Lost Lettuces

There is panic in British supermarkets at the moment; poor weather in Spain has led to a shortage of imported iceberg lettuces. The supermarkets have started a rationing programme: no more than three lettuces may be purchased at one time. Imagine!

Who really needs three iceberg lettuces at once? And who needs three iceberg lettuces in February, in Britain, when it is cold, gloomy and rainy? According to the completely empty lettuce trays in all of my local supermarkets, apparently quite a lot of people. The iceberg shortage has meant there has been a run on other types of lettuce and leaves, and an additional rationing programme, involving broccoli and courgettes, is making vegetable shopping quite the bore.

I have no interest in iceberg lettuce at any time of year. I actively hated all lettuce as a child and can remember arguing with my mother about it: (Her) “What do you mean you don’t like the taste? Lettuce doesn’t have a taste!” (Me) “It tastes bitter and like dirty water, I hate it!”.

I stopped hating lettuce as I got older and instead began to find it a nondescript, pointless foodstuff. But I do get that many people love a leaf based salad -especially dieters and clean-eaters, so with that in mind, I have been experimenting with non-rationed vegetables to create a credible lettuce alternative.

Although we import about 50% of our vegetables from abroad, we are capable of growing our own too -and with this in mind, I scoured the vegetable shelves until I found some Brussels sprouts, grown in nearby Lincolnshire. I love Brussels sprouts but recognize that many people do not -the sulphurous flavor (which is part of their allure) puts a lot of people off -and their small size makes their suitability as a salad ingredient less than ideal. The job ahead would be tough..

I decided to shred the sprouts (which I did by hand and it took ages: cutting out the little stalk from each tiny orb; halving the sprouts, then slicing each half into tiny half moons) and then to blanch them.  I cooked the shredded leaves in boiling water for just one minute, before plunging them into a bowl of iced water to take away their raw, stiff texture and temper their bitter juices. The sprouts turned a beautiful, lime green colour –  most appealing.

Preparing the sprouts this way is quite a hassle -but well worth it. Budget-conscious cooks will thank me for this one as well. If you can get your hands on an iceberg lettuce -expect to pay handsomely for the privilege. Sprouts, on the other hand, are wonderfully economical.

I teamed the sprouts with toasted hazelnuts and cubes of sweet, salty, soft gorgonzola, then doused the mixture in a lemon, mustard and honey vinaigrette. I will be honest -my expectations were not very high -but this sprout salad is actually quite delicious and a good way to avoid scraps and  tugs-of-war over the last lettuce. No one wants to make a show of themselves in the vegetable aisle.

Substitute Salad (serves two)

250g Brussels sprouts

50g whole blanched hazelnuts

50g Gorgonzola (use Dolcelatte or another sweet, salty blue cheese if you prefer)

1 tbsp. honey

1 tsp Dijon mustard

3 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. lemon juice

salt and pepper

Remove the outer leaves from each sprout and cut in half from the top to the base. Cut out as much of the stalk from each sprout as you can, then discard the stalks and outer leaves. Take each sprout half and slice very thinly, so the leaves are like small half moons. Bring a pan of water to the boil and place the sprouts into the pan. Bring back to the boil and then cook for about one minute. Drain the sprouts and place into a bowl of iced water. Drain them again then dry the sprouts in a salad spinner, to remove any water. Place the dried sprouts into a serving bowl.

Cut each hazelnut in half and place into a dry frying pan over a medium heat. Shake the pan to ensure that the nuts are nicely toasted all over. Add to the sprouts.

Use the softest part of the gorgonzola, cutting it into 1 cm cubes. Add this to the sprouts and hazelnuts.

In a separate bowl, whisk the oil, lemon, honey and mustard until it forms a smooth emulsion. Season with salt and pepper and adjust with more oil or lemon to taste. Pour over the salad and mix well.

sprout-salad

 

The Power of Five

vietnamese-tofu

 

The number 5 is one of my favourite numbers. I like all prime numbers, mostly for their difficult arrogance, but the number 5 manages to combine being special and prime, with being very important in cooking and eating. Let me explain….

