Once, when I was studying at Oxford, I found myself staring blankly at the ready meal aisle of M&S for over an hour. I’d come down with some horrible bug and was feeling exhausted and sorry for myself. Convinced I had no energy to cook, I thought that once, just this once, I would ‘treat myself’ to a nice ready meal. Except it turned out to be not such a treat after all. They all looked so soulless and tragic in their sterile little boxes, the portions stingy, the ingredients congealed, with the kind of matt, pallid hue that only a flimsy black microwaveable box can bestow. They all had unnecessarily unpronounceable ingredients in them. They were all far too expensive to justify their meagre contents. Paralysed with indecision, probably exacerbated by my increasingly ill and fuzzy mental state, I stood there for over an hour, wandering the aisles, trying to find something I fancied, trying to justify spending five pounds on a tiny tub of ravioli that I was convinced would only leave me hungrier, trying to urge myself to just get over it and stop being so precious about what I was going to have for dinner (I have urged myself to do this on a daily basis for nearly a decade now, incidentally - it never works).Read More
The other day, I found myself standing outside the Co-op near my house crying a little bit. I had been trying to lock up my bike, when it fell violently onto my leg, scraping off all the skin and hurting rather a lot (there is very little cushioning on a shin). It had generally been a pretty bad day, a day that started at 5.30am due to my inexplicably overactive mind deciding it needed no further rest, and which by 2pm had turned into - in my mind - a tragedy of epic proportions. Why had I not just gone straight home and avoided this painful bike scenario, I hear you ask? Well, obviously, I needed to buy two pineapples.
At the moment, I am completely obsessed with pineapple. It started with these pineapple pancakes, an attempt to assuage feelings of deep nostalgia after my trip to Vietnam. I ate quite a lot of pineapple over there - in pancake form but also in the smoothies that I became obsessed with, a fixture of my daily diet. You can also buy prepared pineapple in supermarkets over there, just like you can in the UK, but the Vietnamese have an interesting habit of eating underripe pineapple as a savoury snack, with salt and chilli - it would come shrink-wrapped accompanied by a little sachet of this spicy salt, for dipping. I prefer my pineapple sweet, though, hence the delight caused by its inclusion in breakfast pancakes.
After caramelising chunks of fresh pineapple with cinnamon, vanilla and brown sugar, a revelation occurred in my kitchen. While fresh pineapple is, of course, delicious - bursting with juice, sweet yet tart at the same time, bright and almost perfumed - having tasted its cooked and sugared form, I'm not sure I can possibly express how infinitely more wonderful pineapple is after a little heat treatment.
Then there was this recipe for chilli and ginger stir-fried pineapple, a dish I've made at least fifteen times since discovering it only a couple of months ago, which is something I can't say for anything else I've ever made. The combination is just ridiculously moreish, with the sour and salty notes of fish sauce and the aromatic ginger and garlic spiking the sweet juice of the fruit. I'm now a big fan of pineapple in savoury dishes, a combination found in this incredible Cuban-influenced caramelised pineapple and avocado salad recipe from the excellent Food 52: I stumbled across it recently and had to try the very next day.
It didn't disappoint; my favourite part was sprinkling thick wedges of the fruit with molasses sugar and caramelising them under the fierce heat of my grill, ramped up as high as it would go. The combination with the creamy, delicate avocado and the peppery watercress was something else.
A few weeks ago, I visited Dishoom, a fantastic 'Bombay Cafe' in Covent Garden. My menu choices were completely based around the fact that I knew I had to leave room for the pineapple crumble on the dessert menu. When it arrived, I was so glad I hadn't devoured a second bowl of lentil dahl. Underneath a deliciously buttery crumble lay a sweet, sticky blanket of caramelised pineapple, juicy and ridiculously tasty. The crumble crust was unusual in its texture, full of crunchy seeds and, I think, coconut, which added a beautiful dimension to this fabulous spin on a classic pudding. There was a hint of fragrant spice - the menu mentioned black pepper - which mellowed the acidic sweetness of the fruit. To top it all off, a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. It was one of the best desserts I've ever eaten.
So, naturally, I had to bring this combination of flavours into my own kitchen. And, incredibly, I think I got it absolutely right. It tasted exactly the same as the restaurant crumble. It's too good not to share. (The crumble itself, incidentally, is way too good to share - halve your estimation of how many people it will serve, right now).
When you melt butter in a pan and add molasses sugar (the really really dark, sticky, caramel-scented stuff), the world is instantly better. When you then add a sprinkling of cinnamon and a large amount of juicy fresh pineapple, it is almost too good to be true. When you then let that caramelise and turn soft, golden and toffee-esque, you may as well accept that few things will ever be as good. Finally, a splash of vanilla - heady, tropical fruity perfection. I added a dash of black pepper to my pineapple, to emulate the restaurant version - just enough to give the fruit a very slight spicy edge, but you'd never detect it was there unless you knew.
