Tag Archives: vegetarian

Rava Kesari

I’ve always found Indian sweets rather daunting. I put this down to the fact that I really do not eat them that often. When you go for Indian food, by the time you’ve filled up on rice, bread and delicious curry, the last thing you are looking for is something sweet and heavy to finish the meal. Maybe, at a stretch, I could manage a little mango sorbet at most, but certainly not fried milk-rich sweets like gulab jamun or rasmalai.

However, I was keen to have a go at making some Indian sweets as I’ve had a hankering to try them for a while. I’ve done some digging recently, and it seems that a lot of them are actually incredibly easy to make. And so it is with rava kesari. There is a little work to be done in preparing some of the ingredients, but you’re not required to do much more than prepare a sweet, spiced syrup and then add it to a ghee/semolina mixture. You’re essentially making a white sauce, but one that is brightly coloured and sweet, which is then cooked until thick, then left to set and cut into fancy shapes. But doesn’t it look pretty?

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If you were trying to guess the ingredients here, you would probably not guess that this is mostly made from semolina. Forgot the nasty, grainy stuff you might have suffered at school. In this recipe, the result is firm but smooth. And you’re probably already guessed how these sweets get their brilliant yellow colour. They are flavoured with saffron, and I must confess that my pictures don’t really do it justice. The colour is amazingly vibrant. The saffron is balanced with ground cardamom (which seems to be to Indian sweet treats what vanilla is to British baking), and they are finished off with some toasted almonds and sultanas.

One of the other vital ingredients is ghee, and so I had to have a go at making it. I was able to buy it in a local shop, but I was going all-out on this one. Recipes often say you can switch ghee for clarified butter, but a quick peek in a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook confirmed that it is slightly different, but not unfamiliar – in fact, it’s simple browned butter. Just throw butter in a pan, leave over a gentle heat, and then wait until the solids darken and the butter has a delicious toasted aroma and flavour. This is well worth doing, as it adds a subtle nuttiness to whatever you are making. It is also so ubiquitous in Indian cooking that it would be a shame not to use it here.

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Frankly, I could not have been happier with how this turned out. Sure, there is a little faffing about with skinning some almonds, making the ghee, leaving the saffron to infuse the milk and in grinding the cardamom seeds, but nothing is too taxing, and all of these steps could be easily done ahead of time. The actual process of making rava kesari is a doddle – just cook the semolina in the ghee, then add the liquid and sugar, cook until thick and spread in a tray.

My version was not too sweet (which was the first shock, I was expecting something tooth-aching) and the combination of cardamom and saffron was light, fresh and aromatic, a combination of resinous and slightly minty with the warm flavour of saffron. I remember at Christmas being pleasantly surprised by this spice combination in a festive loaf, so it was a welcome reappearance for this duo in these sweets. I also loved how the pieces looked when cut – you can see pieces of sultana and almond, flecks of black cardamom and flashes of orange from the saffron threads.

Before service this, I had kept the rava kesari in the fridge. This had an unexpected but welcome impact on the flavour, and it meant these sweets had a very cooling quality. Served like this, I can see how they would be welcome at the end of a meal. In the interests of culinary exploration, I also tried a piece when it had come to room temperature, and while it was still delicious, on balance, I think the chilled version is better. Now, all I have to hope is that I’ve done justice to this delicious sweet!

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To make Rava Kesari (makes 24 pieces):

• 80g unsalted butter
• 3 generous pinches saffron strands
• 360ml whole milk
• 360ml water
• 200g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon finely ground cardamom seeds
• 160g semolina
• 30g toasted slivered almond
• 35g golden sultanas
• 24 whole almonds, to decorate

1. Put the milk into a saucepan until warm. Add the saffron and leave to sit for at least 30 minutes.

2. Make the ghee: melt the butter on a low heat, and watch it. It will hiss and spit, then calm down. The solids will turn light brown and the butter will develop a nutty aroma. Strain and put to one side.

3. In a pan, combine the milk, water and sugar. Heat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is just starting to foam. Add the cardamom, stir and remove from the heat.

4. Prepare a large tray (20 x 30 cm) for the rava kesari. Brush with a little of the melted ghee and set aside. I used a glass tray with no other lining and had no problems with sticking.

