Tag Archives: vegan

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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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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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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Royal Baby: Gingerbread Acorn Biscuits

More on the theme of the royal baby, I’m afraid! Normal summer food will resume next week, but for the moment, we’ll still share in the national joy of the arrival of HRH Prince George of Cambridge.

Clearly a lot of people have decided to mark the event in various forms of cute cakes (myself included). So what else could I come up with that was interesting but not too twee or obvious. Cupcakes? Done. Cake pops? Not a fan. Macarons? Hmmm….

Then it came to me – what about gingerbread? Very traditional biscuits, with their rich spiciness said to have medicinal and healing properties. During the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, gingerbread figures covered in gold leaf would be presented to court visitors, so these biscuits also have royal pedigree. I also tweaked my spices by adding some aniseed, given its traditional association with new births. I also happened to have a rather nifty acorn cookie press, symbolising both new life (from little acorns mighty oaks do grow…) as well as the family crest of the Duchess of Cambridge’s family. With that, a perfect idea was born!

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Never one to do things by halves, I’ve had a go at two different sorts of gingerbread biscuits (and no, this time there was no pink version just in case…). First is one darker gingerbread, which is vegan. Cocoa and treacle give them a rich, deep colour.

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The lighter gingerbread is made in the more traditional way – lots of butter and syrup, as well as generous amounts of ground ginger. Both recipes are below so you can choose the one that you prefer.

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While these look very different from what you might usually associate with a new baby (being neither pale pink nor baby blue), I think they are rather striking. The flavour is also superb – they have a real depth of flavour from the spices and treacle but not too sweet.

Some tips for baking – the darker gingerbread uses oil, so it’s important to make sure it is very fresh and light-tasting. If it’s been lurking in the cupboard for a while, you’ll find that it affects the flavour of the finished gingerbread (or play it safe and use melted butter). I also found that the biscuits kept their shape better if they were put into the freezer for 10 minutes before baking. It’s not vital, but it seems to help make the details a little sharper. Finally, you can give these gingerbreads a nifty scalloped edge using a fluted cutter – I think the finished effect looks something like medallions.

If you’re keen to have a go at these biscuits and want to get presses of your own, you can buy them online from House on the Hill here.

To make light gingerbread medallions:

• 500g plain flour
• 4 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoons baking soda
• 225g butter
• 170g soft brown sugar
• 1 large egg
• 120ml golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons black treacle

1. Sift the flour, spices, salt and baking soda into a large bowl.

2. In a separate bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar and beat until soft and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well, then the syrup and treacle.

3. Add the flour mixture to the butter and mix to a soft dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and refrigerate overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

5. Take slices of the chilled dough and place on a lightly floured worktop. Roll out to around 1 1/2cm thick, then dust the top lightly with flour and press the mould into the dough. Use a fluted cutter to give the gingerbread a fluted edge. Transfer each to the baking sheet as you go.

6. Bake the biscuits in batches of 12 – they will take around 10-12 minutes to bake, until they are just golden at the edges (you may need more or less time depending on size so you might want to experiment with the first couple of biscuits).

7. When baked, allow the gingerbreads to cool for a minute, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

To make dark gingerbread medallions (from House on the Hill):

• 325 cups plain flour
• 50g cocoa powder
• 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
• 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 120ml vegetable oil

• 120ml treacle
• 120ml golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Mix the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a large bowl. Sift to ensure everything is properly combined.

2. In a bowl, stir the treacle, golden syrup, oil and water until smooth. It doesn’t look it, but it will come together and turn smooth.

3. Combine the wet and dry ingredients, mixing well until you have a solid dough. Add a few drops of water if necessary. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

5. Take slices of the chilled dough and place on a lightly floured worktop. Roll out to around 1 1/2cm thick, then dust the top lightly with flour and press the mould into the dough. Use a fluted cutter to give the gingerbread a fluted edge. Transfer each to the baking sheet as you go.

6. Bake the biscuits in batches of 12 – they will take around 10-12 minutes to bake, until they are slightly puffed (you may need more or less time depending on size so you might want to experiment with the first couple of biscuits).