I've come across black pepper with pineapple before, in an Indian-style chutney. It works very well in dessert form too. Pineapple, though quite tart raw, is incredibly sweet once cooked with a little sugar; the pepper helps to mellow it a little, yet also allow its flavour to shine.
Tumble the pineapple into a baking dish. Then it's time for the crumble. This basically involved putting all the ingredients I love into a bowl. Spelt flour, for nutty flavour. Butter - of course. Demerara sugar, to give that all-important crumble crunch. Then we start to turn things a little bit sexy and exotic.
Ground cardamom, because its mellow fragrance works so well with all kinds of fruit and sweet confections. Desiccated coconut, an ingredient many people cannot spell and I wish would learn because it infuriates me. Sunflower seeds, for delicious nutty crunchiness and because I think the restaurant crumble had them, though it may have been pumpkin. Slivered pistachios, because they are green and pretty and I cannot think of anything that isn't improved by them (except perhaps a nut allergy).
Oh, the sweet goodness that was this crumble. I was thrilled with how it turned out, exactly as I was hoping. If I made it again, the only slight tweak necessary would be to add a little more butter to the topping - I used my normal crumble topping, but because I added a few extras (coconut, seeds, etc), I needed a little more butter to hold it together. It was, as I suppose it should be, quite crumbly, which is why it perhaps looks a bit of a mess in the photos. This had no impact, however, on the resulting taste. I've adjusted the recipe below to include a bit more butter.
Butter issues aside, the heady mix here of juicy, sticky, toffee-scented pineapple with an exotically spiced, crunchy, coconut-sweet, nutty crumble is just ridiculously good. For traditionalists who believe crumbles belong solely in the realm of orchard fruits or perhaps rhubarb, it's time to rethink things.
This is a dessert that will surprise and delight. The unexpected inclusion of pineapple in a crumble is pretty exciting alone, but when you combine that with the hint of peppery spice and the exotic allure of cardamom and coconut, you have something really special. I couldn't stop eating this. It's fabulous with vanilla ice cream, though one day I want to make cinnamon ice cream to go alongside, à la the restaurant original.
It's time to take pineapple out of the fruit salad and into the kitchen. If you haven't experimented with cooking this wonderful fruit before, I suggest you change this situation, starting with this crumble.
Definitely worth crying over outside the Co-op.
Spiced pineapple and coconut crumble (serves 4-6):
- 2 medium pineapples
- 25g butter
- 2 tbsp molasses sugar/dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 160g plain/spelt flour
- 100g cold butter, cubed
- 50g demerara sugar
- 8 cardamom pods, seeds ground to a powder
- 80g desiccated coconut
- 25g sunflower seeds
- 1-2 tbsp cold water
- 40g pistachios, roughly chopped
First, make the pineapple mixture. Peel the pineapple and cut into small chunks, discarding the woody core. Heat the 25g butter in a large non-stick frying pan and, when melted, add the sugar and cinnamon. Add the pineapple and cook over a high heat, stirring, until soft, juicy and caramelised - about 5-10 minutes. It should have released a little bit of juice and be quite sticky and golden. Turn off the heat and add the black pepper and vanilla extract. Pour the fruit into a baking dish - I used a pie dish about 30cm in diameter.
Next, make the crumble. Pre-heat the oven to 170C. In a large mixing bowl, rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, cardamom, coconut and sunflower seeds, then stir in the cold water so that the mixture forms small 'pebbles'. Pour the mixture over the pineapple, gently pressing it down, then scatter over the pistachios.
Bake for around 35 minutes, until the topping is crispy and golden. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving with vanilla ice cream.
Making a proper, involved, Indian curry sometimes makes me feel a little bit like a witch. Into a bubbling cauldron (okay, a Le Creuset casserole), I chop, sprinkle and throw a vast array of ingredients, whose individual fragrances, flavours and perfumes mingle magically and alchemically into a heady and potent end result. Although it can be quite tedious and time-consuming to rifle my spice cupboards (yes, I have three - no that shouldn't surprise you if you know me or read this blog regularly) for all the different ingredients required, to extract them from their various jars/sellotaped-down packets/tupperware boxes and to toast, grind and dice them as necessary, I love the way they all contribute their own unique qualities to the final dish.
While I often use maybe two or three herbs and spices at most in a single recipe, there are times that call for more than that. To spoon them from their jars is a pleasure; I can appreciate the vivid marigold of turmeric, the shocking vibrance of scarlet paprika, the delicate shape of a floral star anise or furled cinnamon stick, the wrinkled citrus perfume of a jade cardamom pod, the deep warmth of cumin, the pungent earthy aroma of ground coriander...I could go on. I love the way the aromas emanating from the pan shift with every addition, becoming slightly more earthy, or slightly sweeter, or a little bit more astringent (particularly when you throw in a bit of feisty cayenne pepper).