5. In a large pan, add five tablespoons of the ghee. Heat until melted, then add the semolina. Cook on a low heat for two minutes, stirring all the time (it should not go brown).

6. Now start to add the liquid mixture to the semolina. This is a bit like making a white sauce, so start with a ladle of liquid, and stir well. Repeat two more times, then finally add all the liquid. At this point, whisk the mixture until smooth and there are no lumps. It should be bright yellow and smell glorious!

7. Cook the mixture on a medium heat until it is very thick and starts to come away from the sides of the pan. You can test whether it is done by dropping a small piece onto a cold plate – it should quickly become firm.

8. When ready, stir in the almond slivers and sultanas, then pour the whole mixture into the tray. Flatten the mixture (a rubber spatula is ideal). Use a knife to score diamond shapes, and place a whole almond in the middle of each piece.

9. Leave the rava kesari to cool, then chill in the fridge. Before serving, use a sharp knife to cut along the score marks to separate into individual pieces.

Worth making? This is a really different and delicious sweet. It’s fairly easy to make, and you get a really good result from ingredients you might have in the cupboard already. Recommended!

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Red Kobucha Pumpkin Soup

If you’re a compulsive pumpkin carver, you’re probably left with a familiar issue, namely what to do with all that pumpkin flesh! In years past, I’ve thought that I would use the lot to make delicious pies, curries and soups.

Well, I was swiftly disabused of those notions. For it seems that while those giant sphere-like pumpkins look pretty cool when carved and lit up, the flesh cooks down into something a bit watery and insipid. All is not lost, and you can certainly cook up something if you add lots of spice and a decent amount of cream. However if what you want is something brilliantly orange in its autumnal splendour, you’ve got to look a bit further afield. If this is what you want, then red kabocha pumpkin is a good choice.

Now, it’s fair to say that kabocha pumpkin isn’t exactly what you would call a bit of a looker. It’s a deep reddish-orange, but the skin is rough and irregular. Not great for lantern carving, but excellent for cooking.

Kabocha is perfect for making soup. You’ve got the colour, but helpfully you don’t need to mess about with peeling it. Just cut off any odd-looking bits, remove the seeds, but otherwise you can leave on the skin to boost the colour of the final dish. Something like this.

pumpkin_cubes

I’ve kept the ingredients in the soup recipe fairly simple – it’s similar to a recipe I posted a couple of years ago, with not much more than pumpkin, a little potato, onions and stock. However, I did want to be a little creative, so I added a dash of curry powder, some cumin and a good old dose of…allspice! Yes, a rather strange choice for a soup, but it was a bit of a nod to pumpkin pie spices. It’s a matter of taste, but you want to add enough to add some rich spiced flavour, but not so much as to overpower everything else in the soup.

The soup is topped off with some pumpkin seeds , toasted in the oven and finished with a little more allspice. All in all, a bright orange antidote to all that candy that will doubtless be consumed in the next couple of days.

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So with that, I’ll leave you with a picture of one of my pumpkin lanterns from previous years….Happy Halloween!

To make red kaboucha soup (serves 4):

For the soup:

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 onions, peeled and chopped
• 1 small potato
• 500g red kaboucha squash, skin on

• 1 teaspoon curry powder
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin

• 1 teaspoon ground allspice
• 750ml vegetable stock

For the pumpkin seeds:

• 2 large handfuls pumpkin seeds
• 1/2 teaspoon curry powder
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

• 1 teaspoon olive oil

1. Put the olive oil and chopped onions in a large pan. Cook over a gentle heat until the onions are caramelised and lightly browned but not burned (around 5 minutes).

2. Add the spices and cook for around 30 seconds. Add the pumpkin flesh and cook on a medium heat for around 5 minutes, stirring from time to time.

3. Add the vegetable stock , bring to the boil, and simmer for around 30 minutes until the pumpkin flesh and the potato are very soft. Add any water (if needed) and add salt and pepper to taste.

4. In the meantime, make the toasted pumpkin seeds: put everything into a bowl, stir well, then transfer to a baking tray and bake in the oven at 150°C (300°F) until toasted (watch them – the go from golden to burned faster than a witch on a broomstick!).

