Summer is a time when it almost seems a shame to use dried fruit in cooking, since the fresh variety is so bountiful. The rich, treacly taste and sticky texture of dried fruit has its place, but for me that place is in a comforting winter stew or tagine, or to pep up an autumnal salad of grains, nuts and perhaps a crumbling of soft cheese. Right now I’d much rather enjoy the crisp, sweet flesh and gentle bloom of an early-season Victoria plum, the voluptuous curve of a fresh fig or the mouth-puckering tang of a sun-ripened berry or currant than the caramelised, winey flavours of their dried counterparts.Read More
I tend to avoid any social event that proudly announces it will include a barbecue. It’s a common phobia for the food snob, I reckon: the communal barbecue organised and presided over by people for whom the ethical sourcing of meat is not an issue, for whom a mass-produced supermarket bap does not induce a shudder of disgust, for whom cheese comes in a square plastic wrapper. ‘Barbecue’ is often sadly synonymous with ‘a load of pre-prepared low quality meat items from the supermarket that we will prod and poke while pretending to be cavemen and leave raw in the centre and carcinogenic on the outside’. I just can’t bring myself to participate in that sort of occasion. What a waste of an opportunity, when the lighting of coals offers such potential for an enticing variety of foodstuffs.Read More
Help! There's a giant triffid in my garden! It has monstrous pink tentacles that fumble wildly from the earth, stretching towards the skies, and huge, grasping, green hands the size of dustbin lids, threatening to engulf and consume everything they touch. Every time I look it has grown, violently thrusting more of those rigid spears from the ground, one step closer on its mission to take over the world. Its proliferating legs creak stiffly in the breeze, like those of a spider with rigor mortis, threatening destruction. Its leafy clutches will soon start to block out the sun, throwing the planet into a state of black oblivion. We are doomed.Read More
There are some ingredients that I can’t help but think of as edible jewels, glamorizing and adorning whatever culinary creation you choose to scatter them over. Pomegranates are the most obvious, those little sweet stones adding a dramatic ruby flourish and a burst of vitamin-rich sweetness to anything that needs a bit of visual magic; I particularly love them paired with snowy white goat’s cheese or yoghurt for the ultimate colour contrast. There are also pistachios, adding flecks of emerald to salads or grains, or, when finely ground, imparting their incredible vibrant green to a cake mixture. Clementines, too – though we tend to simply eat peel and eat them unadulterated, those bright marigold segments are beautiful to cook with, adding a snap of colour and a fresh citrus hit to salads and stews.Read More
In a bid to find a gluten-free alternative to all my favourite grainy lunchtime carbohydrates (couscous, bulgur wheat, pearl barley), I have fallen in love with buckwheat. Buckwheat, although it might look, cook and taste like your ordinary gluten-filled grain (and, of course, it has 'wheat' in its title) is actually a seed. In fact, it is related to rhubarb. It's not a grain and therefore is totally gluten free. You can buy it as flour, which is perhaps more commonly known - it's what the French use to make those gorgeous dark, nutty crêpes that they fill with savoury stuffings. This is ideal for a spot of gluten-free baking, although it has quite a strong flavour so is usually best 'diluted' with another more neutral gluten-free flour.
You can also buy it as groats, however, which is where it really comes into its own.
These are a funny little convex triangle shape, looking at first glance a bit like giant, angular couscous granules. They can be cooked in the same way as rice - boiled in twice their volume of water or stock - to result in creamy, nutty pellets of deliciousness. They have a similar sort of chewy texture to pearl barley, but not as dense. In fact, the closest similarity is probably with cooked risotto rice - tender and starchy, but still with a little bite. You can use them to make a risotto, and you can even cook them in water and milk to make gluten-free porridge. Incidentally, they are also packed with protein and other nutrients, so not only are they a lovely comforting carb-blanket, but they are even healthy, and very low in calories for something so squidgy and delicious.
