phở Chay (Vietnamese Vegetable Soup)

I’m not a great shopper. In all the New Year sales, there was little that I was focussed on buying, other than a set of very large bowls. Dull!

Or is it? Like millions of others, New Year for me (aside for sparklers, streamers and champagne at midnight) means that it’s time to try being a little healthier, and so I figured that I could use these larger bowls to start making healthy noodle soups, something that would be filling without meaning lots of oil or lots of pasta. With that in mind, here is one of my first attempts. I am calling this phở chay (Vietnamese vegetable soup). Or maybe faux-chay? OK, bad joke…

Now, I use the term calling quite on purpose.  I cannot make any promises about how authentic this recipe, but I can at least say that it is made from things that you stand a sporting chance of finding in a well-stocked kitchen and it is pretty darn tasty. Perhaps the only thing I don’t usually have in the house is lemongrass, which I just added as I found it skulking in the back of the fridge, the victim of a well-intentioned but never-attempted citrus and  lemongrass posset.

To bulk up the broth, I have also used the ingredients that I like in this sort of soup – marinated tofu chunks and green beans, and soba noodles as I much prefer them to rice noodles. Soba has the rich, earthyness of buckwheat, and I very much appreciate that it is more substantial and chewy than rice noodles.

Now, when you look at making a phở, it can look like one of those “bit of a faff” recipes, but in fact I have managed to do the whole thing in just over an hour. Just think of it as a simple two-step process:

Part the First: make the broth. I have omitted any attempts at frying anything to start with, and just throw it all in a large pot with lots of water. Onions and other vegetables, plus stock, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, to serve as the basis, and then a range of aromatics and spices. Star anise and cinnamon seem pretty much essential, and ginger is very much a “nice to have” (I’ve made it without ginger; it’s good, but with ginger it’s better). A teaspoon of sambal olek provides a little more heat, and a heroic amount of garlic tops the whole thing off. But I digress: put everything in a pot, boil then leave to simmer for an hour. One of the very useful things about this soup is that the broth will be strained to remove the vegetables and spices, so there is no need to waste time trimming things so that they look pretty on the table, unless that is your bag. But when you do come to strain the broth, keep the garlic cloves: they are transformed into soft lumps of sheer deliciousness, which are absolutely sublime added to mash or spread onto slices of very crisp bread.

Part the Second: adding “stuff” to the broth. I just go with whatever is to hand. Some sort of noodle is clearly essential, and while rice noodles are traditional, soba noodles really do work a treat here and I much prefer them. Visually not as much of an impact as white rice noodles, but the taste and texture really is great. I also like to add tofu, which I bake, then add to the broth to boil for 10 minutes before serving. This means that it has the chance to soften in the broth and the flavours mix. Then…top it all off with vegetables of your choice. Quick-cooking items such as mushrooms can be sliced and left raw, beansprouts can be thrown in as they are, while string beans or asparagus can be quickly boiled before serving.

Then, assemble it all! Put noodles and vegetables into your serving dishes, then ladle over the broth. Top with spring onions and a sprig of basil, and you’re done! Nothing more to do than get chopsticks and say: Chúc ngon miệng! (*)

For the stock:

• 10 cups water
• 1 large onion, peeled and quartered
• 2 stock cubes
• 2 sticks cinnamon
• 2 star anise
• 1 clove
• 1 cardamom pod
• 3 tablespoons low-salt soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
• 1/2 stick lemongrass
• 1 teaspoon brown sugar
• 6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
• 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
• 1/2 teaspoon sambal olek / chilli paste

To put in the soup:

• marinated tofu chunks
• 75g rice noodles / soba noodles per person, cooked, drained and rinsed
• 2 handfuls bean sprouts
• 2 handfuls mushrooms, sliced
• other vegetables (string beans, shredded lettuce, shredded spinach, shredded carrot), briefly boiled if necessary
• Thai or regular basil, mint leaves and/or lime wedges to garnish

To make the broth: Place all the stock ingredients in a large pan. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for at least an hour (can easily be made the night before and allowed to sit so the flavours are able to infuse the broth with their aromas and flavours). Once ready, strain to remove the solids and the broth is ready. You may have to add more water at the end, according to taste.

To prepare the soup: measure the “soup stuff” into bowl, and add enough piping hot broth to cover. Top with sprigs of Thai basil, mint and/or a wedge of lime.

Worth making? I was a little daunted by this at first, given that there are a lot of ingredients, but it was actually very simply to make. The only thing you need is time to allow the broth to simmer, so you get the maximum amount of flavour out of the spices – and I am afraid there is no shortcut for that. I would recommend trying to be light handed with the stock and soy sauce – you can always add more later, and we want the flavours of the anise, ginger, garlic et al to shine in this soup.

(*) Google tells me that this means bon appetit in Vietnamese! – I hope it does!

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