I learned to make Thai soups on a cooking course in Chiang Mai, and couldn’t quite believe how little effort went into something so vibrant, flavoursome and punchy. The creation of a prawn tom yum took under five minutes, and simply involved throwing some ingredients into a wok of simmering water. The resulting broth was heady, sinus-clearing and fresh, and I resolved to make these simple soups a staple in my kitchen upon my return. Now there is something vaguely ritualistic about their creation, as I chop through galangal, lemongrass and chillies with the small cleaver I bought in a Thai market, picking kaffir lime leaves off the plant in my conservatory and pouring rich, zesty coconut broth into deep bowls lined with a tangle of soft rice noodles.Read More
Apologies for the slightly clickbaity, buzzfeedy title. You won’t BELIEVE what these herbs did next…number 5 will SHOCK you...et cetera. Ahem. As my interest in food has diversified into gardening and growing my own fruit and vegetables, I’ve discovered some wonderful edible treasures that you don’t often hear about but that are widely available in garden centres or the internet. These herbal beauties will transform your cooking. Many of them are variants of the more common herbs that we can buy in the supermarkets, but I’d encourage you to seek out these lesser-known varieties and give them a try. They can all be grown in pots, so you don’t even need a garden or a lot of space. They’re fabulous for adding new interest to old, staple dishes, or for becoming the star of a new recipe. You might be surprised at what you can grow for your cooking - even exotic Asian herbs can be cultivated in the UK with a little care.Read More
There are lots of food-related topics that I just love to get on my high horse about. Even as I write this, I feel a thrill of mingled anticipation and indignation at the prospect of listing some of them. Here goes. Packs of pre-sliced onions and carrots. That hotdog stuffed-crust pizza. People who cook rice by boiling it like pasta. People who refuse to eat fish with heads on, or shudder at the thought of cooking 'cute' little rabbits yet happily tuck into battery chicken or pork. Cereal bars that pretend to be healthy but in fact are actually cardboard dipped in sugar. Turkey ham. Kale smoothies. Use of the word 'detox'. The utter ludicrousness of a pre-packaged soft-boiled egg.Read More
Most food writers, cooks and chefs worth their generous seasoning will tell you that their vocation stems from a desire to feed people. It’s hard to argue with that comforting, coddling domestic image of the buoyant, buxom feeder, apron stretched over a reassuring bulk (never trust a skinny chef), oven gloves at the ready as they dish out tray after tray of mouthwatering treats to a table full of rapt admirers armed eagerly with forks and the appetites of adolescents, guests who nurse that most fundamental and primal of human instincts: the desire to be fed. That’s why we cook, we’d have you believe: our life’s purpose is to be the smiling matron bestowing hearty, homely manna upon our loved ones, like a plump bird in a nest surrounded by plaintive little open mouths.Read More
Let's be realistic. No matter how long it sits on my 'to-do' list, I am never going to get round to delivering that lengthy, nuanced, insightful, evocatively-written, anecdote-peppered, florid prose masterpiece that is 'Elly's travels around Thailand' on the blog. I think I exhausted myself for life in that area when I wrote an almost book-length post on Vietnam and Cambodia a couple of years ago, and have never had the inclination to repeat the effort. I keep a hand-written travel journal and simply cannot find it in me to take the time to transcribe it for the benefits of the internet. But, since we're all obsessed with lists and bite-size chunks of information these days, I thought I would deliver a Buzzfeed-style recap of my trip that cuts out the boring parts and gets straight to the valuable, the memorable, the gastronomic...and the cat-related. Because I've heard the internet loves cats too.
P.S. Scroll down to the bottom for accommodation/restaurant recommendations.Read More
If it wasn’t the kilo of Parmesan cheese, it was probably the plastic bag full of dates, welded into a rugged block with crystalline syrup, from a market in Aleppo. Or perhaps it was the log of palm sugar wrapped in dried banana leaves, which I’d cradled while still warm after watching it made before my eyes in a Javanese village. Maybe the Balinese coconut syrup, darker than maple, its bottle festooned with palm trees and bearing a curious resemblance to tanning oil. If not that, it was surely the bundle of white asparagus, albino stalks tied together like a quiver of arrows, brought home from a market in the tiny town of Chablis.Read More
A couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I visited Oxford. It’s only the second time I’ve been back since finishing my Masters in 2011. The entire weekend was a glorious succession of sunshine, revisiting old haunts, catching up with friends, aching nostalgia, beautiful scenery and incredible food. While I diligently tried to return to as many of my favourite restaurants as possible, I also decided to try somewhere new. I’d read rave reviews on the internet of a place simply termed ‘Oli’s Thai’, and so we found ourselves tucked into this tiny restaurant on a sunny Saturday afternoon experiencing some of the best south east Asian food I’ve ever eaten…including that in south east Asia itself.Read More
My food-related habits are so predictable. A couple of weeks ago I emerged from Italy feeling like I'd eaten an entire pig, and had consequently turned into one. I reached for the lime juice, ginger, chilli and Thai fish sauce to make me feel more human and less porcine. A couple of days ago I emerged from Prague, land of (more) pig and omnipresent dumplings, again feeling more like a farmyard animal ready for slaughter than my normal, relatively healthy self. The remedy? Thai food. Or, at least, vaguely Thai food, because this is in no way authentic and I'm sure would make a Thai person weep. There's just something about the freshness of lime juice, chilli, fish sauce and copious quantities of herbs that will bring life back to the most jaded and over-porked palates.