7. When baked, allow the gingerbreads to cool for a minute, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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Oh Mon Amour! Bitter and Sweet

It’s that time of year when it is simply de rigueur to think pink. Heart-shaped chocolates, cupcakes, biscuits and desserts about. Heck, even emails at work are festooned with cherubs, hearts and flowers to persuade us that getting on top of our administration is somehow wonderfully romantic (is isn’t).

However, I’ve decided to depart from the usual Valentine treats (i.e. sweet and sugary) and instead to try something a little different. As an antidote to all those chocolates, this is just a simple salad to make us feel healthy during these cold, wintery days. And yes, obviously, it is in part hot pink.

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To make this salad, I’ve used ingredients for both colour as well as flavour. It would be easy just to walk around and throw everything that is red into a bowl and suggest it conveys the essence of romance, but I wanted to be more subtle than that.

Most obviously, I’ve used red endive, which add a rich pink colour, but also have a little bitterness to them. What’s love if not occasionally bitter? Then there are pomegranate seeds and segments of blood oranges. Don’t read too much into the “blood” part, but I wanted some fruit that would add sweetness, the oranges providing some citrussy tang and the pomegranate seeds some crunch. In all honestly, I must say  that I was a little disappointed that these oranges were not, well, more “bloody” when I cut them open, but they did turn out to have very pretty orange and red mottling, which actually looked great on the plate. I also put in some aromatic fennel (I’ve been eating a lot of this recently) as well as some crumbled cheddar. I could say the cheese somehow symbolises strength and smoothness, but the reality is – strong cheddar is just brilliant with fennel, and there’s not too much more to it than that!

I finished this off with a simple dressing of olive oil, honey and red wine vinegar, which again balance sweetness, sharpness and smoothness. Finally, the sauce gets a little kick in terms of flavour and colour by adding some oil from a jar of harissa paste. It ended up more orange than pink or red, but the effect was still great.

So that’s really it! This salad is by turns sweet, bitter and sharp, so it has interesting tastes and textures as well as looking quite stunning. You can, of course, tweak the ingredients depending on what you have to hand and your own preferences, but I think the red quality from the endive and fruit is pretty much essential.

Whatever you have planned for tomorrow – dinner à deux or a fun-filled evening with friends – have fun!

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To make a Bitter and Sweet salad (serves 2, of course)

For the salad:

• 2 red endives
• 2 blood oranges
• 1 small fennel bulb
• 50g cheddar
• 2 handfuls pomegranate seeds

For the dressing:

• 1 tablespoon honey
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 1 teaspoon oil from harissa paste or sun-dried tomato paste (optional)

1. Break the endive into leaves, and cut each one into two lengthways. Peel the orange and cut into segments. Slice the fennel into very thin pieces. Slice the cheese and crumble.

2. Build up the salad on two plates – start with the endives, then the fennel, then the oranges, then cheddar and then scatter over the pomegranate seeds.

3. Make the dressing – whisk everything until smooth, then drizzle over the salad.

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Beetroot Caviar

New Year, new challenges. And strange as it may sound, I am intrigued by the idea of caviar. It is one of those foods that are seen as impossibly glamorous and thus very expensive, and things like amber salmon roe do look pretty. However, I am also not that into the idea of even trying it – I mean, it’s basically fish eggs! Yuk…

That aside, I recently came across an intriguing technique  that allows you to make small spheres out of pretty much anything by using like (see here). Basically you just mix agar agar with your liquid of choice, then allow it to cool, fill a pipette, and let drops fall into a tall glass of chilled vegetable oil. At this point, chemistry and physics take over. As the droplets are denser than the oil, they sink to the bottom of the glass. The almost-set agar solution coupled with the chilled oil means that the droplets set, and you end up with a glass filled with lots and lots of little spheres. As the oil also acts to prevent all the spheres lumping together into a single mass, you end up with something that looks pretty amazing indeed. In my case, I used beetroot juice, and ended up with a mass of garnet-like pearls.

I used this technique at a recent dinner to make canapés – I used small Dutch buckwheat pancakes (poffertjes) as blinis, added some of the beet caviar, then topped at the last minute with sour cream and dill. I think they looked rather jolly, and they were certainly something unexpected from a vegetarian kitchen!

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This technique looks a little like the molecular gastronomy technique of mixing liquids and powers to produce liquid pearls that burst on the tongue, but it’s great for the novice like me, as the use of agar agar makes the process easier, and the result is more robust – as the spheres are made from a gel, they can happily be rinsed, moved around and even stored until the next day.