I like to cook them simply in water or stock, and then use them as the starchy, comforting, chewy base of a delicious salad. The first time I tried buckwheat, I made this wonderful salad from Sonia over at The Healthy Foodie. The combination was irresistible: sweet, chewy pieces of dried fruit coupled with toasted nuts and tangy goat's cheese. Buckwheat works so well in salads because it has a slight nutty flavour of its own, which means it can assert itself well against both sweet and savoury ingredients.
For dinner this evening, I was really craving a favourite salad of mine: pomegranate-glazed roasted aubergine with couscous, mint, feta cheese and pomegranate seeds. Obviously, couscous was out of the question, but then I had the brainwave of replacing it with buckwheat.
I think I actually prefer it. Buckwheat has a creaminess that you don't get with couscous, which can be quite dry if not drenched in oil. It also has that deliciously moreish risotto-like consistency, so can easily be voraciously ingested, mouthful by starchy mouthful.
To my base of cooked buckwheat, I added broad beans - I can't get enough of them at the moment, and wanted something green and something with a crunchier texture than the soft aubergine - chopped fresh mint (goes so well with aubergine), aubergines tossed in a mixture of olive oil, honey and pomegranate molasses then roasted until soft and squishy, crumbled feta, and fresh pomegranate seeds. I dressed the buckwheat with a little tahini paste, for added creaminess and because in my mind nothing works better with aubergine, and Dijon mustard, for a bit of a kick.
Basically this was a salad born of my cravings and of what I had in the fridge or just thought might work well if I chucked it into the mix. It ended up being utterly delicious, a simple meal with simple ingredients that tasted perfect and wonderful. It's super-healthy, but in an utterly satisfying, starchy way. You'd never believe something gluten-free could be so creamy and delicious. I'd highly encourage any gluten-free dieters out there, if they haven't already, to give buckwheat a go - it could be the answer to that empty, couscous-shaped hole in your life, and is the basis for so many wonderful and versatile recipes. If I can get my hands on some buckwheat flour, which I've totally failed to do so far, though I've been trying for months, I'd be really interested to experiment with some gluten-free baking.
Other than this pretty and perfect plateful, my gluten-free eating today has been as follows: porridge with grated apple, sultanas and blueberries for breakfast; more of yesterday's creamy smoked trout pasta salad for lunch, with a nectarine; a post-teaching snack of a mango and a banana. I've had a great day, feeling very energised throughout despite desperately not wanting to leave my bed when my alarm went off early this morning. I wouldn't say it's a hugely dramatic difference, but I definitely feel cleaner and healthier somehow. It might all be in my head, but it's still a pretty good feeling. I'm not even that happy it's the final day of my gluten-free challenge tomorrow; in truth, there's nothing I've really missed.
Apart from couscous.
But now I have buckwheat, so even that doesn't haunt my gastronomic dreams any more. Hurrah.
Buckwheat salad with pomegranate-glazed aubergine, feta, broad beans and mint (serves 3-4):
- 3 medium or 2 very large aubergines
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (or balsamic vinegar if you can't find this)
- 1 tbsp honey
- Salt and pepper
- 180g buckwheat groats
- Two large handfuls frozen broad beans
- 3 tsp tahini paste
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 20g fresh mint, leaves shredded
- 100g feta cheese, crumbled
- Half a pomegranate
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the aubergines into 1-inch cubes. Mix together the olive oil, molasses, honey and some seasoning, then toss the aubergine in this mixture and spread the pieces out on a baking tray. Season again and roast for 30-40 minutes until soft and sticky. Set aside.
Put the buckwheat in a pan, add 400ml water, bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 10 mins. After this time, add the broad beans to the pan, cover, and cook for another 5 mins or so, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the buckwheat is tender (if there's any liquid remaining, drain it off). Mix the buckwheat and beans with the tahini and mustard, and season well.
Mix the buckwheat with the aubergine pieces and most of the mint. Crumble in the feta cheese. Using a rolling pin, bash the seeds out of the pomegranate over the bowl and combine gently. Serve garnished with the rest of the mint.