The main reason for making this curry was a little packet of mango powder, a recent acquisition from the excellent JustIngredients. I've never cooked with it before but I am a total fiend for mangoes, so it made sense to add another manifestation of this exquisite fruit to my culinary repertoire. Mango powder is made from green, unripe mangoes, so it possesses a wonderful tartness, and is often used for this reason in curries and stews, perhaps where you might otherwise use tamarind or lime juice. I'm keen to try it out soon in a marinade for chicken, but first had the idea for this curry.
Although I do love a good meat-based curry, particularly involving slow-cooked red meat like lamb or beef that braises down into melting, spicy tenderness, I try not to eat too much meat. Chickpeas are a lovely substitute in curries, because they possess a good substantial texture and are also an excellent vehicle for carrying the fragrant sauce. I love the texture of an earthy chickpea against a mound of fragrant rice - it's that slightly sinful yet delicious marriage of carbs with carbs.
This curry uses a lot of spices. They mingle together during the cooking time (another bonus - much quicker than a meat-based curry) to result in a gorgeous fragrant sauce, sweet with cinnamon, hot with cayenne pepper, earthy with cumin, coriander and turmeric, zingy with cardamom, and slightly sour from the mango powder. The base of the sauce is chopped tomatoes and a little brown sugar, which turns dark and rich and sweet/sour, laced with tender strips of softened onion. I love the tang that the mango powder brings to the whole dish - it makes it incredibly moreish.
Into this aromatic sauce go tinned chickpeas (I never cook them from scratch because the tinned ones are perfectly good - just make sure you get a good Asian/Middle-Eastern brand rather than the supermarket own brand) and a load of spinach, which wilts down amongst the chickpeas and thickens the sauce. It also contributes the 'something green' that must be a component of every meal I cook - it's become a bit of a compulsion.
To continue the mango theme, I decided to add some cubed fresh mango to the curry at the end of cooking. This was, if I say so myself, a great idea. Because the sauce is so earthy and has that kick of sourness from the mango powder, and the chickpeas are quite starchy and neutral-tasting, the fruity mango contributes a delicious fresh, sweet flavour and a lovely texture that works so well with all the other elements. Add to that a sprinkle of fresh coriander, and you have a perfect marriage.
Although this has a long list of spices involved, it's an incredibly easy curry to make and takes very little actual cooking time. I know a lot of people are put off by the idea of vegetarian curries, as they never quite manage to live up to the richness of meat-based varieties, but this I think is one of the best I've ever made or had. It's comforting and warming yet healthy and fruity at the same time, and a real pleasure both to look at and to eat.
The sauce is also a good base for adapting - I think some cubed aubergines cooked along with the chickpeas would be excellent, softening into slippery deliciousness. You could add strips of chicken if you really can't live without the meat. Pomegranate seeds scattered over the top as well as or instead of the fresh mango would be excellent (I wanted to try this, but didn't have any pomegranates), or maybe some dried apricots added to the sauce along with the chickpeas. Try this mango version first, though, because it's great.
I'd also like to clarify that I don't stand by my hob chanting 'hubble bubble' while making these sorts of things...but once you've made this, you might understand my strange notions of cooking with spices as being magical.
Chickpea, spinach and mango curry (serves 4):
- 1 tbsp olive/rapeseed oil
- 2 onions, thinly sliced
- 1 tsp
- ground cumin
- 4 cardamom pods
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 tomatoes, finely diced
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp mango powder
- 3 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 2 x 400g cans chickpeas
- 500ml water
- Two large handfuls fresh coriander, finely chopped
- 4 large handfuls spinach
- 2 ripe mangoes, cut into 2cm cubes
Heat the oil in a large casserole dish and saute the onion until softened and golden. Add the cumin, cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks and cook for a minute or so until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, salt, mango powder, coriander, garam masala, cayenne, turmeric and sugar. Partially cover the pan with a lid and cook for 5-10 minutes on a low heat until the tomatoes have softened and thickened.
Add the chickpeas, water, and half the coriander and cook, covered, for 20-25 minutes until the sauce has thickened. If it's too runny, cook uncovered for a few minutes more. Add the spinach and cook for a minute or so until it wilts into the sauce. Stir in the mango, and serve immediately, with steamed rice, sprinkled with the remaining coriander.
I'd like to introduce you to a new contender for my 'favourite cookbook of all time' award. It's a keeper. It's going to be adorned with sauce splatters, anointed with oil smears, christened with overkeen garlicky fingers and placed in pride of place on my shelf before the summer is out.
When I first picked up my copy of Reza's Indian Spice, kindly sent to me to review by Quadrille Books, I flicked through the pages briefly. I'm pretty good at surmising from the quickest of flicks whether I'm going to be interested in a new cookbook or not. There are several factors that contribute to this:
- The amount and quality of photography (sad to say, but I'm generally not interested if there are no photos - how are you supposed to be drawn in by a dish if you can't see it presented to its full potential?)