I'm a big fan of Thai papaya salads, in which unripe papaya is tossed with a zingy dressing and lots of chilli. I had it in a Thai restaurant in Oxford once; I had eaten half of it and sweat had started to bead on my brow and my mouth had started to burn, before I realised why: those lovely crunchy green beans I'd been eating in the salad were in fact whole green chillies. And as everyone knows, the smaller and greener the chilli, the greater the oral inferno. Still, it was delicious; the interplay of sour, salty, hot and sweet is a hallmark of Thai food and incredibly addictive.
I have therefore created something vaguely similar to the Thai papaya salad, but made a few additions. Firstly, some rice noodles, largely because despite feeling clinically obese I was still pretty hungry and I just knew that, sadly, vegetables alone would not cut it. Secondly, I didn't use papaya, but mango. You can substitute underripe mango for the underripe papaya, which was my intention, but the firm specimen I picked up in the supermarket turned out to be deliciously ripe and juicy. The one time I actually want rock hard supermarket mangoes, and they don't have any! Still, this did not matter, especially as I got to nibble all the bits of flesh from around the stone - cook's perk.
I also grated in some cucumber, for its coolness, added some beansprouts and spring onions, for crunch, and then tossed it all with a dressing. This was made from lime juice, finely chopped garlic and chilli, Thai fish sauce, and some sugar to balance the flavours and take the edge off the chilli. After mixing everything together I added a large amount of herbs: coriander, mint and basil, finely chopped and releasing the most delicious peppery aromas. I love all three of these herbs, but they work particularly well combined together; you get the aniseedy notes from the basil, the lemony freshness from the mint, and the lime notes from the coriander.
Finally, some protein in the form of prawns and langoustines. The former I bought cooked and ready-peeled; the latter still had shells on so I sauteed them in some olive oil until pink and crispy. They perched atop the salad, curled up like little pink commas, and it was ready to go. I think it looks great; the yellow of the mango and green of the herbs flecked with little pinpricks of red chilli and topped with those gorgeous salmon-coloured shellfish. A bowl of healthy goodness.
The different elements in this salad work together really well; the sweetness of the mango stops the dressing from being too hot or sour, and the fragrance of the herbs gives it a lovely freshness. All this goes very well with the rich prawns and langoustines, though you could use chicken or beef or perhaps duck instead. The only thing I'd do differently next time is omit most of the beansprouts, or cook them first: raw, they have an unpleasant bitterness that marred the sweet dressing and mango. It might also be easier to serve the mango, cucumber and dressing on top of a bed of rice noodles, rather than trying to toss the whole thing together; they tend to clump without mixing evenly with the dressing.
Minor issues aside, this is the perfect thing to counteract a little (or a lot, in my case) gastronomic over-indulgence. Not a pig or a dumpling in sight.
Thai-style prawn, noodle, mango and lime salad (serves 4):
- 1 medium-ripe mango, grated
- Half a cucumber, grated
- 4 spring onions, finely sliced diagonally
- 2 limes
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 tsp Thai fish sauce
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- Large handfuls of chopped basil, coriander or mint (or all three)
- A packet of beansprouts, raw or briefly stir-fried, as you prefer
- Rice noodles (enough for 4 - see packet instructions)
- 500-600g raw or cooked prawns or langoustines, or both (or use strips of chicken, beef or duck)
First, cook the rice noodles - just pour over enough boiling water to cover and leave to soak.
Meanwhile, make the dressing. Mix the juice of the limes with the chilli, garlic, fish sauce and sugar. Add the mango, cucumber and spring onions. Mix in the herbs (reserve some for garnishing) and beansprouts. Taste - you might want more sugar, fish sauce, lime juice or chilli, depending on your individual preferences.