The first time I ate köfte was in Istanbul. I'd tracked down, using the magical wisdom of Lonely Planet, a restaurant that was meant to serve the best in town. I dragged my travelling companions through the sweltering city, to find a gaggle of locals swarming around the door. We joined the disorderly queue, but for some reason, minutes later, were pulled to the front and shown to a table in the restaurant, despite there still being many unseated Turks left outside the door. We were then slightly puzzled to see that the restaurant was almost full of people, all sitting at their tables surveying the food that had already been served. There was salad, plates of peppers, a big basket of bread, and bowls awaiting soup. None of it had been touched, by anyone. It was then that we remembered it was the start of Ramadan, and that we were witnessing the last few minutes of the locals' fasting. The tension, hunger and relief in the air were almost palpable as everyone waited silently, eyeing the morsels of bread and inhaling the tempting barbecue aromas emanating from the kitchen.
We were finally given the signal to tuck in. We had been told by the staff that we didn't have to wait like the locals, if we were hungry, but it seemed incredibly bad manners to start wolfing down food when they only had a few more minutes to wait. I thought I was ravenous, but then remembered that I hadn't starved myself since dawn, and suddenly my 'hunger' seemed rather shameful. Bowls of steaming soup emerged from the kitchen, closely followed by lamb köfte. The origin of the word köfte is from the Persian kufteh, meaning 'mashed' - it usually applies to a mixture of minced meat (though you can get vegetarian versions), pounded into a fine paste with spices, herbs and seasoning, before being either shaped into small balls or on a skewer like a kebab. Ours in Istanbul were the latter variety, and they certainly lived up to expectations, delivering a beautifully rich, smoky, meaty flavour with a hint of spice. It's hard to describe that incredible flavour of lamb kebabs, sweet and juicy on the middle but burnished and rich on the outside; these were like those generic lamb and mint versions you can buy in supermarkets for the barbecue, only infinitely better.
I've been meaning to try out Diana Henry's lamb and cherry köfte for ages, as I cannot resist the pairing of fruit with meat, and also because it reminds me of a dish ubiquitous on menus after we left Istanbul for Syria: 'Aleppo cherry kebab'. This apparently has a very brief season in Syria, when cherries are around, and features lamb meatballs in a rich, sweet sauce of cherries and pomegranate molasses. For some reason I never tried it (I think I was more obsessed with consuming every aubergine-related dish on the menus), but I figured Diana's version would be better than nothing, and it seemed sensible to make it during English cherry season. I've cooked lamb with quite a few fruits before (quinces and apricots being the best), but never cherries. If you can't get cherries for this recipe, Diana suggests using a mixture of dried and fresh apricots instead.
It's a pretty easy recipe - the only hard work involved is pounding the lamb mince with all the spices to incorporate them evenly and to mix it into a fine paste, but I found this rather satisfying. After that, you shape the lamb into meatballs, brown them in a pan (and watch buckets of artery-clogging fat ooze out - keep an old jar or tin handy to catch it), then fry an onion with some fresh and dried cherries (I couldn't find dried cherries so I used dried cranberries), add a little stock, and let the meatballs simmer in this sauce for a while until it thickens. Scatter over a generous amount of fresh mint, drizzle over a tahini yoghurt sauce, pile it into thick, warm flatbread, and you could be in Syria (as it was when I went, anyway, not the sad war-torn place it is now...although with all the madness going on in London at the moment, you probably can almost pretend you're in Syria).
This is my take on the Aleppo cherry kebab, combining it with another incredible Syrian/Turkish dish - shwarma. Shwarma is a much nicer version of the rotating-meat-on-a-stick kebab you get in vans everywhere over here; shredded meat is drizzled with tahini or garlic yoghurt sauce and served in a flatbread wrap with salad. It's incredibly delicious, and making it with lamb and cherries only adds to the tastebud sensation.
Be warned, though - this is incredibly messy to eat. Embrace the lamb, cherry and yoghurt juices drizzling out of the flatbread and down your arm, and keep some napkins handy.
