There are few things sadder than a ‘chilli con carne’ done badly. Soggy mince; a sour, acidic tomato sauce; bullet-hard kidney beans straight from a can; the overpowering musk of cumin powder…this is a dish that is surprisingly easy to massacre. Perhaps it has something to do with being a student staple, much like its mince-sharing partner, spaghetti bolognese. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it is often served, entirely unimaginatively, with a bland canvas of white rice. Or perhaps it’s because bad chilli con carne can be smothered in cheese and crammed into a burrito and thereby turned into something vaguely acceptable, so why bother perfecting the thing?Read More
One of my favourite things to eat this summer is a combination of spicy, grilled meat of some description, coupled with a hearty, bolstering salad of grains or pulses enriched and brightened with the best of the summer’s fruits, plus a dollop of cooling cucumber yoghurt alongside – I love the contrast in both texture and temperature between hot, sizzling meat, warm pulses and thick, cold yoghurt made extra refreshing with grated cucumber and fresh mint. Peaches are a particular favourite for salads, partly because they are so sweet and delicious alongside savoury ingredients, and partly because you can griddle them to produce gorgeous chargrilled red-orange segments that will brighten up whatever you want to throw them in.Read More
Before I even go into the wild and wonderful merits of this beautiful dish, let’s just revel for a second in the fact that it’s called ‘amok’. Apparently this is simply a Cambodian term for cooking a curry in banana leaves, but I don’t think we use the word ‘amok’ enough in English and so let’s take a moment and think about how we can incorporate it more into our lives.
Good. Now you’ve done that, let me tell you about the beautiful amok.Read More
Have you ever discovered an amazing recipe a bit by accident? Say, found yourself with random ingredients to use up and located a recipe in one of your cookbooks that you wouldn't normally make but since you have all the ingredients you may as well? Or, at a loss for culinary inspiration, simply turned to a random page in said cookbook and picked something you wouldn't normally try, only to find it a wonderful addition to your repertoire? Or decided to give something a go because it sounded weird and used an odd combination of ingredients, and you were curious to know how it would taste?
This recipe came about a bit like that. One night, I was cooking amok (a Cambodian coconut-based fish curry steamed in banana leaves - it's insanely delicious) for a friend. Feeling guilty over a fresh pineapple languishing in the fridge and starting to turn a little brown in places, and sure that I could turn it into some kind of side dish to accompany the fish, I flicked through one of my Vietnamese recipe books, certain I had seen a recipe for a stir-fried pineapple dish.
Now, I love pretty much all fruit-in-savoury-dishes combinations, but I think pineapple has to be a particular favourite. In Vietnam, one of the absolute highlights of my travels was a dish of stir-fried seafood with onions, tomatoes and pineapple. It had a delicious sweet-sour flavour and the seafood was fresh, tender, sweet and succulent. Pineapple adds wonderful flavour to south-east Asian dishes, since they're often quite sour and spicy; the sweetness and caramel notes of fresh pineapple add a delicious dimension to the mix, particularly if there's coconut in the sauce - like a piña colada, only savoury and chewable.
This recipe is simple but so much more delicious and rewarding than you would expect for its simplicity. You stir-fry chopped ginger, garlic and chilli in a hot pan. This alone is going to make it good - nothing like that beautiful triumvirate of flavour to get a dish going. You then add fresh pineapple, keeping the heat high so it starts to caramelise on the outside. The colours are beautiful and golden, the fruit streaked with dark toffee colour, the fiery red of the chilli dotted throughout.
Then, the best bit. You pour on a dark and potent mixture of fish sauce, soy sauce, and dark brown sugar. This sizzles and bubbles in treacly waves, coating the pineapple and turning it a dark bronze, the smell of salt and toffee wafting up from the searing pan. As you continue to stir the sauce thickens and caramelises. You then add a squeeze of lime juice, to brighten everything up.
You can keep it simple and serve it just like this, as a side dish, sprinkled with toasted peanuts. The deep savoury flavour of the nuts contrasts beautifully with the sweet, sticky, slightly sour, salty pineapple. I like to stir in some spinach just as the sauce has thickened, where it wilts in the pan and is coated with the sauce. It adds fresh green colour, another texture, and also one more of your five a day - surely a plus.
Since I discovered this recipe a few weeks ago, I've made it at least ten times. This is a clear indication of its wonderfulness, because I rarely cook the same thing twice. But there's something about this dish I just can't get enough of. The flavours are incredible - the glaze on the outside of the pineapple is salty and slightly sour in your mouth, but when you bite into the pineapple it releases wonderfully sticky, toffee-scented juice. The peanuts are rich, toasty and nutty, providing crunch. There's heat from the chilli and ginger, just enough to make your lips tingle.
