Omens And Cheesecake

“That’s a sign of bad luck” I was told, when my whole family landed in Hong Kong seven years ago during a furious Black Rainstorm. The flight had been interesting – the plane dropped several hundred feet without warning as we circled to land, causing some passengers to scream and one poor man to emerge from the lavatory with a bleeding scalp. If I had been on such an “exciting” flight just a couple of years previously (before having hypnotherapy for my fear of flying) I might have joined the screamers. The black rainstorm was certainly bad luck for bleeding-scalp-man, but I felt very lucky to be alive – and subsequently had a happy few years living in Hong Kong.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I had another “exciting” flight, as we travelled to San Sebastián in Northern Spain to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. The weather was grim and windy, the nervous lady across the aisle from us was tucking into whisky for her breakfast as we jolted and bumped the length of France. Moments before we were due to land at Biarritz, the plane lurched forwards with a loud charging of engines and we soared back above the thick, black clouds to make a second attempt at landing.

The cabin crew were amusing over the intercom: “We have experienced a missed approach” said one crew member:  “We will try again and hopefully we will make it”. This prompted half the passengers to chuckle with gallows humour and the other half to ask for whisky. We landed beautifully, but I could not help wondering what kind of omen this could be – is an aborted landing a metaphor for a troubled marriage, or just a portent of a turbulent weekend?

San Sebastián was a pleasant place, with filthy weather. The grey sea churned; the heavy skies drowned the many visitors  (who were a strange mix of food-lovers and religious pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela); the strong winds made strolling the length of the promenade into a challenge – but the charming architecture, polite people and interesting food proved adequate compensation.

I wouldn’t rave about San Sebastián  as a destination, although I did like it. It reminded me slightly of Brighton, with a funicular railway instead of a pier. As for the fabled bars where you can sample the local pintxos (small plates of  food designed to be eaten with alcohol) – I found them crowded, loud and touristy. This is fine if you enjoy eating sauce-laden octopus tentacles with your elbows clamped firmly to your sides, while a sweaty group of loud British men pushes past you to get to the bar. A pintxo bar is a little like being on the tube at rush hour – which makes it a difficult place to drink really foamy lager from a glorified sherry glass, and I wasn’t keen on the experience. But my husband loves noise, crowds, peculiar animal parts and effervescent foreign brews -so he was in heaven.

Pintxos are difficult for a Brit like me to comprehend. Firstly – people seem to enjoy pintxos at strange times of day – either at afternoon tea time or in the dead of night. Technically ‘bar snacks’, pintxos are more satisfying than a bag of crisps, or a pickled egg, yet don’t really work as ‘lunch’ or ‘dinner’ unless you eat three or four plates of the things.  And for a Brit, eating between meals would normally consist of nibbling biscuits with tea, rather than drinking very fizzy cider paired with pigs’ ears or highly salted fish.

Additionally, British drinking culture is founded on the principle “Eating is cheating”: the idea that by drinking on an empty stomach, one reaches inebriation quickly and cheaply. Ordering small plates of quite lardy food along with alcohol has the opposite  effect. Pintxos are designed to act as blotting paper for booze and to stop people from getting hammered and fighting in the street, something which is frowned upon in Southern Europe. Brits prefer to load up on lager, then soak the drink up at the end of the evening with a lovely late night takeaway. Staggering one’s food intake over the course of an evening just makes for a more expensive and staid night.

I found myself craving a cone of chips, until I saw a circle of caramel-coloured loveliness hiding under a glass cloche on a high shelf behind the heaving pintxo bar. It looked very like a cheesecake with no crust and I desperately wanted to eat something which had not been made from a pig part. I fought my way between two men discussing their golf handicaps in loud Home Counties’ accents and ordered a piece of cake in my terrible Spanish. The barman reached to slop a lump of gelatinous calf-cheek onto a saucer, but I stopped him in time. He passed me a triangle of slightly charred cheesecake, which I took outside to savour, away from the stale air and sport chat.

It was heavenly – rich in flavour with the lightest texture; crumbly and creamy at the same time. The barman had given me an enormous slice of cheesecake, which I devoured silently while my husband got himself outside a chunk of baguette topped with shredded spider crab and hoovered up a miniscule beer. He looked at me in an amused fashion as I drank my tepid, weak Lipton’s tea. “It’s 4 pm” I said, defensively “I don’t want a cod cheek or a thimbleful of fruit cider right now. I could totally get on it and start on the cava -but then I don’t really want all this” and I waved my hand in the direction of the crowded bar and the open sandwiches with cocktail sticks poking out, and the tiny saucers of stewed innards. “I find it stressful. Eating shouldn’t feel like Asda on Black Friday“.