As an aside, I’ve tried using the more “scientific” approach to spherification using sodium alginate and calcium lactate. It was a disaster. I had grand plans to present a spoon with pearls of Swedish akvavit topped with dill as a palate cleanser during a dinner. Great in theory, but I used the wrong powders in the wrong order, and the whole lot ended up as a bit of a mess in a bowl, and I managed to achieve little other than wasting some perfectly good akvavit. I doubt I’ll be trying that technique again…

My approach might be a bit more low-tech, but it works for me and I love the result. I think I’ll be inflicting fake caviar in various guises on various people for the foreseeable future. However, I’ve learned a couple of things that are worth keeping in mind.

First, what flavour are you going for? You’re not going to be consuming these spheres in huge quantities, so it’s worth going for ingredients that offer a bit of a flavour hit. Remember that the agar agar makes a gel rather than holding a liquid, so you won’t get a pop and a burst of something as you might get with molecular gastronomy techniques. If a flavour is mild, you might want to allow it to concentrate down before use. You may also want to think about the oil you use – I opted for flavourless sunflower oil, but olive oil might be a good idea if you want that flavour to come across in whatever dish you are making.

Next, how much agar agar should you use? I tried this with half a teaspoon per half-cup of liquid, and you get very soft spheres. I found that one teaspoon of flakes worked better (note – flakes, not powder!). However, while these were more robust, they still went ever so slightly out of shape when left overnight in the fridge. I didn’t mind, but if you really want spheres that hold their shape, you might even want to increase the amount of agar agar you use.

Finally, think about colour. I used pure beetroot juice, which does make the most wonderful deep ruby-red spheres. However, if you go for something this intense, remember that the colour of the juice will affect other ingredients, so be warned that if you want to put this on top of blinis with sour cream, the tell-tale beetroot pink colour will start to appear after a few minutes. However, you may prefer to go for lighter hues so that they catch the light. Whatever you prefer!

To make beetroot caviar:

• vegetable oil
• 120ml beetroot juice (or other liquid)
• 1 teaspoon agar agar flakes

1. Fill a tall glass with vegetable oil. Chill in the freezer for around 40 minutes.

2. In a small saucepan, heat the juice and the agar agar flakes. Bring to the boil, whisking occasionally, then boil for two minutes. Remove from the heat, take the oil from the freezer, and allow the agar agar mixture to cool to just lukewarm but still liquid.

3. Using a pipette, allow drops of the liquid to fall into the chilled oil. They will sink and form spheres! (If the agar agar mixture gets too thick, you will need to re-boil the liquid. If you just use the liquid as it gets thick, the resulting spheres will be too fragile).

4. Remove the spheres with a spoon, or pour everything through a sieve. Use however you want! You can save the oil and re-use for cooking or more spherification.

Worth making? This is a really fun challenge to try your hand at in the kitchen. There is an element of trial-and-error in getting quantities to work if you’ve got something specific in mind, but the results are superb and allow you to make some really smart-looking dishes.

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{8} Kuri Kinton

I’ve been trying to include some rather more unusual ideas in my Twelve Days series this year, so with that in mind, today’s recipe looks East, to Japan, for some inspiration. I came across a recipe for simple wagashi sweets made from fresh chestnuts called kuri kinton, and which are also pure whimsy, looking like little chestnuts!

Chestnuts have a strong association with Anglo-Saxon Christmas traditions, from roasted chestnuts sold in the street, to turkey stuffing, and of course the romantic idea of toasting them on the fire in your own home. I figured that kuri kinton would be a great idea for the festive season, with all the flavour of chestnuts but without all the heaviness that usually goes with how they are served.

This recipe is very simple – fresh chestnuts are steamed, them lightly sweetened with sugar and formed into a chestnut shape. Very simple but very clever. As there is only some sugar in this recipe, and no oil or fat, the flavour is light and you get the real intense flavour of chestnuts. This means, of course, that you should try to use the best chestnuts that you can get hold of. I have no idea if you could use tinned or vacuum-sealed chestnuts for this recipe, but I suspect that if you make these, freshness will also be your ally here. The use of canned chestnuts would also seem to run counter to the idea of making wagashi where freshness is important, and seasonality of the ingredients highly prized.