- The general style and layout of the pages (although I enjoy the sparseness of - for example - Nigel Slater's books, sometimes simple can mean boring)
- The way the book falls open (yes, this may sound silly, but if the pages aren't going to fall open for you to cook from without holding the book open manually, then that's a pretty useless cookbook - Dan Lepard wins points for Short and Sweet, whereas Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day is severely lacking in this area, requiring the machinations of several pieces of kitchen equipment to keep the pages apart long enough to glance at the ingredients)
- The desserts section (always the one I flick to first, reading the book from back to front, rather like the way a keen sports fan reads a newspaper)
- And, of course, the titles of the dishes and whether they appeal.
Reza Mahammad is a TV chef, and also owns the 'Star of India' restaurant in London. The philosophy behind this book, as it proclaims on the title page, is 'Eastern Recipes for Western Cooks', and I couldn't think of a better summary. Reza was brought up in London, educated in India, and has a house in France. He is passionate about all kinds of cuisine, but even more so about combining them to result in new and fabulous recipes.
This is evident from many of the dishes in the book; 'Frindian' (French/Indian) ideas such as 'Paupiettes of lemon sole with saffron sauce', or a dessert combining a very English ingredient, rhubarb, with the Indian flavours of almonds and oranges. Reza adds cinnamon to a classic celeriac gratin to serve with duck and orange, takes Italian polenta and adds a hefty dose of Indian spice, stuffs a haunch of venison with dried fruit and chilli after rubbing it with anise, cardamom and allspice, puts a spin on meatballs with mint, coriander, ginger, chilli and cumin, uses the very European beetroot in a lemongrass- and lime-infused salad, and even provides recipes for an Indian High Tea, featuring crab samosas, masala tea, sweet potato cakes and saffron halva with pistachios.
The book is simply divided into sections. 'Quick and chic' dishes are exactly what they proclaim themselves to be: chilli-seared mackerel, spicy beef salad, lemon and coriander chicken, and several lassi recipes (mint and cumin, roasted fig, rhubarb, minted mango, strawberry and cardamom) which I thought was a nice touch - you can complete your Eastern feast by stretching the theme as far as the drinks. 'Slow burners' are those that require a bit more cooking time, like sweet and sour stuffed chicken, or 'Royal leg of lamb'; 'Showing Off' are those perfect dinner party dishes designed to impress, like stuffed chillies, stuffed quail, and spice-crusted monkfish; 'Classic Curries' are fairly self-explanatory - think tandoori prawns, red fish curry, chicken in a cashew nut sauce, lamb and potato korma; 'Perfect Partners' are where you'll find all the side dishes and chutneys to accompany your chosen recipe, like mooli and pomegranate salad, roast potatoes with chilli and chaat masala, saffron-roast cauliflower; and, finally, 'Sweet Like Candy' contains the dessert offerings.
So, let's go through my checklist, in case you need any more convincing as to the merits of this book.
The photography is absolutely gorgeous. Truly stunning, with a rather dark and moody aspect that really highlights the exotic qualities of the food, allowing its amazing colours to stand out. The photos of myriad spices scattered over bold backdrops and beautiful crockery are some of my favourite, as is an image of pomegranates on the contents page. Whereas some recipe books post photos of the dish simply to provide a reference point, these images are works of art in themselves, vibrant still lifes that really bring the book alive and infuse you with a zest and passion for the heady spices that are boldly used in each recipe.
The pages are beautifully laid out, with a little description of each dish (I always think this is essential - my favourite part of reading a recipe book is learning about the provenance of each dish; how it relates to others in the country's cuisine, where it originated, how the author feels about it). The font is simple and undistracting, and the ingredients clearly listed. What I particularly like is the little note at the bottom of each recipe recommending a side dish or accompaniment, ranging from simple coconut rice to something more elaborate, like 'sambal with lemon grass', or 'kidney beans with dried lime', all of which can be found later in the book. It's sometimes so hard to know what to pair complex spiced food with, especially if you are a 'Western cook', but this takes all of that stress away, while inspiring you to cook not just one but maybe two or even three dishes from the book at the same time.
Also, the book easily stays open on each page. Towards the beginning and end you might need to gently weigh it down with something (my iPhone normally serves this purpose), but generally it's very easy to cook from. Points for that.
The dessert section is relatively quite small, and I have to say I'm not hugely drawn in by any of them, but that's mainly because quite a lot of milk and cream is involved - think white chocolate, cardamom and rose pannacotta, Vermicelli milk pudding with pistachios, mango creme brulée, and rice pudding with rose petal jam. They all sound lovely, exotic and sweet, but I'm not a big fan of dairy in desserts (apart from cheesecake). This is totally personal, though - I'm sure they taste fabulous if you're a fan of that sort of thing, and once again the photography is gorgeous.