Pintxos are a peculiar combination of street food, eaten off your granny’s china in a stuffy pub pantry. I like street food when it is eaten in the street and served on a paper plate or from a cardboard box. I also like pubs, but not if I have to order a new lager every twenty seconds because the servings are for elves. However – the “basque burnt cheesecake” as I discovered this delicious dish was named, is a magnificent object and as such, I am indebted to the pintxo bar for its creation. After a lot of practice and experimenting, I have managed to replicate it. – which I believe to be a truly good omen.

Saintly Sebastián’s Cheesecake

600g cream cheese

4 small, or 3 large eggs ( If in doubt use 3)

250ml double cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

zest of half a lemon

225g caster sugar

pinch sea salt

2 tbsp rice flour

 

Preheat the oven to 180C

Using an electric hand mixer, beat the cream cheese and caster sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time and beat well. Add the cream, lemon zest, vanilla and salt and mix through using a wooden spoon. Fold in the rice flour.

Take a 9 inch spring form tin and line well with greaseproof paper. Make sure the paper is taller than the tin (a couple of inches should do it). During cooking, the cheesecake puffs right up and rises above the tin, before shrinking down as it cools. Because the texture of the cake is very delicate, you need the extra paper circle to stop the cake mixture from escaping all over your oven.

Pour the mixture into the tin and use a spatula to remove any mixture clinging to the bowl. Place the tin in the centre of the oven, making sure that the cake has plenty of space above it to rise. Cook for 50 to 60 minutes. The top should be quite brown and feel fairly firm to the touch when properly cooked.

Remove from the oven and let the cheesecake cool completely in the tin. This is almost impossible to do, if you are like me and are dying to taste it. However -the cake is a million times more delicious when cold, and, annoyingly, even better still when left in the fridge overnight.

cheesecake

 

 

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Getting Your Oats

granolaI am deeply suspicious of people who eat cold things for breakfast. I love a proper English fry-up (well, a vegetarian version, with mushrooms, baked beans, tomatoes, poached eggs and fried bread) and eat a simplified variation every day during the week, before enjoying the full works at the weekend.

“Foreign” breakfasts are only acceptable if their ingredients are served hot: I will happily eat spice and garlic first thing in the morning, but would rather go hungry than have pastries, yoghurt or muesli. The rest of my family are different -their delicate palates can’t cope with a dawn feast of cooked foods, and my husband has to force himself to eat in the morning, which, despite having been married to him for 25 years, I still find slightly peculiar.

Packaged breakfast cereals repel me. I resent the amount they cost, the way their contents settle into a measly pool of dust in the plastic interior and the nonsense written on their cardboard exteriors about health and vigour. Children’s cereals are sugary rubbish; “healthy” cereals are often tasteless pap. Of all the offerings on supermarket shelves, the most acceptable is granola: toasted clusters of oats, with seeds, nuts and dried fruits.

I hunted around on the internet, touted for recipes on Twitter and was rewarded with some excellent ideas for delicious and simple, home-made granola. I had a tinker about and came up with my “symposium granola”: a glorious combination of cinnamon-and-vanilla-spiced oat and seed clusters, studded with toasted pecans, hazelnuts and giant plump raisins.

I love this balance of seeds, nuts, oats and fruit and exactly this amount of fat and sweetness. “It tastes like pudding” said my husband, not unkindly. “I mean, it tastes like the sort of thing you might sprinkle on ice cream rather than have for breakfast”. If you are ascetic, or just enjoy early morning punishment, then by all means cut down on the coconut oil and honey. If you are really worthy, and own such a thing, you could even “cook” the granola in a dehydrator to make it a “raw food” meal. Heavens- you could also put nasty gluey chia seeds or horrible bogey-like goji berries and swap the oats for quinoa or soaked buckwheat for that matter. I recommend you do none of these things and just make the recipe below.  It is quite delicious.

Symposium Granola

This recipe uses American cups as it works better to measure the ingredients by volume rather than weight, in order to get the perfect balance of nut/seed/oat/fruit.