5. Once the soup is ready, put into a blender and blitz until smooth. Pass through a sieve, then reheat briefly before serving. Finish each bowl of soup with a sprinkling of the toasted pumpkin seeds.

Worth making? It is indeed! This is really easy to make, vegan, looks great and the allspice adds an unexpected little extra something.

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Polenta Chips

Yay, Autumn is well and truly here! On the plus side, there its lots of fruit about for jamming (more of which soon), but then there have also been endless conversations with friends and colleagues about whether the weather means it is time to put on the heating. This is rather ridiculous, given we were all sweltering in a heatwave a few weeks ago. Personally, I’m going to maintain an iron will and shall refuse to touch the radiators until the first of October. Even then, I’ll hold out for as long as the cats can stand it!

The change in temperature has, however, given me the perfect opportunity to try some of the more, ahm, “robust” recipe ideas that I have on my try-at-some-point list, which tend to be those that are made from lots of wheat, potatoes or corn (or some combination of all three). This is just one of those recipes. For these are chips (or fries if you must) but made from polenta rather than potatoes. And you know what? The end product actually looks like a pretty good substitute for their potato-based cousins! Golden and crisp!

PolentaChips2

I first remember eating these style of chips years ago, but they were more like deep-fried bars of polenta and a bit of a novelty in posher pubs. Then, more recently, this dish has started to pop up again, but in the guise of thin, match-stick style bars of golden deliciousness, and infused with all manner of herbs and spices and served with a variety of sauces for dipping (and I’ve enjoyed them with everything from tasty mayonnaise to rather dubious overly-sweet fruity chutneys).

So, how hard could it be to make them at home? I mean, it’s just sweetcorn, right? As it turns out, these chips are actually incredibly simple. Super-simple. You just make a batch of polenta, leave it to set in a tray, then slice into fingers and bake in the oven. That’s it.

For the polenta mixture, it was just a case of mixing the polenta meal, vegetable stock, chili paste and herbs, plus a dash of olive oil (the olive oil is essential, so that they crisp up when you bake them later). This really allows you to go to town on flavours. While I used herbes de provence you could just as easily go for paprika, spiced such as cumin or curry powder, or even cheese. The only thing to keen an eye on is the level of salt, either on its own or from the stock used to make the polenta. As the baking process will drive a lot of moisture from the polenta, the flavour will become more concentrated, so you should aim to slightly under-season the mixture. And hey, these things are chips – if you need to add more salt, just sprinkle it on them at the end. Even at that stage you can get creative, grinding fresh herbs like rosemary or thyme with salt to add some extra flavour. OK, clearly we’re dangerously close to gastro-pub territory here…

Now, I would love to be able to tell you that I made these flawlessly first time. But…when it came to baking these bad boys, I had to go up a bit of a learning curve. I thought I would be really smart and spread them out on greaseproof paper that was coated in a little olive oil. No sticking here, I thought! However, I had completely failed to think about the fact that during baking, there would be a lot of water driven out of the polenta. The result? The chips got rather stuck to the paper, and said paper started to fall apart thanks to all that steam.

Having removed the tray from the oven, separated the chips and the paper (the oil did its job in the end), then lined the tray with a drizzle of olive oil and put the whole lot back into the oven, things then proceeded perfectly. I was impressed that, given just how little oil was involved, the chips went from the pale yellow of the polenta to a rich, toasted shade of gold and acquired a good, crisp snap and decent crunch. They were just delicious served up with mayonnaise, beer and not much else.

PolentaChips1

I’ve raved about how easy these chips are to make…so how to they taste? I was pretty much blown away by the end result. The heat from the chili and the herbs is still there, but what had been essentially soft sticks of creamed corn had been transformed into something crisp and with a toasted, almost nutty flavour. The flavour was not unlike those giant fried corn seeds you get in tapas bars, and very more-ish.

These chips make a great alternative to “normal” chips with dinner, and have the bonus of remaining very crisp even as the cool. In fact, you can happily leave them to cool down completely, and then serve them as a snack with drinks. And, given I’m going through a rather busy patch at work, you can even (dare I say it) reheat them rather successfully the next day. All that – from corn!