For me, 5 is the number I associate most with pleasure – particularly the huge pleasure of eating. We have five senses with which to enjoy our world, five different sets of taste buds (I am not a scientist, before anyone starts up with nit-picking biology, you know exactly what I mean) and five fingers on each hand to prepare, cook and eat our food. It turns out I am not alone in my admiration of the number – the Vietnamese also consider 5 to be an important figure in their cuisine, which is strongly influenced by the five fundamental elements. In addition to creating dishes with a balance of the five essential tastes in Vietnamese cuisine (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy) cooks often seek to involve five different colours in their dishes too: yellow, black, white, green and red.

My friend Alex was recently persuaded to buy a block of tofu in her local organic shop, despite the fact that she has never enjoyed eating it. She mentioned something about a particularly handsome and persuasive shop keeper, then asked me for a recipe where “the tofu doesn’t taste bland or sour.”

The power of 5 came to my rescue with a vibrantly coloured, wonderfully flavoursome Vietnamese tofu dish. It follows the rule of five, both in appearance and flavour: bitter white lemongrass is teamed with salty black soy sauce, sour yellow turmeric, spicy red chilli and sweet green basil, to create a fragrant and powerful marinade. The tofu is then marinated before cooking to ensure that all damp blandness is replaced by this aromatic mixture of dried spices and fresh herbs. Stir frying and the addition of some chopped roasted peanuts add crispy texture to the soft tofu. This is a dish with perfect equilibrium in flavour, texture and appearance.

When using imported lemongrass -I tend to remove the outer layers as they can be very tough and toenail clipping-like. The inside of the stalk is usually softer and more manageable, so that is the part you want to use.

In this dish, the lemongrass from the marinade is cooked in the wok along with the tofu and then clings to the cubes of tofu stubbornly, forming quite a large percentage of each mouthful.  It is very important that the chopped lemongrass has a pleasant consistency.

To avoid feelings of shame about being wasteful, you can make a refreshing and cleansing tea by steeping the discarded layers of lemongrass stalk in a mug of boiling water. This tea can then be enjoyed hot or chilled (and does pair rather well with the tofu).

Famous Five Vietnamese Tofu

I packet firm tofu, drained and cut into cubes (around 400g)

3 stalks lemongrass, tough outer layers removed

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 red chillies deseeded and chopped

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 tablespoon sugar (palm is best but caster is fine)

3 tablespoons roasted peanuts, whizzed briefly in the blender (or put in a plastic bag and walloped with a rolling pin)

3 tbsp. light soy sauce

1 packet Thai basil leaves, removed from their stalks and chopped. Use European basil if you cannot get hold of Thai.

Chop the lemongrass as finely as you can. Place it in a large bowl together with the soy sauce, chilli, garlic, turmeric and sugar. Stir the mixture well so that the sugar dissolves. Place the tofu into the mixture and stir it carefully so that all the cubes are coated. Leave it to marinate for 1 – 2 hours.

Heat the wok, add a couple of tablespoonfuls of groundnut oil and when hot, add the tofu mixture. Cook it, turning regularly. You want the tofu to be a nice golden colour all over.

Finally add the crushed peanuts and all but a tablespoon of the chopped basil. You should catch a delicious fragrance from the wok as the basil hits the warm tofu. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the remaining basil. This is lovely with steamed rice and a green vegetable (this broccoli dish works well)

 

The Potato Is Mightier Than The Sword

american-sweet-potatoes

 

I feel it is very important to keep off the subject of international politics on a cookery blog. The walls of my kitchen protect me from unpleasantness; the kitchen is my refuge. I won’t have the radio or television on while I cook. One of the reasons I love to cook so much is that it occupies my flighty, nervy mind. When I am absorbed in cooking there is no space for worrying, introspecting or overanalyzing. Cooking is truly relaxing – whereas having some righteous newsmonger in the background, wittering on and on, raging about American shenanigans, is not.