2 cups rolled oats

1/2 cup pecans

1/2 cup blanched hazelnuts

1 cup seeds (I suggest an equal mix of sunflower and pumpkin, but by all means buy a bag of mixed seeds if you prefer)

1 cup large black raisins

2 tbsps. coconut oil

2 tbsps. honey (replace with maple syrup for a vegan version, or do half and half)

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 large pinch sea salt

Place the seeds and oats into a large bowl and mix well. Slice the hazelnuts into thirds, then halve the pecans lengthways, before cutting them into slim lengths. Add  to the oat/seed mixture.

Sprinkle the cinnamon, vanilla and sea salt over the surface of the mixture, before drizzling with the honey/maple syrup. Stir in the coconut oil: it could be quite solid, depending on how hot your kitchen is. Just keep it moving with a spoon until it is more or less mixed in,

Using your hands, mix everything  together thoroughly. You should start to feel the oat and seed mix  forming into small clumps. The purpose of this final, manual mixing is to ensure that all the coconut oil has been evenly dispersed.

Line a large baking tray with parchment. Carefully tip the mix onto the parchment, spreading it out into an even layer.

Place into a preheated oven at 160C. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes – as humidity and your oven’s idiosyncrasies will dictate the exact cooking time. Keep checking and turn the mixture over after about ten minutes. The best way to check that the granola is ready is to remove a slice of hazelnut from the mix. The colour of the nut should be a pale gold and the texture nice and crispy.

Take the granola out of the oven, then take the parchment out of the tin (as the latent heat of the baking tin will continue to toast the mix from below) and leave it to cool. Mix in the raisins and store in an airtight container. This granola should keep for up to two weeks (as long as you don’t find yourself absentmindedly eating handfuls of it during the day).

 

 

 

Tears, Water and Courgettes

I was a very weepy child: I can remember being teased terribly at my first school for being a cry baby and I don’t think I pulled myself together until I was about ten. I have a very clear memory of crying for an entire afternoon, until my face was bloated and puce and my eyes were ruby slits. The girls in my class tried to be helpful: “Just tell your Mum you have an eyelash in your eye”, they suggested, as I tried to wash my face back to a normal size and colour, before going home.

My mother didn’t buy that excuse for a second -so I had to explain the reason for my tears. It seems so ridiculous now, but at the time -I was devastated. I was eight years old, and still hadn’t learned to swim. Our teacher had asked us to write a poem about swimming, so I used my imagination and wrote a poem, which she then read out to the class, because it was reasonably good. At the end, she said: “If only this poem were true and you could learn to swim the way you describe it” and that was that – I started to weep with huge, loud sobs – streaming snot and tears. I cried for two solid hours and could not be pacified.  With hindsight, I should have written a poem about shivering in the shallow end of the swimming pool, watching that same teacher lose patience with me, as I floundered about with a grubby polystyrene float.

These days, I like swimming, hate poetry and never cry in public (unless you count silent tears of rage in airport queues). I do still feel inadequate sometimes, particularly about my vegetable growing skills -and the fact that I cannot grow a courgette. -but I try to get round that by making vegetables cry instead.

Courgettes are watery articles, and recently I have been battling with their soggy consistency on a quest to create the perfect fritter. I love a vegetable fritter -especially at this time of year, but the weepy nature of a courgette complicates the task. A thick slice of lightly battered courgette is perfectly acceptable -but feels a little heavy. I experimented by shallow frying a simple disc of grated courgette dusted with flour, but the thing seeped water and tasted bland and wet.

I decided to channel my eight-year-old tearful self, so sprinkled the grated courgette with a good spoonful of salt to draw out its juices. After ten minutes, there was a vast amount of liquid in the bowl. I then scooped the courgette flesh into a clean tea towel and squeezed out the remaining water. I was left with a fairly small, but manageable pulp, which I mixed with some delicious Indian spices and gram flour before deep frying. The result was a perfect ball, which tasted light, spicy and not at all watery. I didn’t get away without having a little cry, despite my great age. I decided to boost the flavour by adding an English onion, which was so powerful, as I sliced it into thin half-moons, my vision was blurred by stinging tears.

Dry-eyed Courgette Fritters

1 large, or two small courgettes, coarsely grated

1/2 a brown onion, sliced into thin half moons

1 tbsp. table salt

2 tbsps. gram flour

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

pinch of dried chilli flakes

pinch of curry powder

Lemon juice, to serve

Place the grated courgette into a large bowl and sprinkle with about 1 tbsp. table salt. place the grated onion into a separate bowl and cover with water.

After ten minutes load the grated courgette and the onion into a clean tea towel and squeeze firmly to remove any excess liquid. Place the contents of the tea towel into a clean mixing bowl, sprinkle with the spices and stir until evenly mixed.