I used a batch of plump, shiny Italian chestnuts for this recipe, and they were easy to prepare using a steamer. However, I also had some slightly older chestnuts which I added to the steamer. After cooking, it was immediately apparent which were which – the fresh chestnuts were tender and easy to remove from their shells. They also had a texture like cooked potatoes and a sweet, rich aroma. The older chestnuts were rock hard and useful. So be sure to go for fresh.

If you wanted to, I’m sure you could jazz these up with a hint of spice or chocolate or some other flavour, but I think they are best enjoyed on their own, so that you can just appreciate the delicate flavour and silky-smooth chestnut that makes up these wagashi. This also seems to be to be truer to the concept of wagashi. And as a Christmas treat, they are unusual, and rather sophisticated.

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The original recipe for making these kuri kinton suggested using around 70g of white sugar to 550g of chestnut. However, my naughty Western sweet tooth did not think this was sufficient, so I ended up using nearer 200g. Yes, rather a lot, but I think it is necessary. My advice would be to add as much sugar as you think you need, but remember you don’t want to overwhelm the delicate chestnut flavour with too much sweetness.

It is also recommended to pass the chestnuts through a sieve to ensure a smoother result. However, as I prepared the chestnut mixture to form the wagashi I found the mixture to be too coarse. So…I threw the chestnuts into a food processor and blitzed it until completely, perfectly, utterly smooth. Then the whole lot went back into a saucepan and I cooked it until the mixture was very thick. The result? Perfectly smooth sweet chestnut paste that could be moulded into the shapes you see below. Maybe not authentic, but I liked the result.

Now, the big question – what are they like? If you’re a fan of chestnuts, this is a nice recipe to try, and they look very unusual and attractive as part of the festive selection. I think they would also be fun if made as smaller sweets, and used to decorate the top a chestnut gateaux.

Just one final word of warning – these kuri kinton need to be fresh to be enjoyed. I made the chestnut mixture the night before, and then shaped them the next day. I think they were at their best on that day, and I’d be cautious about storing them for any length of time. They will dry out if left to stand for too long, and if you keep them in the fridge, the delicate flavour of the chestnut will be dulled.

So, if you can cope with the complexity, the quirks and all the fiddly work with the chestnuts, enjoy making these little chestnut sweets!

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To make Kuri Kinton (original recipe here):

Makes around 30 pieces (a lot – you might want to try a smaller batch!):

• 1kg fresh chestnuts
• 200g white caster sugar
• still mineral water

1. Place the chestnuts in a steamer (I used a colander placed above a large pan). Steam for 30 minutes.

2. Turn off the steamer. Take three or four chestnuts at a time (leave the rest in the steamer to keep warm). Cut each chestnut in half and scoop out the inside. Watch out for any bad chestnuts – you’ll know them if you see them, and they should be thrown away. If in doubt, don’t use! If you find the nuts get hard to scoop out, warm them again by steaming for a minute or two.

3. Once all the chestnuts have been scooped out, put the pieces into a sieve and press through with a spoon. This will break up the flesh, and remove any bits of skin or lumps.

4. Once all the chestnuts have been done, weigh the amount of chestnut (I got 550g from 1kg of chestnuts).

5. Put the chestnuts into a blender with the sugar (I used 2/5 the amount of sugar to chestnuts – 200g of white sugar for 550g of chestnut flesh). However, go with what you think tastes good, so if you like less sugar, use less sugar. Add as much water as is needed to make a perfectly smooth puree (if should be smooth but thick, not runny).

6. Pour the chestnut mixture into a saucepan, and cook on a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Keep cooking on a low heat until you have a very thick mixture. You should be able to take a piece and roll it into a firm ball. If too soft, keep cooking. If the ball cracks easily or seems dry, add some water and cook for a moment before re-testing. Cover the mixture with cling film and leave to cool overnight.

7. Time to make a chestnut! Take a ball of the paste (around 30g, or the size of a large chestnut) and place in the middle of a damp piece of muslin cloth. Gather the cloth on top, pinch the ball lightly and twist the top of the cloth. Carefully unwrap the sweet, and you should see a chestnut shape. Remove from the cloth and press lightly onto a plate (this will flatten the base and allow the chestnut to stand up). Serve at room temperature with Japanese green tea.