Finally, the titles of the dishes and whether they appeal. You only have to read 'Five jewels dal', 'Persian chicken with saffron and cardamom', 'scallops with coconut and ginger', 'spice-crusted monkfish in tomato sauce', 'duck breasts with orange, ginger and cinnamon', 'lamb pasanda with green mangoes', 'beansprout salad with chargrilled asparagus and coconut', and 'gingered carrots with maple syrup' to understand why I couldn't wait to get cooking. The dishes are at once exotic and familiar, putting an Eastern spin on well-loved European classics, or giving us an authentic version of things we love already - tandoori prawns, chicken masala, beef tikka.
I dived in the day after I received my book, and made the 'sweet potato and goat's cheese samosas'. These use filo pastry and are baked not fried, which Reza seems proud of - it "both makes them healthier and somehow intensifies the flavour of the filling". The filling consists of chunks of cooked sweet potato, mixed with ground toasted cumin seeds (toasting them first gives a wonderful aromatic flavour, which you just don't get with ready-ground cumin), goat's cheese, spring onions, coriander, chilli, cinnamon and garlic. This is wrapped in little filo parcels, which are brushed with butter and scattered with cumin seeds before being baked.
They were a real surprise, one of those dishes where the end result is so much more than the sum of its parts. All the filling ingredients melded together to provide a beautiful soft, rich, deeply aromatic taste sensation, given freshness by the cheese and herbs. Reza recommends serving them with an 'Indo-Italian pesto', using watercress, rocket and coriander with chilli, parmesan, lemon and pine nuts. I didn't have time to make this, so served mine with a simple watercress and pomegranate salad, which was a lovely fresh match for the rich filling. These would be a great dinner party starter; the crunch of the flaky filo against the soft, flavoursome filling is so delicious, and they're great sharing food. I couldn't stop picking them up off the baking sheet and eating them. Allow them to cool a bit, though, and don't eat straight from the oven as I did, or you'll burn your mouth. That's how inviting they are.
I was particularly intrigued by the 'Braised and Fried Beef' recipe. Reza calls it "rich, dark and reminiscent of a Malaysian rendang". It involved an unusual method, in that the beef is braised in rich spiced liquor first before being drained and fried. I couldn't resist the gorgeous combination of spices: cloves, coriander seeds, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, plus plenty of chilli - the recipe suggested three dried chillies for the spice mix, three fresh green chillies for the braising, then another two green ones for the frying.
I'm so glad I followed my gut feeling and used only one dried chilli and one fresh. If I had followed the original, I think I might be in A&E right now with third degree burns to my mouth. Instead, I was rewarded with a really gorgeous dish. The meat was meltingly tender, with a very deep, rich flavour from all the aromatics, particularly the curry leaves which give off a curious earthy fragrance. It combined wonderfully with the onion and red pepper during the second frying stage, though I wasn't quite sure about the method - Reza suggests frying it along with the remaining cooking liquid, which means that the meat doesn't fry properly as it's soaked in liquid. Instead, I added the liquid bit by bit and ended up with more of a saucy curry (oo-er) than a dry dish, but it was delicious nonetheless. I served it with the coconut rice from the book, which was subtle and a perfect partner to the rich dish, tempering its heat (it wasn't too spicy at all; it had a pleasant kick which enhanced all of the other flavours and I rather enjoyed).
I can think of only one improvement that could be made to this book, and that would be to have a nice glossary at the front or back explaining some of the more unusual ingredients, and giving advice on where to source them. Certain types of chilli, for example, or elusive beasts like asafoetida and fenugreek. They're not the easiest things to get hold of, but if you know what you're looking for and are given the name of a decent online stockist or a recommendation to seek out your local Asian grocer, you'll be on the right track. It's also quite nice to know about the provenance of each of these exotic ingredients, and how they are generally used in Eastern cuisine.
But that is honestly my only slight criticism. I absolutely adore this book. It's beautiful, inspiring, tantalising and truly one to be savoured and cooked from at every possible opportunity.
OK, so I'm kind of cheating with this one. In that I posted this recipe already, approximately a year ago. But a) I felt it was only fair that it had another moment in the limelight, as it's so damn good, and b) my photography has improved slightly since then, so I wanted to do the cheesecake its full justice by taking half-decent photos of it. Actually, they're kind of odd photos, because I took them al fresco, so the sunlight is doing weird things with shadows and exposure. However, I quite like them because they remind me that today was beautiful and sunny in the afternoon, so I could actually take a cake outside. Had I tried to shoot these photos approximately four hours earlier, the cheesecake would have been swept away by what was pretty much a monsoon, engulfing Cambridge for an hour this morning, soaking me to the skin and forcing me to take refuge in Marks & Spencer. What a hardship.
It's Alphonso mango season at the moment, which basically means my life is perfect and joyful. I've been kidding myself over the past year that my favourite fruit is the pear. Which then changes to the apple every time I bite into a crisp-skinned Pink Lady or a citrussy Cox. Which then changes to the pineapple when I have a really good piece of juicy, sweet, perfectly ripe pineapple, oozing luscious golden juice. Which then changes to the banana, when I eat a really good, tangy underripe banana to give me an energy boost for the gym. Which then changes to the apricot, when I bake them with orange flower water and honey and spoon them in seductive rosy heaps over my morning porridge. Which then changes to the raspberry, now that British ones are in season and offering up their tart juiciness. What can I say? I'm fickle when it comes to fruit.