Lamb köfte with cherries (serves 6):
(adapted from Diana Henry's Food From Plenty)
- 1 kg minced lamb
- 4 tsp cinnamon
- 3 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 350g pitted fresh cherries
- 100g dried cranberries, soaked in boiling water for 15 mins then drained
- Juice of half a lemon
- 150ml lamb/chicken stock
- A large handful of chopped mint, parsley or coriander (or all three)
- 200ml Greek yoghurt
- 4 tbsp milk or buttermilk
- 3 tbsp tahini
- Flatbread, to serve
- Salad, to serve
Put the lamb in a bowl and add all the spices except 1tsp cinnamon. Season. Pound the meat with the spices until everything is well blended. Form the mixture into walnut-sized balls and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the meatballs in batches, making sure they are well browned. Drain them on kitchen paper once they are browned, and pour off any excess fat, leaving about 1tbsp once you're finished.
Add the onion to the pan and fry until soft and golden. Add 250g of the fresh cherries and all the dried cranberries with the remaining cinnamon and cook for a minute or so until softening, then add the lemon juice.
Return the kofte to the pan and add the stock. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes or so until cooked through and the sauce is quite thick. Add the rest of the cherries towards the end of the cooking time, to heat through.
Mix the yoghurt with the milk/buttermilk and tahini. Drizzle over the lamb and cherry mixture, then scatter with the chopped mint. Stuff into warm flatbreads with salad, roll up, and devour.
It's almost an empty phrase to say that a food combination "just works"; what does that even mean? Lots of things work, food-wise, but every now and then you come across a pairing of ingredients that leaps out at you. At a restaurant a while ago I tried a dish of chicken pâté with toast and a quince chutney. I'm no stranger to the combination of meat and fruit, but this was the first occasion on which it had tasted absolutely perfect to me. Normally I just enjoy fruit and meat because it involves two things I like; in this case, the two became more than just the sum of their parts; you could barely distinguish in that exquisite mouthful where fruit ended and meat began. Every now and then I come up with a recipe that pleasantly surprises me, when things I hoped might taste nice together in my head work out better than I thought. This is one of them.
It's also surprising because it involved something I've never cooked before: herring. I went to the fishmonger intending to buy tilapia for a tikka-marinated fish dish, but saw these beautiful glistening herrings lined up on the ice. I can never resist something new, so I bought three (and, incidentally, was taken aback by how cheap they were). I read a recipe in the Telegraph recently for roast herring with tahini sauce and freekeh, which is a type of grain that I've never had any luck finding. Undeterred, I figured I'd just make a variation of it using things I had in the cupboard/fridge. Apart from spinach, I had everything for this dish sitting around in the kitchen. This hardly ever happens, and I relished not having to tear manically around the markets for some obscure ingredient that would prove vital.
I love tahini. It's the sesame seed paste they use to make hoummous, which gives it that deliciously moreish, silky quality. I've used it before in a few Middle Eastern recipes, usually mixed with yoghurt, water and lemon juice to make an absolutely sublime sauce. In this case I did the same, crushing a clove of smoked garlic into it too. The result was a little like hoummous in flavour but much stronger and more tangy. I can't recommend this sauce enough; it goes beautifully with so many things. It's ideal as a replacement for yoghurt alongside rice pilaffs or spiced lamb, but also goes very well with fish and roasted vegetables.
Instead of the freekeh and Swiss chard in the original recipe, I used bulghur wheat, mixed with cinnamon, allspice, salt and pepper. I pan-fried some chopped spinach (huge leafy bunches of the proper stuff, not the clinically packaged, uniform baby leaves you find in the supermarket), stirred it in, and finally mixed in some pomegranate seeds. I'm not sure why; I think it was probably a knee-jerk reaction to the tahini, bulghur and allspice pairing. I also love the glistening, jewel-like appearance of a scattering of pomegranate seeds. They perk up any dish, both in appearance and in flavour.