However, the coverage of the current USA circus is so pervasive, that even my news-free kitchen is being infected by its hysteria. As I squeezed the pulp from a roasted sweet potato the other day, I found myself comparing the long, orange strings of its flesh to the gaudy combed-over coiffure of the new American President and I began to reflect on the origin of the sweet potato – believed to be Central or South America.

The sweet potatoes with which I was tinkering were raised in the USA -so at some point, sweet potatoes must have migrated from the other Americas, into the United States.  I believe the sweet potato is held in very high esteem in the USA today -and is now considered an essential component of that very patriotic US holiday, Thanksgiving.

If vegetables were not allowed to migrate to other countries, this would be a very sorry business. Here in the UK, what we consider the most British of vegetables, the potato, would not form a part of our diet. A life without potatoes in any country, but particularly in freezing, windy Britain, would be a miserable one.

I wonder what truly “British” vegetables we would be left with, if we got rid of all the ‘foreigners’? Cabbage? Or, horrors, kale? (I don’t like kale, but more about that on another post). Maybe mangel wurzels and nettles? Or that really stinky wild garlic? I think you get the idea. Migration is a good thing.

Lots of people are angry, sad, shouting and fighting at the moment, so I have made a Trump-inspired recipe to sweeten sour faces and comfort the miserable. Inspired by the new President’s striking appearance, I took the hairy flesh from a roasted sweet potato and moulded it into a circular head shape. Under the orange hairy exterior are a few tiny peas to represent the President’s seemingly small mind. I thought about putting just one pea in each patty, like a tiny green brain in each gingery head -but then I realized that I would be compromising my art for a more truthful representation of the facts. So please forgive my artistic licence. And despite their unfortunate inspiration, these patties are quite delicious, simple to make and reassuringly cruelty free.

Alternative Fact Patties

1 bag sweet potatoes (about 1 kg)

200g frozen petits pois

4 spring onions, green and white parts, chopped

I green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

2 tablespoons gram flour

1 tablespoon garam masala

1 teaspoon chilli powder

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

dash lime juice

Handful chopped fresh coriander (Leave out for haters)

Prick the sweet potatoes all over with a fork and roast in the oven at 160C turning regularly until soft. Squeeze the flesh into a large mixing bowl and discard the skins. Mash the mixture with a fork until any large lumps have dispersed. You don’t want a puree -you still want the some life in the sweet potato -but you do want the mixture to have an even texture.

Cook and drain the petits pois and add to the sweet potato. Add the spring onion, chilli, spices and fresh herbs (if using). Stir well, season with sea salt and a dash of lime and taste.

Now stir in the gram flour. It will look peculiar and clumpy and you might despair a little. Keep working it through and then (and this is incredibly messy, but the results are worth it) take golf ball sized lumps of the sticky mixture, roll between the palms of your hands, flatten to a disc and place on a plate.

Melt a large tablespoon of coconut oil in a frying pan. Once it starts to sizzle, add the fritters and fry until nicely tanned, turning them to ensure a crispy texture on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper. You will need to top up the coconut oil in between frying bouts, as the patties do eat it a little. The good thing is that coconut oil adds a very slight hint of delicious exoticism to the patties.

Serve with mango chutney, a cool raita, a vegan sauce or just wolf them down as they are. I prefer the patties hot, but they can be eaten cold and will keep, covered, in the fridge for several days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Year Of The Cock Salad

I can’t be doing with punctuation. I have never really understood it and don’t think I ever will. God invented English Teachers and Sub Editors for the purpose of correcting dodgy punctuation -so I will allow them to get on with it, without popping my hand up and quoting bits of that book with a panda on the front.

Commas and semi-colons are a mystery to me. Hyphens – well really. I think they are entirely ridiculous. I yearn for mediaeval times, when no one cared about spelling or punctuation, instead allowing their creativity to change the look of words and phrases within a sentence and throughout a piece of writing. These days people make judgements about creative spelling and punctuation. “It’s all about communication” they say. “It is how you come across to the world. Bad spelling and punctuation undermine that”. And then, they trot out a line from the book with the panda on the front.