But suddenly, come June, I realise now that all of this is a lie. Because my absolute favourite fruit, dear readers, is the Alphonso mango. Trust me to pick something exotic, elusive and expensive that is only available for a very tiny window of the year.
I don't want to go into too much detail about these luscious mangoes, because I did so in my last post for this cheesecake. Suffice to say that if you could eat gold , this is probably what it would taste like.
The flesh is buttery, honey-sweet, oozing syrupy orange juice (your fingernails will look like a smoker's for days after eating one of these bad boys). The perfume is heady, whispering of tropical climes, of heaving spice markets, of radiant silks. The feel in your hand is firm, plump, warm, almost alive. Mottled, sun-kissed flesh, hinting coyly at the promise of treasure within.
If you don't believe me, try and track down a box of these specimens before the season ends - they're generally found in Asian markets and groceries. I actually got mine from the Chinese grocery store near where I work; the middle Eastern stores were only selling the Pakistani honey mangoes, which are also fabulous but not quite as wonderful; they're slightly more bland, with creamier, less vibrant flesh. They're still a million times better than any other mangoes from the supermarket, though.
So, get your Alphonso mango. Beg, borrow or steal if you have to. If you think £5-7 for a box is too much, you're an idiot. It's so worth it.
Sniff one, cut it open, and suck the flesh straight from the stone.
Then send me a thank-you via email, for enriching your life.
I've spent a small fortune on these golden globes of gorgeousness so far this month, but to me they're worth every penny. To be fair, they're actually the same price as supermarket mangoes - around £1-1.50 each, but because you don't normally buy supermarket mangoes in batches of five or six it seems more expensive. THIS IS IRRELEVANT. Would you pay seven small pounds to enter HEAVEN? Of course you would. So do it.
You don't want to do much with an Alphonso mango. It's kind of like the early stages of love, the honeymoon period of a relationship. You don't care what you do; you'd be happy just to sit on the sofa all day together, or lie in the park, or generally carry out very little, because it's all about the company of your loved one.
It's the same with an Alphonso mango. You're just so happy it's there, you don't need to do anything to enjoy it any more.
However, should you want to elevate its deliciousness to extreme and sublime heights, try making this unbaked cheesecake. Baking an Alphonso mango is not a good idea; it can only dull that vibrant flesh and flavour. Instead, fold cubes of this startlingly orange treasure into a smooth cream cheese and coconut batter. Enjoy the contrast between the marigold fruit and the snow-white cheese. Set it with gelatine, and fold it luxuriantly over a buttery biscuit base enriched with the heady, citrussy perfume of crushed cardamom pods. Leave to set in the fridge, sprinkle with coconut, and serve.
I repeat, from my last post about this, what one of my friends remarked upon eating it: "This tastes like India".
Actually, given some unsavoury stories about Indian travel that I've heard from gap-yearing friends of mine (the "I saw my first dead body" story particularly springs to mind), perhaps I wouldn't want this cheesecake to taste like the real India. But in that it tastes like all the flavours you could associate, wistfully and longingly, with India and tropical climes - fresh coconut, super-sweet mango, fragrant cardamom - it's a perfect description.
Incidentally, it's even vaguely healthy - apart from the biscuit base (though I did use reduced-fat biscuits and a fraction of the butter traditionally called for in cheesecake recipes). The filling uses Quark, a fat-free cream cheese, and light normal cream cheese. Yes, there's sugar, but in terms of fat it's much better for you than traditional offerings. Plus with all that mango goodness in there, I'm sure it must be one of your five-a-day.
You wouldn't guess it's healthy, though, from the taste. The filling is beautifully creamy, holding its shape yet melting in the mouth. It has a slightly sweet coconut tang which complements the fruity mango - I used coconut essence, which I managed to track down online. It's hard to get hold of, though, so use vanilla if you can't get any, or don't add any essence and instead dissolve the gelatine in the microwaved hot juice of one lime, rather than water. This variation is also delicious; I'm torn between which I prefer.
Either way, this is a perfect summer dessert. It can, of course, be made with normal mangoes from the supermarket, and will still be fabulous - just slightly less heavenly.
This time I made the cake in a 20cm tin rather than an 18cm tin, mainly because that way you get a thinner layer of cheesecake, which means MORE BISCUIT BASE per mouthful. Which is basically the whole point of cheesecake. I also used two mangoes in the cake instead of one, skipping the mango decoration on the top and just finishing with a light sprinkling of coconut.