If your prawns are raw, heat a little olive oil in a frying pan until hot, then add the prawns and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, or until pink. If they're cooked, just add to the salad as they are (you might like to warm them through).
Divide the noodles between four plates. Top with the dressing and mango mixture, then top that with the cooked prawns. Serve garnished with extra herbs and lime wedges to squeeze over.
One of the perils of being obsessed with food is that you constantly carry around with you a mental list of various food-related tasks that you intend to effect at some point in the near future, items from which will pop up in your head in the most unexpected places. You're on the tube and see an advert for pregnancy tests - naturally it immediately causes you to remember that desire to obtain some goose eggs and cook with them. You smell that artificial baked aroma wafting from a nearby Subway and your mind is forcibly recalled to the huge bag of rhubarb in the kitchen that you keep meaning to create a bread recipe for. And - I know this is quite morbid, but I can't help it - you see the deer frolicking around Christ Church meadows and remember that recipe for venison kebabs that you keep meaning to try.
One item on this vast culinary to-do list of mine is to compile a 'Top 20' of my favourite kitchen-related tasks. It seems that whenever I write a blog post, I reference at least one of these: the satisfying sizzle of a steak on a griddle pan; how much I love separating eggs; the sheer unadulterated pleasure there is to be had from driving a ridged scone-cutter into a pillowy mound of moist, fruit-studded dough; the joy of knocking back the air from a risen ball of yeasty bread mixture. I will now add another to that list: I have a little bit of an obsession with any form of pancake.
I don't necessarily mean pancakes of the brunch or dessert variety, though I do have an undeniable adoration for them; Sunday morning is just not quite right without a vast, Pisa-style stack of thick pancakes brimming with chunks of juicy fruit and drizzled with succulent sticky syrup and a sprinkle of icing sugar. But 'pancake' can stretch to cover all sorts of delights: I recently made some carrot and coriander cakes that involved mixing grated carrot and onion, fresh coriander, beaten egg, grated cheese and some cream together to form small cakes. These little orange burgers were placed gently into a pan of shallow oil, until the edges had sizzled and crisped up like an onion bhaji, while the centre remained soft and unctuous, oozing cheese. A variation of these involves grated courgettes, spring onions, dill, mint, and feta cheese, and is another of my favourite recipes and a way of making a lot of people realise that courgettes are actually quite nice.
Fishcakes are, of course, another example, and they even have 'cake' in the title. I just love the action of shaping a stiff mixture into small, flat cakes with one's hands, flouring them, then placing them in the pan and listening to their exterior become golden and crispy. I suppose it's a textural thing: the contrast between the crunchy, caramelised outside and the soft centre. Last night I was really craving that taste sensation, and, having spent the last week in Italy eating nothing but carbohydrates, pork in all its various manifestations, and cheese, I needed something fresh-tasting and healthy to wake up my tastebuds and jolt my - usually acceptable and good at hiding the fact that I am an unashamed glutton - metabolism into action.
I told myself it would be easy. A week without carbohydrates to make up for the excess of Italy, and I would be in no danger of putting on about ten stone. A week without carbohydrates. No problem. I'd done very well the night before: dinner was grilled chicken salad with roasted vegetables, and not a crouton in sight. I should clarify here that I don't mean all carbohydrates - fruit and veg don't count. I basically mean bread, pasta, potatoes and rice. The kind of stuff that, eaten three times a day for a week, will make you feel positively elephantine. At least, in my case, because I normally reserve such foodstuffs for one meal a day only, or I get too sleepy to function.
I could have made Thai-style fishcakes: nothing but fish and aromatics. But I wanted the potato. I needed it to give the fishcakes that essential fluffiness in the middle, that comforting blanket to swaddle the flakes of fish and contrast the crunchy outside of the pan-seared cake. Perhaps I have been spoilt by the fishcakes at the restaurant I work for, which are incredible (a trio of smoked haddock, cod, and salmon cakes, gorgeously crunchy on the outside and still firm and flaky in the middle, served with a tomato salsa and the best chips I've ever eaten). I just didn't think dinner would be as good without potato in the fishcakes. They wouldn't be fishcakes as I know them and fishcakes as I was craving them.
Reader, I failed. I succumbed to the lure of the carbohydrate. But it was only a small amount of potato (two potatoes in the whole recipe, which serves four people), and I feel it gave the necessary bulk to the fishcakes. Besides, if I hadn't put it in, I would only have ended up making some potato wedges and thus eating even more potato than planned. And somehow potato doesn't seem as bad as bread; it does, after all, grow in the ground, therefore it at least pretends to be a vegetable and somehow good for you. Bread, in my eyes, has the nutritional value of a sponge. This is not to say that I don't adore it. But a week in Italy is enough to make most people enact a temporary bread amnesty.