Worth making?If you like chestnuts, this is a great recipe, and very unusual at Christmas time.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Knäckebröd (Swedish Rye Crispbread)

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that my post about a rather hot lentil soup included some sort of crackers on the side. What were they? While I am sure that folk are not exactly lying awake at night, fretting with uncertainty, I’ll clear up the mystery – they were some terribly healthy Swedish-style rye crispbreads, and of course, they were home-made. We’re good like that round here.

Yes, for when you think about Swedish cuisine, you will pretty quickly get to the classic crispbread (via all the other stereotypes – cinnamon buns, amusingly named sweets like skum and plopp, meatballs, fermented herring…). I find crispbread – or knäckebröd (k-ney-keh-br-uh-d) in Swedish –  to be something of a wonder. It’s incredibly simple, but very tasty when made well, and provides the perfect foil for all manner of toppings. It’s rich in fibre, so clearly good for you, but it also has that amazing crispness. Personally, I love the sort of crispbread that seems to shatter. Those crispbreads that are dry and a bit powdery don’t really do it for me. I prefer the stuff that is thin and slightly toasty, that gives you that noticeable crack as you sink your teeth into it.

For all my culinary Swedophilia (as seen from cinnamon buns, “vacuum cleaner” cakes and dream cookies), I’ve never gotten round to making knäckebröd. Until this weekend that is, and I’m happy to report that it was really rather easy, and the results really rather successful. I was particularly pleased with this picture, when the fellows stacked up neatly like a pile of crisp autumn leaves. They’re probably supposed to stay flatter than mine did, but I actually like the mad, warped shape these guys developed in the oven.

I used a dough which was mostly rye flour and a little plain flour (about 4 parts rye, 1 part plain) in the hope this would make the dough a little easier to work with. Did it work? No idea, as the dough was predictably heavy, as you’d expect with mostly rye flour.

I also went for a yeast dough. It would have been simpler and quicker to just make a plain dough without the yeast, but I wanted to have as much flavour in the crispbread as I could get. I wasn’t using much more than rye flour and salt, so this fermentation stage was going to matter. I started the yeast using some honey and warm water, then mixed up the dough and left to prove overnight. All that rye flour meant that the dough was extremely dense, and while it had not exactly puffed up overnight, it was clear that the yeast had worked it magic, and there was a distinctive sour aroma when I removed the lid from the bowl. The use of yeast was wise indeed.

Now, it was time to bake these bad boys. The trick, I have now learned, is that you need to work in batches. No point in rolling out all the dough, as you are aiming to get something that is about a millimeter thick. If you roll all the dough in once go, you’d better have a very large kitchen. Trust me – small batches here work wonders, and it’s much easier to take out your frustrations with the rolling pin to roll it out to wafer-thinness.

Some people also have nifty little rolling pins that make the characteristic holes all over the knäckebröd, but I had to make do with a fork. In fact, I quite like the randomness of them, they look a little but more artisanal. Sometimes it is nice to get things that look absolutely perfect. Macarons should look perfect. Crispbread…well, it should look very rustic, no?

After the baking, it was time for the taste test. I could not have been more thrilled with how they turned out. At first the toasted flavour comes across, giving way to a tinge of yeast and the sour tang of the proving process. But most thrilling of all (or as thrilling as things get when it comes to crispbread) was the proper, sharp crack as you bit into them. It was beyond doubt that these guys were seriously crisp.

So there you have it – a super-easy recipe that makes excellent crispbread. But keep in mind that I’m not Swedish, I’m not an expert, and I’m probably biased. In some ways, I have to be, given that I now have a pile of 30 crispbreads in the kitchen, which are slowly being eaten for breakfast and with dinner (note that knäckebröd is not interchangeable with poppadom when eating curry, no matter how good you might think it would be…). That said, you can buy good crispbread these days, and I’m not sure this is something I’ll be knocking up on a weekly basis (if for no other reason than to avoid another glut of the stuff) but this is something that it will be worth tweaking with lots of seeds and/or extra spices in the dough to make crackers for a party. Now it’s just me going mano a mano with those 30 crispbreads…

Now, I said that I like the sort of knäckebröd that is so crisp that it seems to shatter? As you can see from below,  I’m as good as my word!