This Saturday will mark the beginning of my favourite  Chinese year -“The Year of the Cock”. Prissy types often prefer to call it “The Year of the Rooster”, but I think “Rooster” is an Americanism. I may not care about spelling or punctuation, but I do have a firm grasp of the Queen’s English. I also have the greatest respect for the traditions and rituals associated with Chinese New Year, the most important of which, is dining with family. With that in mind, I decided to create a delicious, Chinese New Year inspired, vegan buffet dish, perfect for a family get together with dairy and meat avoiders – a spicy ‘vegan chicken’ salad.

I made this salad recently for a pot luck supper and it was met with great delight by vegans, vegetarians and indeed Number One Son, the committed carnivore. Made from dried tofu sticks and laced with vicious Sichuan seasonings, the flavours are intense, rich and mouth numbing, while the texture is satisfyingly chewy. Making this recipe will require a trip to the Chinese supermarket to buy tofu sticks and a jar of crispy chilli in oil, but it is so easy to make and such a delicious dish, I am sure these ingredients won’t hang around in your cupboard for long.

 

Year Of The Cock Salad

100g (half a pack) of dried tofu sticks

1 tbsp. sesame seeds

3 spring onions, green and white bits, finely chopped

1 handful unsalted peanuts

1 tbsp. finely chopped coriander (leave out, if you hate the stuff)

Dressing ingredients

2 tsp. sesame oil

1 teaspoon sesame paste (tahini is fine, but the Chinese supermarket will also sell sesame paste)

2 tbsp. light soy sauce

1 heaped tbsp. crispy chilli in oil (see photograph below). You want the solid crispy pieces AND the wonderful bright red oil

1 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns, ground up in a pestle and mortar (most supermarkets will stock these in the spice aisle)

Place the tofu sticks in a large bowl, breaking them into smaller pieces to ensure they fit. Cover with boiling water and leave to soak for about an hour. The sticks should swell up and start to look like flabby rolls of human skin.

Meanwhile, combine the dressing ingredients in a large serving bowl. Mix them well, as the sesame paste will be stubborn and remain in a clump if you are not fierce with it. The resulting dressing should be a wonderful blood red colour, freckled with ground Sichuan peppercorns. Taste it, and if you like, add a pinch of caster sugar and a little salt. Naughty, but does make it even more delicious!

Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan until golden, then set aside. Toast the unsalted peanuts until they are very faintly tanned.

Remove the sticks from the water and cut them into pieces about an inch thick. There will be hard areas on the sticks -cut around these and discard. I don’t really know why they never soak the whole way through (I have left them soaking for hours) but there will be a bit of waste, unfortunately.

Add the chopped, soaked tofu sticks to the dressing and stir well. Sprinkle over the sesame seeds and peanuts and stir until evenly distributed. Finally garnish with the spring onions and coriander (if using). Gong xi fa cai!

claypot-chickencrispy-chilli

dried-beancurd-sticks

The brand of these beancurd sticks is perfect for this dish

 

 

 

 

 

Moroccan Makeover

20160926_104757-2

Cauliflower Zaalouk

Every time I interview a chef, they say exactly the same two things: “I am passionate about cooking” and then: “I like to use seasonal and fresh ingredients”.

And so I should hope.  It would be a pretty poor interview if chefs said: ‘Cooking’s alright, I suppose’ and even more so if they announced: ‘I like to cook with elderly, low quality ingredients and cheap stuff from tins”. Even the bad chefs you see on those ‘Nightmare’ shows, the ones with fegging Tupperware boxes full of rotting matter, also talk the talk: “I like to cook fresh, authentic and seasonal” they say, before opening a pantry filled with flyblown carcasses and piles of decomposing cabbage.

Maybe this is drummed into chefs at cookery school, maybe the white jackets they wear have little speakers which are activated during every interview to say: “seasonal and fresh”, or most probably, it is because chefs know that it makes perfect culinary sense to cook what is at its seasonal best, and not to keep ingredients hanging about too long.

People who are not chefs, might sometimes have to deal with tired, or even plain knackered ingredients. Whether this is the result of wanting to cut down on food waste, or bone idleness, or a fondness for a challenge -occasionally we need recipes which can cover up an ingredient’s shortcomings.