I still wanted the fishcakes to be light and fresh-tasting, so I reached for chilli. Whenever I've overindulged with a lot of heavy, rich food, I always wake up the next day craving chilli (obviously not immediately, as chilli for breakfast is just not something that registers on my Western culinary radar). When I suggested fishcakes for dinner, Jon immediately asked, "Will they have coriander in?" Thus, the addition of Thai flavours to the humble potato was born: lime, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, lime leaves, coriander. I call these Asian fusion fishcakes because they're not authentic Thai fishcakes, but they add an exciting Asian twist to your basic British potato-and-fish combo.
One of the many things I've learned from Masterchef is that one should never combine Asian flavours with potato. John Torode loathes it; every series a new contestant comes along thinking they can produce the definitive Asian-tuber combination, and every series they are forced to hideously and humiliatingly bow down before the mighty Torode and his fusion-food wisdom. Wasabi mash? Always fails. Every time. As does any dish that features potatoes and soy sauce within forking distance of each other. No, don't think you can get away with it because it's a sweet potato and therefore somehow more exotic. You can't. John will spot it and your Masterchef journey will be over.
So really, it was going against every Masterchef-infused cell in my body to couple Thai ingredients with potato, but I did it anyway. This is probably why I'll never be on Masterchef. That and the inevitable crushing humiliation and requirement that I should use revolting phrases such as "raise my game", "incredible journey", "pull it out of the bag" and "this competition means everything". I do, despite being twenty-two and therefore a good four years out of the teenage stage, still cry quite a lot (usually when hungry). But I don't think even my tear ducts could produce the amount of facial saltwater necessary to appear on Masterchef. I'm surprised they haven't started giving contestants a set of Masterchef-embroidered handkerchiefs as well as the trademark aprons.
Back to the fishcakes, while my Masterchef dream collapses in tatters before my (insufficiently weepy) eyes. I blitzed all the aromatics to a fine paste in a blender and mixed with a little fish sauce. I added the cooled mash and flaked cooked fish (I used Vietnamese river cobbler, which seemed rather appropriate in terms of region for Thai fishcakes, and which you can get in Tesco), then shaped the mixture into little cakes, dusted with flour, and chilled for half an hour to make them less likely to fall apart in the pan.
Oh, the sizzle. Such a perfect golden coating when I flipped the cakes over to cook the other side. They held their shape perfectly, browning nicely on each side and remaining soft and yielding in the middle. I served them with some broccoli and corn on the cob (again, not particularly orthodox, but we had some in the fridge to use up and I suddenly remembered that corn on the cob is amazing), and a big drizzle of sweet chilli sauce. I reckon they'd also be good with sticky rice (unless you too have just returned from eating your own body weight in pork and pizza) or some steamed Pak choi seasoned with chilli and soy sauce, or just as a starter with the sweet chilli.
Sorry, unrealistically-ambitious-attempt at-Atkins-diet. Sorry, John Torode. But these are just so damn tasty.
Thai-flavoured fishcakes (serves 3-4):
- 350g firm white fish (cod, haddock, coley, whiting, pollack, etc)
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Flour for dredging
- 2 large potatoes
- 4 lime leaves (fresh if possible; I used dried)
- 1 red chilli, deseeded
- 1 inch piece root ginger, peeled
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 stalks lemongrass, tough end removed and roughly sliced (or 2 tsp lemongrass paste from a jar)
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- Juice of half a lime
- Bunch of fresh coriander
- Lime wedges, to serve
Peel the potatoes if you like (I leave the skins on because I like the texture, and they're full of vitamins apparently), then cut into large pieces and boil until tender. Mash well and leave to cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Place the fish in a baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and cook for about 10 minutes until cooked through. Flake into small pieces and add to the mashed potatoes.
Roughly chop the ginger, garlic and chilli and put in a blender with the lime leaves, lemongrass, fish sauce, lime juice and coriander. Blend to a rough paste. You can chop it all by hand if you don't have a blender. Add this mixture to the potatoes and fish, and mix well. Taste - you might want some more lime juice or fish sauce.
Shape the mixture into small cakes then place on a floured plate and chill in the fridge for half an hour.
When ready to cook, heat a shallow layer of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan until quite hot (you want the cakes to sizzle when they come into contact with it). Flour the cakes on both sides and add to the hot oil - you will probably need to do this in batches. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side; the outside should be golden brown and the inside warmed through.
Serve with sweet chilli sauce, and steamed or stir-fried greens, along with lime wedges.