Now take one tablespoon of gram flour and sieve it over the top of the mixture. Gently mix it in until it starts to bind together.

Sieve the remaining gram flour onto a large plate (if you run out before making all the fritters, then just sieve some more onto the plate)

Form small balls of the courgette mixture (about an inch in diameter) and roll in the gram flour. Deep fry in vegetable oil at 170 C. I recommend using a deep fat fryer if you have one -if not, then use a wok or a big saucepan, but make sure the oil is hot enough, by placing a tiny bit of mixture in, which should sizzle straight away.

The balls will take about 4 to 5 minutes to cook, but once they are a lovely golden brown colour, scoop them out and drain on kitchen paper. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and serve. They are also good cold, in picnics and packed lunches.

courgette fritters

 

Chinese Champ

A little while ago this blog confirmed that the Chinese do eat potatoes -in the form of delicious, vinegary, stir fried shreds. But this is not the only way the Chinese enjoy their spuds: they also like a good dollop of mash.

I don’t like mashed potato very much. I have a problem with slimy textures and I think it feels rather wicked to squash a beautiful boiled potato into a slithery-slathery mess. If I have to eat mashed potato then it has to be very tarted up: given texture with spring onions and flavour with grated cheddar and grainy mustard. But even after all that prinking, I still find mash rather dull.

I discovered a Chinese version of mashed potato while living in Beijing and I was instantly smitten. The dish comes from Yunnan province in South West China and is a thing of gastronomic beauty. Known as ‘Granny’s Potatoes’, because the soft texture allows it to be eaten by the toothless, the grannies who eat this mash must have Teflon taste buds and guts of steel, as it is quite spicy. Plenty of garlic and spring onions create a strong allium base, then the potato is rippled with chilli oil and speckled with toasted chilli flakes.  It also features a flavour rarely found in Chinese cuisine: dill. The aniseed-scented dill fronds help balance the chilli heat with their ethereal fragrance -I adore dill and think it makes a perfect partnership with potato.

Unlike the uniform consistency of creamy  Western mashed potato -this dish favours a rough mash and should have an uneven texture with some lumps. It is then  introduced to some searing hot oil in the wok which adds a delicious crispiness to the outside. This dish would definitely make being toothless more fun.

 

Lao Nai Yang Yu (Granny Potatoes)

 1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes

1 bunch spring onions, green parts only thinly sliced (you can substitute chives)

1 teaspoon chilli flakes

2 large cloves garlic

1 tablespoon of my favourite condiment: crispy chilli oil (if you made the vegan chicken dish I posted a little while back -this is the same ingredient)crispy chilli2 heaped teaspoons chopped fresh dill

sea salt

groundnut oil (about 4 tablespoons)

 

Place the potatoes into salted boiling water and cook for 10-15 minutes until soft. Drain and mash them coarsely, leaving some lumps.

Place the empty wok over a flame for ten seconds. Add the oil and wait another ten seconds, then add the garlic and chilli flakes and cook briefly until they begin to scent the kitchen. Add the spring onion greens, salt and chilli paste, stirring for another few seconds before mixing in most of the dill.  (reserve a pinch for serving)IMG_1169

At this point the oil should be hissing and spitting a little. Tip in the potatoes, allowing them to brown a little on the base, before moving them around with a spatula to allow them to cook evenly. You are aiming for a nice balance of crispiness and softness -so I would suggest stir frying them for at least five minutes -more if you like them crispier. Taste and correct the salt, sprinkle with the reserved dill and serve.

 

Saintly, But Slightly Dirty

Italian cuisine offers an extensive choice of authentic, regional dishes to the vegetarian and vegan cook. My beloved cookery book: ‘The Silver Spoon’ (a glorious 1263 page,  English-language edition of Il Cucchiaio d’Argento, arranged very helpfully by ingredients) has been a magnificent guide: helping me enjoy a culinary tour of Italy, as I worked my way through the many delicious recipes which do not use meat.

Authenticity is a noble value for a cook – but sometimes a little fakery can be a wonderful thing too –  and I do think there is a vacancy in the culinary world for a rich and satisfying vegan Bolognese sauce recipe. I imagine the Accademia Italiana della Cucina might come after me with knives for suggesting such a thing -but I live an awfully long way away from them, so hopefully they won’t track me down

It has been many years since I ate a ‘real’ Bolognese sauce, but I can remember the elements which I loved: the slightly dirty flavor and the faintly gritty texture of the ground meat. I have eaten many vegetarian versions, both in restaurants (watery, vegetable-heavy, overpoweringly seasoned with strong-tasting dried herbs) and ready-meal incarnations using ‘fake meat’ – which were so disgusting I would give up after two mouthfuls. There was no dirt and no grit – just sweet, rubbery pap.

For many years, I settled for a rather worthy, hippy, home-cooked, green-lentil creation. If you click on the link, you can find it hiding under a layer of sliced potatoes in my Lentil Cottage Pie recipe.  It is perfectly pleasant and determinedly vegetarian-tasting  – but is truly awful on top of spaghetti. The earthiness of the pulses doesn’t work (something about their firm little skins perhaps) and the vegetables are too forward in their pure, clean flavours. It is a grim and miserable affair when teamed with dried pasta. I would happily cut myself with a knife if an Italian caught me eating it.

For some weeks now I have been experimenting to try and create a dirty/gritty coupling of flavour and texture, matched with a rich sauce, where fresh vegetables would serve as a support act, rather than the main event. I made some vile, vile things and some passable things, until I decided to go rogue and start fiddling about with so-called ‘Superfoods’.

There has been too much chat about ‘Superfoods’ – the world seems to be full of  sanctimonious, entitled quacks – rattling on about quinoa, chia, kale and cacao and the wonderful things they can do for body and mind. I don’t like the term ‘Superfoods’ and I don’t like the saintly status conferred on certain ingredients. I am sure these things are awfully good for you -but I don’t want to be preached at and have them forced upon me.  I think there are foods and non-foods. Non-foods would be things like stones, bricks, twigs and pieces of lace; foods are things which we eat, which may or may not be good for us.

But desperation will make a cook resourceful, so I turned to the more unusual packets in my cupboard: a barely touched and fearfully expensive bag of cacao (which I had used to make some truly disgusting biscuits); half a pack of white quinoa. I sized them up and thought ‘why not?’.

At this point, my vegan Bolognese was a mirepoix sautéed in really good olive oil (and plenty of it), with a pinch of both cumin and cinnamon, some red lentils, red wine, tomatoes, tomato puree and a good sprinkling of dried oregano. Something about cooking with tomato puree and oregano took me back to my teenage years – to the times when I couldn’t face those sweet, watery pasta sauces in jars (which smelt of garlic salt) and instead would create something homemade: overpoweringly tomatoey and flavoured with fistfuls of dried Mediterranean herbs.  My vegan Bolognese definitely called for some old school seasonings. The flavours of my sauce were fine and a good spritz of balsamic vinegar together with another drizzle of olive oil at the end of cooking got the fat and acidity levels right -but I still lacked the grit and dirt to make the dish perfect.

I added two handfuls of (rinsed) white quinoa to the sauce about twenty minutes into the cooking time and waited until the tiny seeds split and showed their little tails, like tadpoles evolving into frogs. Before serving, I stirred a heaped teaspoon of cacao powder into the sauce, which helped to darken the mixture, then spritzed it with my wonderful balsamic vinegar spray and finally drizzled with some really good olive oil. It was really delicious: gritty, dirty and juicy.

I may complain about superfoods and precious little darlings being awkward about what they eat -but it is important to have a fussy-person-friendly weapon in the culinary arsenal. Teamed with spiralised courgettes and butternut squash (whipped about in a wok, or more simply, blasted in the microwave) this vegan Bolognese should please vegans, gluten-frees, nut-frees and carb-dodgers. I am yet to serve it to an Italian -but I am prepared to try. I might hide all the knives in the washing machine first.

Clean And Dirty Vegan Bolognese

200g red lentils, rinsed and picked over to remove any little stones or dicey looking lentils

100g white quinoa, rinsed through a sieve to remove bitterness

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1 stick celery, large strings removed and diced

1 onion, diced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Pinch of cumin

Pinch of cinnamon

Half a tube, or one of those adorable tiny cans, of tomato purée

I packet of chopped tomatoes/passata

1 large glass red or white wine

1 heaped teaspoon cacao powder

Olive oil: some decent enough stuff for cooking and then some ridiculously good stuff for finishing

balsamic vinegar (preferably in a spray bottle)

Spiralised courgettes and butternut squash in 50:50 quantities. Most supermarkets stock it ready made in packets -but obviously you can make your own.

This makes a large quantity: I would say enough for 6 normal people or 4 greedy ones

Cover the bottom of a large pan with olive oil. Heat over a low flame and add the cumin and cinnamon. After a few seconds add the chopped carrot, onion and celery. Sweat in the oil for about three minutes. Add the red lentils, stir and then add the wine.