Today I went head to head with a cauliflower. It was only two days old and yet it looked as tired as I generally feel. Its florets were soft and slightly droopy. The leaves which I clipped to feed to the rabbit were yellowing and withered. It was a run-down middle-aged cauliflower -not quite past it, but very nearly. I felt a great affinity to this elderly brassica and I wanted to give it a makeover.

When vegetables are a bit past it, usually the best option is to create something which does not rely on texture, and to pep up weak flavour with some exciting spice. Inspired  by Zaalouk, a traditional Moroccan aubergine and tomato salad dish, I decided to give cauliflower the same treatment. Mashed cooked cauliflower is stewed with olive oil, tomato and garlic and then revved up with paprika, cumin, chilli and lemon. You can use it as a dip, and scoop it up in pieces of pita, or make quenelles out of the mixture and serve as part of a salad platter.

Blonde Zaalouk

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets.

3 cloves finely chopped garlic

2  tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and diced

120ml olive oil

1 small bunch chopped coriander (or parsley, if you hate coriander)

2 teaspoons paprika (unsmoked)

2 teaspoons ground cumin (do not use the whole seeds)

1 tsp chilli powder

Sea salt and black pepper

Juice of one lemon

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Place the cauliflower in the water and boil it for around 10 minutes, or until soft. Drain, return the cauliflower to the pot, and mash until it is a slightly lumpy mush.

Meanwhile, cook the tomatoes and garlic in half the olive oil, over a low heat, for around ten minutes. The tomatoes should be soft and the oil starting to separate from the sauce. Mash the tomatoes and garlic until nice and smooth, then add to the pot of squished cauliflower.

Pour in the remaining olive oil, the spices, half the chopped herbs and the lemon juice and stir through. Return to the stove over a low heat. Keep it going for another ten minutes, stirring from time to time. Taste and add salt and pepper. If you think it needs more lemon, add a little more to taste. Finally, remove from the heat, give it one final mash, then stir in rest of the chopped coriander or parsley. If you are feeling artistic, drizzle a little olive oil over the top with some sprinkled herbs. If you aren’t, don’t worry. You have given a tired old cauliflower a magnificent Moroccan makeover

 

Browned Off

red-lentils-on-a-plate

Red lentils: the main ingredient in these Lovely Lentil Lengths

Back in the Eighties, when I first gave up eating meat, there were very few dedicated vegetarian restaurants around. Those which existed usually were found near hippie communities and stone circles and had worthy names which often included the words ‘Earth’ or ‘Gaia’. Being vegetarian was instantly associated with the wholefood movement.

I loved the vegetarian cafes and restaurants I visited when I was a teenager, but I did always notice that every dish on the menu was slightly damp in texture and very brown in colour. You would be as likely to find a grain of white rice, or a slice of white bread in one of these establishments, as you would to find a lamb’s kidney, or a pig’s tongue. Vegetarian restaurants of the Eighties were promoting a planet-friendly, unprocessed approach to food, which was absolutely commendable.

The flavours of these brown-coloured dishes were always good, because vegetarian chefs of that time realised how much harder you have to work with pulses and wholegrains to make them delicious and satisfying. Years before the word ‘umami’ was being trotted out by every second person on the street, vegetarian chefs were experimenting with miso, yeast extract, shitake mushrooms and tamari, to add an extra savoury dimension to their recipes.  The appearance of these carefully seasoned dishes though, was rather unfortunate: often a soft, brown shapeless form, occasionally topped with melted cheese.

I am not going to be too down on the brown, as a recent experiment in my kitchen (namely to make ‘sausages’ out of slippery, sloppy red lentils) produced a pleasing line of light brown logs. Teaming red lentils with a mixture of wholegrain breadcrumbs and oats for texture, I then channelled the Eighties wholefood chefs, adding yeast extract for a umami hit. In place of cheddar cheese (which seemed to appear in every vegetarian recipe back in those days) I used some nutritious ground almonds to make the recipe perfectly dairy-free.