To make polenta chips (serves 2, or 1 if being greedy…)

• 150g polenta meal
• 600ml water
• vegetable stock
• 2 teaspoons dried herbs
• chili paste, to taste
• 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the baking tray

1. Cook the polenta according to the manufacturer’s instructions. In my case – bring the water to the boil, then add the polenta (stirring all the time), add the rest of the ingredients and cook over a very low heat until the grains are soft.

2. In the meantime, line a tray with cling film. Pour the cooked polenta into the tray, then smooth the top (use the back of an oiled spoon) and cover with more cling film. Leave until completely cold and firm – overnight is fine.

3. Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F). Drizzle a baking tray with a little olive oil.

4. Remove the slab of polenta from the cling film, and use a sharp knife to cut into chips (thin sticks, fat chips, crinkle-cut…). Spread the chips on the baking tray, and pop into the oven to bake for 40-45 minutes until crisp and golden. You may need to remove them from the oven from time to time to shake them up and get an even colour.

Worth making? These chips are amazing. Super-crisp and packed with flavour. If potato allergy were a thing, then these would be your saviour!

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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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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.

tabbouleh

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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Watermelon and Feta Salad

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

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

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

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To make a Watermelon and Feta salad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ajo Blanco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To make Ajo Blanco (serves 4):

For the soup:

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

To serve:

• olive oil
• 12 green grapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury

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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Winter Slaw Salad

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been trying to empty the fridge and cupboards after the excesses of Christmas. This often prompts a strange array of dishes with a random festive ingredient, or what can seem like an endless supply of Clementine juice…and there is that stray jar of mincemeat that needs to be used up…somehow!

Today’s recipe addresses this, as it allows you to use up a few winter vegetables to make a colourful and healthy coleslaw salad, full of raw vegetables with lots of fibre, which makes for a comforting side dish. The sort of thing that works very well alongside baked potatoes with butter. It is, after all, snowing outside, and that’s not the sort of weather that you want to eat only cold raw veggies, is it?

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I have to fess up to the fact that I’ve seen a few versions of winter slaw around recently, so this is something of an amalgam of those ideas. However, I’ve made this recipe based on what I had in the cupboard (I’ve tended to buy very little since Christmas other than milk and bread!), and lends itself to endless tweaking based on what you have to hand. I’ve just used some red cabbage, Brussel sprouts, fennel, carrot and apple, and the sauce is made from mayo and sour cream that has been enlivened with some spicy harissa paste and allspice. Sometimes just going with what you have to hand is a great way to come up with exciting flavour combinations. But you might just want to stop short of crumbling some left-over Christmas pudding on top, eh? The only thing I would suggest you make sure you do is to shred the veg as finely as you can – it means all the sauce will get mopped up, and of course it looks all the more dramatic on the table. If you want to go even further, top with some chopped fresh herbs (dill being a bit of a seasonal favourite at the moment) or some chopped toasted almonds or pistachios.

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To make winter slaw:

For the slaw:

• 1/2 small red cabbage
• 1 small fennel bulb
• 2 large carrots
• handful of Brussel sprouts
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1/2 lemon, juice only

For the sauce:

• 2 large tablespoons mayonnaise
2 large tablespoons sour cream
• 1/4 teaspoon harissa or chilli paste

• squeeze runny honey
• 1/2 teaspoons mustard
• 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
• 1/8 teaspoon allspice
• pinch ground mace
• salt and pepper, to taste

1. Start with the sauce – put everything into a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Adjust salt and pepper if needed.

2. Prepare the slaw – put the olive oil and lemon in a large bowl (you’ll add the vegetables as you go, and tossing in the lemon juice will stop them from getting brown). Peel the carrots, then use the peeler to slice the carrots into thin pieces. Trim the fennel and cut lengthways into very thin pieces. Peel and core the apple and finely slice. Peel the sprouts and shred. Last of all, finely shred the cabbage as thinly as you can. Put everything into a large bowl with the olive oil and lemon juice, and toss gently to ensure the vegetables are coated.

3. Just before serving, pour the sauce over the slaw and toss gently to make sure all the vegetables are coated.

Worth making? Nice and easy, and a great way to use up a glut of veg. The sauce is the place where you can get very creative – allowing you to make sure the slaw sits well with other dishes.

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury