Reza's Indian Spice

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:

  1. 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?)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. And, of course, the titles of the dishes and whether they appeal.
Reza's Indian Spice wins on every count. Honestly, I cannot stress what an incredible cookbook this is. I'm not just saying that because I'd very much like Quadrille to continue letting me review their publications; I'm saying it because I was truly stunned by this book and would heartily recommend it to everyone with vim, vigour, zest, passion and gusto.

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.

Roast beef, truffled polenta and summer vegetables

I don't exaggerate when I say that I can count on one hand the number of times I have cooked beef. I've made a couple of beef stews; a gorgeous warming one with ale, carrots and onions on bonfire night a few years ago, which was the perfect antidote to standing around in the freezing cold to watch the pretty lights in the sky; this rather delicious tomato and pepper stew enriched with cinnamon and stirred into pasta ribbons; and a couple of weeks ago I made an improvised beef goulash for eighteen hungry Navy people. Tender cubes of lean stewing beef, in a rich tomato sauce with strips of red and green peppers, lashings of paprika and cayenne pepper, and dumplings. It was unexpectedly delicious, and inspired me to experiment a bit more with the humble cow. I don't know why I hardly ever cook beef; I think it's because it's a meat that you can't really experiment with, and by that I mean pair it with fruit. Anyone who's ever been cooked for by me will know that I adore the combination of fruit and meat, which is why I usually cook with lamb or pork. Beef doesn't really lend itself to such weird and wonderful combinations, so I usually assume it's 'boring' and steer clear.

However, having caught the beef 'bug' from the delicious goulash and a little bit of my boyfriend's roast at the pub the other day, I decided to give beef another go. Luckily, fate seemed to be on my side, as the butcher had an enormous piece of topside on offer. It was gigantic, over two feet long, weighing over three kilos, and a bit of a bargain. I struggled home with it and then had a think about recipes. Initially I had the idea of serving it very rare, thinly sliced, with truffle oil, parmesan and rocket, rather like the classic Italian beef tagliata. I was going to bake bread to accompany it, but eventually I couldn't be bothered and therefore the need arose for more carbohydrate. I was intent on using truffle oil somewhere in the dish, ever since I had an incredible starter of wild boar ham drizzled with the stuff in Italy in April. It goes very well with beef, I think - beef and mushrooms are a great combination, and truffle oil is just taking it one step (well, several steps) closer to gastronomic luxury; the earthiness of the truffles have a great affinity with the earthy, iron-rich flavour of good beef. Firmly set on an Italian interpretation, I decided to make some wet polenta infused with truffle oil, imagining that its richness and slightly grainy texture would match the tender meat perfectly.

I suppose the obvious thing to do with the topside would have been roast beef with all the usual trimmings, but we're nearing June now and the weather is (or was, at least) just too summery to start whipping up Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and thick, dark gravy. For that reason, I decided that some simple summer vegetables would be the perfect accompaniment; their flavour would bring freshness to the dish and their flavour wouldn't overpower the truffley aromas emanating from the polenta, or the richness of the beef. Tagliata and carpaccio usually pair very rare or even raw slices of beef (usually fillet) with a rocket salad; I decided to serve the meat with a peppery combination of rocket, watercress and spinach, to complement its deep flavours.

I roasted the topside on a bed of onions, sprinkled with a few thyme sprigs and some seasoning. It barely fit in my oven dish due to its enormous size, and there was something immensely satisfying about just sticking a huge piece of meat in the oven and forgetting about it, without having to slave over the hob for hours. The beef I just seasoned with coarse sea salt, black pepper and olive oil, rubbed into the skin. I read somewhere that patting the skin with flour helps it crisp up during cooking; it worked like a charm, resulting in the most incredibly delicious crunchy texture around the outside of the meat, with delicious little nuggets of sea salt. The best bit of all, though, was the 'gravy'. I didn't actually make gravy, just serving the beef with the roasting juices. All the fat rendered down from the meat into the onions in the roasting tin, turning them caramelised, sweet and tender. Spooned over the sliced beef they were absolutely incredible. 

The only slight issue I had was with the cooking of the meat. I don't know what happened - I timed it perfectly to result in rare meat, and it came out closer to medium. I guess my oven just runs hotter than it should, because I left the beef in for really the shortest time possible. I love rare meat and wanted it still bloody in the middle, but instead it was just pink. I was assured it was delicious, but to this day I am still very grumpy about this mishap and intend to order a meat thermometer as soon as possible to avoid future incidents. I suppose generally people don't share my love of meat that is practically still breathing, so cooking it to this stage is probably more socially acceptable.

This is a fairly simple roast dinner, and a perfect way of bringing traditional roast beef into summer. If you're not taking on the mad task of making a roast for nine people, you could use a smaller piece of topside or another roasting joint - fillet would work well too, if you can afford it. Thin slices of pink beef topside, summer vegetables (carrots, asparagus, peas and green beans) dressed with a little garlic oil, a creamy mound of rich polenta drizzled with truffle oil, and a watercress and rocket salad. The finishing touch - a spoonful of meltingly sweet onions and roasting juices. It has all the satisfaction of a Sunday lunch, but feels slightly healthier and much more appropriate for summer weather. The earthy truffle polenta works perfectly with the meat and onions, and the sweet, crunchy vegetables and salad provide a nice freshness. Delicious.

Roast beef, truffled polenta and summer vegetables (serves 10):

3 kg beef topside joint, ready for roasting
5 onions, peeled and sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with a knife blade
A few sprigs of thyme
Olive oil
Coarse sea salt and black pepper
3 tbsp flour

500g quick-cook polenta
Salt and black pepper
Truffle oil
50g grated parmesan
Vegetables, to serve (I used asparagus, green beans, peas and carrots)
Rocket and watercress, to serve

Pre-heat the oven as hot as it will go.

First, prepare the beef. Sprinkle the onions into a large roasting tin, add the garlic and thyme, and season. Rub the olive oil, sea salt and pepper into the beef and place it on top of the onions. Pat the skin with the flour. Put the beef in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 170C and roast for half an hour per kilo - this should give you rare/medium-rare meat, but if you like it very rare try 20 minutes per kilo - you can always put it back in, and remember it continues to cook while resting.

When the time is up, remove the beef to a board and cover with foil and a tea towel. Leave to rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.

To make the polenta (do this just before serving), bring 2 litres of water to the boil. Add a little chicken stock cube for extra flavour, if you like. Gradually pour in the polenta, whisking constantly, until it thickens. Stir in a generous amount of seasoning, and the parmesan. Spoon big mounds of it onto the plates and drizzle generously with truffle oil. Top with several slices of beef, drizzle with more truffle oil, and spoon over some roasting juices and caramelised onions.

Serve with your choice of vegetables, dressed with a little garlic-infused olive oil, or butter and salt, and a pile of rocket and watercress salad.

An unusual pasta sauce

Generally when pasta sauces involve meat, it is normally minced meat or finely ground meat. However, last night I made a sort of stew to use up some lovely braising beef from the Yorkshire butchers, and to satisfy a pasta craving I had been nursing for a couple of days, thought I would serve it with pasta. I finely shredded the large chunks of beef so they'd stick more easily to the pasta, and the pasta became coated in the lovely braising liquid, containing cinnamon, cloves and coriander. I suppose you could serve it with couscous or mash, or even rice, but there is something very satisfying about the combination of pasta and aromatic shreds of beef and red peppers. Pappardelle is, I think, the best choice of pasta here because it's large enough for the sauce to cling to all the strands, but rigatoni might work well too, or those giant pasta shells you can get (I imagine the sauce would fill up the shells nicely once given a good stir).

Recipe (to serve 4-5): finely slice about 5 onions and saute them until soft in a pan. Remove and set aside. Add two sliced red peppers and saute until soft. Remove to a separate plate. Add 900g stewing beef and brown in batches. Return all the beef to the pan and add the onions, 4 cloves, a cinnamon stick, a tsp ground coriander and a tsp ground black pepper plus a generous grinding of salt. Pour over 900ml beef stock and bring to the boil. Cover, turn the heat down and simmer for a couple of hours. After this time, remove the lid and reduce until the liquid has a sauce-like consistency (I used some arrowroot to thicken it more). While doing this, remove the beef chunks from the pan and, using two forks, finely shred the meat before returning to the pan. Return the red peppers to the pan until they have softened. Serve with pasta.