Mango, coconut and cardamom cheesecake (serves 8):
- 10 digestive biscuits (normal or reduced-fat, if you want to make it slightly healthier)
- 50g butter, melted
- 10 cardamom pods, seeds crushed to a powder
- 2 ripe Alphonso mangoes
- 250g Quark
- 150g light cream cheese
- 150g icing sugar
- 1 tsp coconut essence (you can order this on eBay; if you can't find it, leave it out or use vanilla)
- 1 sachet gelatine
- 3 tbsp boiling water
- 2 tbsp desiccated coconut
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Blitz the biscuits in a food processor and mix with the melted butter and cardamom. Scatter over the base of a greased, lined springform cake tin (18cm or 20cm) and press down with the back of a spoon to form an even layer. Bake for 10 minutes until golden and aromatic. Leave to cool.
Meanwhile, mix the Quark, cream cheese, icing sugar and coconut essence together with an electric mixer. Peel the mangoes and dice into small cubes.
Place the boiling water in a small bowl and sprinkle over the gelatine. Leave for a couple of minutes to partially dissolve, then stir to dissolve completely - if it hasn't all dissolved, heat in the microwave for a few seconds. Have the electric mixer ready, and pour the gelatine mixture into the cheese mixture. Whisk thoroughly to incorporate, then quickly fold in the diced mango. Pour over the biscuit base and place in the fridge for a few hours to set (I left mine overnight).
When ready to serve, sprinkle with desiccated coconut and finish with mint leaves, if you like.
|Clockwise from top left: bainhan ka bharta on the left, haraa masala chicken in the centre; Maunika preparing the bengali bhapa doi; the bengali bhapa doi; candles to celebrate the Festival of Lights.|
My experiences of Indian cuisine haven't been anything mind-blowing, nor anything remotely approaching authentic. While I do enjoy a nice Tandoori chicken in our local curry house in Yorkshire, and while I did have a great experience at Anokaa in Salisbury when I was there for a weekend (including a wonderful duck and apricot curry and a delicious scallop starter), I'm pretty sure I have never sampled anything that a real Indian would recognise.
Enter Maunika Gowardhan (of the well-known blog Cook in a Curry) and her delicious home cooking. She is influenced by recipes passed down through her family, and cooks dishes from all over India (a country whose diverse cuisines I'm sure it's almost sacrilegious to lump together under the label "Indian"), putting her own unique spin on such recipes. I was told she had been frenetically cooking all day in order to bring her menu to us, and this soon became clear when I saw said menu: nine separate dishes, not including the raita and chapatis, all totally different, all equally enticing. Tilda's rice was at the heart of two of the recipes, to demonstrate its versatility in different kinds of cooking.
Over dinner I was told about what makes Tilda so special: not only is it 100% basmati rice (other brands often label themselves basmati but actually contain a small percentage of other grains), it undergoes a stringent quality control process to ensure there are no broken grains. Broken grains apparently interfere with the cooking process, releasing undesirable starch and resulting in overly sticky and stodgy rice. They use a special machine to filter them out. Who'd have thought so much effort could go into something as simple as a pack of rice? I was also informed that Tilda produce 17 different flavours of their microwaveable rice sachets, including butternut squash; sweet chilli and lime; lemon; coconut, and lime and coriander. I had absolutely no idea and am now really keen to sample them all, particularly coconut. I tend to cook my rice from scratch, but sometimes I reckon it'd be nice to have a microwaveable pack to hand, especially in such enticing flavours.
Back to the menu. First (to accompany an intensely alcoholic orange and cardamom martini that I only permitted myself half of in order to avoid being too catatonic to eat), we had deep fried sundried tomato and mozzarella rice balls. These were like the fantastic Sicilian arancini that are just starting to become popular over here - cooked rice wrapped around a filling (usually meat or cheese) in little balls then coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried. Tilda's microwaveable sachets of basmati rice include a sundried tomato flavour, ideal for recipes with an Italian twist like this one. However, Maunika added her own Indian twist by serving them with a delicious fresh mint dipping sauce. The combination of crunchy breadcrumbs, soft rice and a gooey piece of mozzarella in the centre was utterly amazing. I could have happily eaten a plateful of those for dinner and nothing else.
Next we had paneer haraa tikka, squares of Indian cheese (rather like halloumi in texture, but less salty) marinated in green herbs, garlic and chillies then grilled. The real star of this dish, though, was a wonderful pineapple and black pepper chutney. It was bursting with zesty, pineapple flavour, but intesely sweet yet sharp at the same time. Maunika had apparently made it at home over a month ago. Again, I could have eaten just that, by the spoonful. It worked really well with the creamy cheese. This is now high on my 'to make' list. I rarely cook with pineapple but I keep meaning to experiment more; it has a wonderful caramelly depth of flavour when cooked.