Finally, the herring, which I just roasted in the oven for about 15 minutes. I anticipated it would taste like mackerel; in fact, I couldn't really distinguish the two, and either would make a good substitute for the other. Sardines would work too. In fact, I think in future I'd choose mackerel, simply because herring seems to have so many more fiddly little bones to deal with. The result was one of the best things I've cooked in a while, and it's so simple. The bulghur, spinach and pomegranate is great on its own and I could eat platefuls of it. However, when you mix in the tahini sauce it adds another layer of intriguing flavour and also moisture. Finally, add the succulent flakes of rich, oily fish, given the welcoming sweet burst of the pomegranate seeds, and you have something superb. Really. It just works.
Roast herring with bulghur and tahini sauce (serves 4):
- 4 large herring (or mackerel), gutted and cleaned
- 2 tbsp tahini
- 4 tbsp yoghurt
- Juice of one lemon
- 1 garlic clove
- 200g bulghur wheat, soaked in boiling water for 30 minutes and drained
- Two large bunches of spinach (or one large bag)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Seeds of half a pomegranate
- 1/2 tsp each cinnamon and allspice
- Salt and black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Crush the garlic with a pinch of salt in a pestle and mortar. Add the tahini and mix well, then add the lemon juice and yoghurt. Stir and mix to form a fairly runny sauce.
Roughly chop the spinach - if using a bunch you can use the stalks too if you chop them fairly finely. Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the spinach until it has wilted. Stir this into the bulghur, then add the cinnamon, allspice, pomegranate seeds and a generous amount of salt and pepper - taste to check the balance is right.
Lay the herrings on a sheet of foil on an oven tray and roast for about 15 minutes - they're ready when the flesh is opaque. Serve the herring on top of the bulghur with the tahini sauce poured on top and lemon wedges for squeezing over.
I can't remember which happy occasion led me to first sample this irresistible and other-wordly combination of nuts, pastry, butter and syrup, but I do know that it sparked a love affair that shows no sign of dwindling. The weeks I spent in the Middle East last summer rarely featured a day that didn't involve baklava; on the first night in Istanbul I procured a kilo of the stuff and managed to devour most of it (I then spent the next two hours with a hideous headache in a bipolar state that swung from hyperactive to exhausted and back again - not recommended). I do enjoy most sugary things and pretty much all desserts, but if I had to select my favourite, it would be impossible to choose between crumble and baklava. There's something amazing and almost alchemical about the way simple ingredients - pastry, nuts, butter, sugar, water - can combine to produce a taste sensation that is curiously indefinable. It's nutty, crunchy, soft, flaky, sticky, sweet, and perfumed all in one. There's the crunch as you bite down through the crispy top layers of pastry, followed by the dense, sticky mass of nuts in the middle, then the softened, compressed pastry underneath. Truly wonderful. I have never, until now, attempted to recreate it myself, and I think doing so has actually done me more harm than good - now that I've discovered that it takes barely more effort than a crumble, my teeth and my waistline are in certain jeopardy.
This is a recipe from my Saraban Iranian cookbook, and uses almonds for the baklava filling and rosewater for the syrup. It also includes a squeeze of lime in the syrup, which stops the whole thing being too sweet (though, of course, the recipe does use half a kilo of sugar, so it's not exactly stuff to please your dentist). The basic principle for all types of baklava is the same: layer pastry with butter, add a filling of ground nuts, layer more pastry over the top, bake, then drench while hot in a thick, intensely sweet syrup.
For the filling, I just combined sugar, ground almonds and ground cardamom in a bowl. As simple as that. The pastry is also fairly easy - brush with butter, layer up, brush with more butter, etc. The only thing I would say if you want to try this too is to buy a cheap baking tray. You will end up scratching it to pieces as you try and cut the pieces of baklava out at the end, once they've solidified into a dense, sticky mass. Luckily I bought one from Tesco for £4, rather than the £20 anodised non-stick specimen I was eyeing up in the department store. I think I shall reserve it for baklava alone from now on.
Once the pastry and the filling are layered up in the tin, you have to score the baklava so that the syrup can soak in when it comes out of the oven. This is where your baking tray will endure some fierce scratching. Use a very sharp knife and make sure you cut down through all the pastry layers right to the bottom - the hideous scratch of knife on metal will make you aware that you've done so. Then it goes in the oven for half an hour or so, and you can make the syrup.