To make knäckebröd (makes 30):

• 1 tablespoon dried yeast
• 250ml lukewarm water
• 1 tablespoon honey
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 125g plain flour
• 400g rye flour

1. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Add the honey and three tablespoons of flour. Set aside somewhere warm until the mixture is bubbling.

2. Combine the rest of the flour, the salt and the yeast mixture until you have a smooth dough. It should be firm, but if it seems too dry, add more water, a tablespoon at a time, and work until smooth. I ended up adding three extra spoons of water.

3. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave the rest overnight. The mixture will only expand slightly, but should smell “yeasty” and slightly sour the next day.

4. The next day, prepare to bake the crispbread. Preheat the oven to 220°C (430°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, but do not grease.

5. Take one-quarter of the dough. Place on a well-floured work surface (use more rye flour) and roll out as thin as you can – around 1-2mm is idea. Use a bowl as a template to cut out rounds and transfer to the baking sheet (I baked four at a time). Use a fork to prick all over the surface of each crispbread.

6. Bake the knäckebröd for around 8-10 minutes until the pieces are browned. Watch carefully as there is not much difference between done and burnt!

Worth making? An easy recipe with great results. As good as the stuff you can buy, which might put you off, but nice to try if you want to put some unusual flavours in the mixture.

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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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Sweet Potato Wedges

Autumn is now with us. The mornings might be bright, but there is that unmistakable crispness in the air that signals things are about to get a lot “fresher” in the coming weeks, and the evenings are getting dark very quickly. Sure, it might still feel warm if you’re in a sunny spot, but when you’re in the shade, or a breeze blows past, you feel just how nippy things are getting.

With the chaos of moving house almost at an end, I’ve finally been back in the kitchen. All of a sudden, my cooking has moved away from the salads of summer, and quick, light suppers, and into much more substantial fare. Lentil dishes with lots of spices, curries, baked squash, soups, fritters…it’s the time of year to batten down the hatches and do all you can to fend off the cold weather that is approaching. It’s not a conscious change on my part, but there are certain dishes the you just have a craving for as the seasons roll by. I have, however, resisted the urge to buy Christmas pudding, even if my local shop has decided that this is exactly what we want to eat in October.

In much of my cooking at this time of year, I use a lot of spices, and I take a heavy-handed approach. I somehow feel that lots of cumin, pepper, ginger, garlic and sambal will help to fight off the sniffles during the colder months. It might work, it might not, but it certainly makes things a lot more tasty. It’s also worth getting a little more creating in how you season things – one of my current favourites is ground allspice, which is very common in sweet treats like biscuits and gingerbread, but it adds an interesting dimension to savoury dishes too.

It was with all this in mind that I got round to trying something that was on my “to make” list for quite some time. I love sweet potatoes baked and topped with feta, so I expected great things when they were spiced and baked as wedges.

Pleasingly, these are very, very simple to make – nothing much more than peeled sweet potato, cut to size, then tossed in oil with some spices, and then baked. They also have the benefit of looking very impressive – a jolly autumnal bust of orange when freshly cut, turning a deeper colour after baking. They can also be prepared hours ahead of time and left in the spice mixture to marinade (if it is possible to marinade potatoes?), and make a great snack or side dish. However it is the spices that take these from so-so to wow-wow. The spices you use are completely up to you – I went with some personal favourites (allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin). A tasty little dish as the long nights draw in.

As you can see below, these wedges hold their shape rather nicely too after being baked in a hot oven.

To make sweet potato wedges:

• 2 large sweet potatoes
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• spices – select 5, and use 1/2 teaspoon of each(*)

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

2. Peel the potatoes. Cut lengthways into eight wedges, then slice each wedge diagonally (so each potato provides 16 pieces).

3. In a large bowl, combine the olive oil and spices. Mix well, then add the potato wedges.

4. Transfer the coated wedges to a tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 30-40 minutes until you can insert a knife easily, and the wedges are just stating to brown at the edges.

5. Serve immediately with the dip of your choice.(**)

(*) For the spices, I used allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin. And then I cheated and added some dried thyme too.

(**) I served these with a sprinkle of salt, and a dip made from tahini, yoghurt, sambal and lime juice.

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