Next we were invited to help ourselves to an absolute banquet of delights. First, haraa masala chicken, a green stew of chicken meat, caramelised onions, fresh mint and coriander. The chicken was really tender and flavoursome, with a lovely freshness from the sauce - quite unlike your usual flourescent yellow takeaway curries with their glutinous, oily sauces. There was also lamb yakhni pulao, a sort of pilaff of Tilda basmati rice, garlic and ground spices, cooked in lamb stock and butter and containing succulent chunks of lamb (Maunika had actually made the lamb stock herself from lamb bones earlier, which strikes me as incredible attention to detail, and may have been the reason the dish was so delicious). This was really lovely, with warm spicy notes and a real depth of flavour in the rice from the stock.
There was also a Keralan fish curry (see below), which I think was the favourite dish of the evening. Maunika pan-fried fillets of sea bass and served them in a pale yellow coconut curry flavoured with fresh curry leaves, ginger and lemon juice. The sauce was just incredible; it had a really pronounced coconutty flavour, with a slight sweetness that accompanied the delicate seabass really well, but with an underlying herbal note that prevented it being overwhelmingly sweet and creamy.
We also had bainhan ka bharta, a dish of charred aubergines cooked in spices and fresh ginger. This definitely had a kick to it, but you could still detect the unmistakeable deep flavour of roasted aubergine. It was wonderful accompanied with Maunika's roasted cumin and pomegranate raita, which took the edge off the spices a little.
After seconds of such wonderful fare, I was seriously doubting my capacity for dessert. However, I only got to sample one of the two desserts because I had to dash off to catch the last train home from London (damn you, First Capital Connect, for depriving me of sweet sustenance). I missed out on coconut, ginger and basmati rice pancakes; ginger rice pancakes fried in butter and topped with grilled pineapple and maple syrup. You only have to read that sentence to feel my pain at not being able to taste such an incredible-sounding combination of ingredients. Genuinely gutted.
However, I did at least get to sample bengali bhapa doi, which was a taste sensation and surprised me rather a lot. It's like a panna cotta, except made of chilled strained yoghurt that has thickened and gone rather crumbly, a bit like a baked ricotta cheesecake. This was flavoured with cardamom, and served with a truly wonderful mango coulis. Seeing as I hate yoghurt, I was amazed to find myself eating not only mine but one of the other guests' too (imagine how that sentence would read if I had forgotten the apostrophe). It didn't taste like yoghurt; it still had a pleasant tang, but it lacked the astringent sourness that I hate about yoghurt, as well as the creamy texture. This was more solid and crumbly, and it went really well with the vibrant, nectar-like coulis.
I was astounded by how completely different all of Maunika's dishes were to anything I've ever seen on a curry house menu. The evening fully confirmed my suspicions that there is more to Indian food than Tandoori chicken and naan bread. I was also impressed by how light the dishes were; I'd been expecting to waddle home nursing a small baby of coconut cream, dough and rice in my stomach. As it is, I did pretty much waddle home and I was very full, but not in an unpleasant way, and I had eaten rather a lot. Everything tasted fresh rather than overpowering; there were no greasy, cloying sauces or mounds of heavy rice; just bright, vibrant flavours.
I had a really lovely evening, and not just because of the food. It was so nice to meet lots of other food bloggers, many of whom were highly knowledgeable about Asian food and definitely taught me a few things over dinner. Many thanks to Tilda and Wild Card for inviting me, to Luiz for allowing everyone to invade his (beautiful, Aga-sporting and envy-inducing) kitchen, and to Maunika for some truly fabulous food.
If you'd like to try the delicious lamb yakhni pulao recipe, scroll down...
Yakhni Lamb Pulao:
For the stock and meat:
600g shoulder of lamb on the bone cut in medium sized pieces
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
5 green cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
Enough water to cover all the meat (about a litre)
For the pulao:
2 tbsp melted butter
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 bay leaves
1 inch cinnamon stick broken in half
5 green cardamom pods
2 medium onions thinly sliced
1 heaped tbsp ginger paste
2 heaped tbsp garlic paste
1 tsp nutmeg powder
350g Tilda Pure Basmati Rice
600ml lamb stock
Salt to taste
Tie up the onion and all the whole spices in muslin securing with a string. Cook it with the meat and water in a stock pot over a hob: bring to the boil and simmer for an hour and 15 minutes. The stock, along with the meat and spices, can be left in the pot overnight which will enhance the flavours.
The following day discard the muslin with its contents, separate the meat from the stock and set aside.
Prepare the rice by soaking for at least 30 minutes and rinsing in a sieve until the water runs clear.
Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamom pods. Fry them for a minute as they sizzle and release their flavours in the oil. Add the sliced onions. Fry the onions on a medium heat till they soften and are a light golden brown.
Add the ginger and garlic paste and cook through for a couple of minutes. Now add the nutmeg powder stirring well for a few seconds making sure the powder does not burn.
Mix in the cooked lamb and the rice. Season with salt and stir, add the stock and mix well. Cover and cook on a low heat for about 20 minutes or so, until the rice is completely cooked. Turn the heat off and garnish with fresh coriander. Serve warm with mint raita.