These bangers aren’t pretty -but then I would like to meet a sausage that is radiantly beautiful. Serve these lentil lovelies with mango chutney for sweetness, or good old ketchup for a sweet and sour lift.

 

Lovely Lentil Lengths

8 oz red lentils, washed and picked over to remove any stones

1 large onion, chopped

1 stick celery, finely chopped

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 oz ground almonds

2 oz wholemeal breadcrumbs

1 egg or equivalent egg substitute

1 oz  oats

1 tsp yeast extract

A small quantity of plain wholemeal flour

Cook the red lentils in 3/4 pt salted water for about 30 minutes. They should have formed a porridge-like mush. Drain them in a sieve and push out any extra liquid with the back of a spoon.

Fry the onion and celery in some olive oil until softened. Place the breadcrumbs, oregano almonds and oats into a large mixing bowl. Mix in the lentils and then the fried vegetables. Beat the egg in a small bowl and mix in the yeast extract. Pour into the lentil mixture and keep stirring until all the ingredients are nicely combined. Leave the mixture for around half an hour to firm up.

Cover a chopping board with wholemeal flour. Take a handful of the lentil mixture and shape it into a ‘sausage’. Roll the lentil sausage in the flour. Repeat until you have an orderly line of lentil bangers. Heat around 1 inch depth of vegetable oil in  frying pan, and fry the bangers, no more than five at a time until pleasantly golden brown in colour. Drain on kitchen paper, serve immediately, eat when cold, or reheat. These sausages keep in the fridge for two to three days and freeze well too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back To School Broccoli

garlicky-broccoliMy eyes are hurting from looking at hundreds of photographs of children in school uniform. It’s Back To School time, when children engage in that September rite of passage: a photograph in the garden/by the front door, wearing a stiff shirt straight from the packet (which smells of polythene) and a pair of shoes which look like black Cornish pasties.

I wonder if it is a British thing, or a place-where-kids-wear-uniform thing. Somehow, photographs of children in casual clothes on their first day at school have less impact. These kids may well be going off to learn something important and become world/industry leaders, but when they are doing so in football shirts and jeans, they just look like children on any old day. Seeing a child in a miniature business suit, or a loud stripy blazer and flannels, or a severe pinafore dress, or itchy pleated kilt and starched blouse, brings home how little they are, and how grown up they are being asked to be -making for a more ‘poignant’ image.

I am hugely in favour of uniform. If I had any discipline whatsoever and weren’t a massively squeamish vegetarian, I might have joined the army: partly because I like weapons and being outside, but mostly because I hate thinking about clothes. I like the levelling effect uniform creates -particularly for school age children. Uniform removes the opportunity for unpleasant and competitive label-watching and associated bullying about money and status.

The return to school brings with it an inevitable string of infectious illnesses, and as the weather has turned unpleasant again, it is probably time to take defensive action. I think garlic is a wonderful winter ingredient and it seems to be something many children like. Broccoli currently has celebrity vegetable status as a superfood and also seems to be one of those vegetables which even quite fussy children will eat.

This very simple Chinese broccoli and garlic dish was one of the most popular with expats when I lived in Beijing. It is quite bland by Chinese standards, has no heat or exotic ingredients but is completely delicious. The sort of expats who would say: “The food in Beijing isn’t like the proper Chinese we get at home” (and plenty of them did, to my great amusement) would wolf down this dish without any complaints -as would my vegetable-dodging children.

Back To School Broccoli

I head broccoli cut into florets.

4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

3 tbsp. cooking oil

salt

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add 1 tbsp oil and the broccoli and cook for three minutes. Drain in a colander and plunge into a bowl of cold water. Drain again and set aside.

Heat the rest of the oil in a wok over a medium flame. Add the garlic and move it about, being very careful not to let it go brown. After about 45 seconds add the drained broccoli and stir for another 45 seconds to a minute, until hot and evenly covered in the sauce. The little heads of broccoli should be wearing the chopped garlic like dandruff. Season well with salt and taste. Serve immediately.