After two minutes, add the contents of the tomato/passata packet. Fill the empty packet with cold water and add this to the pan. Make sure that the heat is fairly low (it should just be simmering, not going a great gallop). Add the oregano and tomato purée,

Cover and leave to cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the mixture looks like it is going to stick, or is getting a little too dry as the lentils swell, add some more water.

After 20 minutes add the rinsed quinoa to the mix and stir in. Again, if the mixture seems too firm or dry, top up witha little water. Cook for another 20 minutes, monitoring it carefully.

Once the quinoa has split and you can see a little ‘tail’ popping out of the bottom of the seeds, taste to check that the lentils and quinoa are cooked. Turn off the heat, season with sea salt (don’t be shy), taste again.

Add a heaped teaspoon of cacao powder to the mixture and stir through until melted. You should get a startling waft of chocolate, and the colour of the mixture will turn a pleasing burgundy.

Spritz the top of the mixture with the balsamic spray (or drizzle about 1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar across the surface). Stir through and finish with a good teaspoon of your best olive oil. Taste, check for salt, and if you like, add some pepper. Serve with regular, boiled spaghetti or, if being completely clean-eating – pop a plate with a helping of spiralised courgettes and butternut squash into the microwave and blast on full heat  for 3 minutes. Top with the vegan Bolognese and serve.

 

 

 

 

 

Love, Affection And Pickled Walnuts

My most successful relationships, both platonic and romantic, have been with people who enjoy their food. In a romantic context – I prefer a hearty appetite to a six-pack abdomen; I find figure-conscious men annoying, both for their budgie-like mirror gazing and their nervy fussing at mealtimes. The men I like most, are men who will eat absolutely anything and plenty of it – but they can’t be dustbins, they need to be discerning gourmands. It’s a fine line.

As far as platonic friends go -I admire adventurous eaters, probably because I was an incredibly fussy eater as a child -and was fascinated by people who were daring with their food. I had a friend when I was young, who once came to my house and announced that she loved pickled walnuts. My mother opened a jar – I can remember recoiling at the strong smell of vinegar as she removed the lid – and then staring in horror as my friend lifted out a miniature, soft black orb  (which looked like a rabbit’s brain) and popped it whole into her mouth.

These days I am more adventurous and will try most things  – so a few years into adulthood, I decided to brave a pickled walnut. The texture is a little peculiar, but I have come to love the ethereal, slightly floral aftertaste. It also blows my mind how a hard thing like a nut, can become soggy and melting -so every time I eat a pickled walnut, I pretend it is actually a real, unpickled  walnut and tell myself that, in fact, I have the world’s strongest teeth.

In my recent quest to find British, non-lettuce salad ingredients, my thoughts turned to the finest of all taproots -beautiful beetroot. I remembered once eating a really delicious beetroot and pickled walnut salad at a Russian restaurant, and decided to try to recreate it.

I mucked about roasting beetroots and peeling them, boiling beetroots and peeling them,  and lazily unpacking vacuum-packed beetroots until my fingers were purple and my kitchen splattered with deep red beet blood. Although it is the most time consuming method, and requires putting the oven on, roasting gives the most appropriate flavour and texture to the beetroot and is perfect for this salad. The recipe still works with boiled beetroots -but the texture is a little too watery and the sauce separates easily.

4 medium sized  raw beetroots in their skins

1-2 cloves garlic

2-4 pickled walnuts (frankly it depends on the size of your beetroot. I think the ratio should be 2/3 beetroot 1/3 pickled walnut. Start with 2 and add more at the end if you think it needs it)

1 heaped tablespoon mayonnaise (you can add more if you like it extra rich)

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Remove the beetroot stalks close to the root, rub the skin of each beetroot in a little oil, prick the skin with a fork, then wrap loosely in foil. Place the beetroots in a preheated oven at 160C and bake until they start to yield to the touch. I usually find about 45 minutes does the job.

Remove the beetroots from their foil and when they are cool enough to handle, slip the skins off them. Leave  them until they are completely cold.

Grate the beetroot using the larger size slots on your grater. Push the garlic through a garlic press and mix  it in with the beetroot shreds. Chop the pickled walnuts fairly coarsely and add them to the mix too. Finally, stir through the mayonnaise until the mixture turns a beautiful dark pink colour. Taste, season and sprinkle with the chopped parsley just before serving.

beetroot

 

 

 

 

 

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