At the end, I like to scatter over some herbs. Mint and coriander work well, as does fresh basil, but my new love of late is sweet basil. I found this in an Asian grocer, and was not quite prepared for what would happen when I opened the packet and took a sniff.
I didn't think I'd tried sweet basil before. It turns out, I basically lived off the stuff when travelling around Vietnam. It's common when eating in a Vietnamese restaurant to be presented with a big plate of fresh herbs, water droplets clinging to the leaves, to add to your meal or just munch on as they are. Sweet basil leaves - darker green and more pointed than regular basil, with a purple tinge - were a staple. They have a very strong, assertive flavour, quite unlike Italian basil; it's hard to describe, but it's almost minty, somehow, with a hint of aniseed. One sniff of that bunch of leaves and I was back in Vietnam.
It's amazing how smell, more than any other sense, I think, has such a profound and involuntary effect on memory. There have been a few occasions in my life where I've been unexpectedly jolted back to a certain event or period of time, all through the sniff of a certain aroma. It sometimes leaves me reeling, particularly if the memory is an especially emotional one (and aren't they all, in a way?). This was no exception. I've been cooking with the sweet basil for days now, but the effect hasn't lessened in any way. Its scent is inextricably tied up with images, emotions, ideas from far away in my head. I actually went to the fridge and just stood there, inhaling the packet. A little weird, perhaps, but I am still pining for Vietnam and this is the closest I can get. A bunch of leaves. Strange how it's the small things.
But let's put aside the nostalgic meanderings of my mind. Sweet basil is also very good on this pineapple dish.
I would really urge you to try this soon. It's excellent as a side dish with various Asian recipes - it was amazing with the amok - but would be good with any kind of Asian-spiced fish dish, or with chicken or pork. Although it's quite assertive in its flavours, its sweetness provides a fresh, pleasant contrast to anything spicy, creamy or meaty. I also think it would be very good with cubed firm tofu, fried in a hot pan until golden and slightly crispy around the edges, and served over rice or noodles. Or with seared spicy lemongrass prawns.
One of my favourite ways to eat this, though, is simply poured into a big bowl of cooked rice noodles, where the juices coat the slippery strands, their comforting blandness a welcome foil to the hot, sweet, sour, sharp, salty flavours of the caramelised fruit and wilted spinach. I scatter over the toasted peanuts, squeeze over some lime, and pile shredded sweet basil over the top. I sit down with this big bowlful, some wooden chopsticks that I bought in Vietnam, and am a little bit in love.
Chilli and ginger stir-fried pineapple (serves 1 as a lunch with rice/noodles; 2 as a side dish):
- 1 clove garlic
- Half a red chilli (or more, depending how spicy you like your food)
- 20g fresh ginger
- 1 tbsp rapeseed or groundnut oil
- Half a medium pineapple
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp dark brown sugar or palm sugar
- A large handful spinach or baby spinach
- 2 tbsp peanuts, toasted in a dry pan and roughly chopped
- The juice of half a lime
- A few leaves of Thai/sweet basil (or normal basil if you can't find it), shredded, to serve
Finely chop the garlic, chilli and ginger. Remove the skin and woody core from the pineapple and chop into small chunks. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan or wok and fry the ginger, garlic and chilli over a medium-high heat until starting to colour. Add the pineapple and cook until starting to caramelise.
Mix the fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar in a small bowl or jug, then tip into the pan - it should sizzle and bubble. Stir to coat the pineapple in the mixture, then cook for a minute or so until everything has turned dark and sticky. Add the spinach and cook for a minute or so until wilted.
Squeeze over the lime juice and stir well, then serve garnished with the toasted peanuts and shredded basil.
In honour of the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo (the 5th of May) this Saturday - from what I gather from reading various US-based food blogs, across the pond it's basically known as an excuse to gorge oneself on nachos, tacos, enchiladas and the like - the lovely people at Discovery sent me a load of fajita-themed goodies to celebrate with. I have a bit of a soft spot for Discovery ever since I won a KitchenAid blender at one of their competitions last year, and am still trying to work my way through the huge stash of goodies I picked up then. Included in this treasure trove are their new Green Jalapeño Relish, a fajita kit and their mild and medium salsas; pretty much everything you need to whip up a perfect Mexican celebratory supper. They were even nice enough to send me a pan and a chopping board, so I literally had everything I needed to cook said supper...apart from maybe a hob. (Note to Discovery - I'd like an induction one, please, and you can deliver it any time that's convenient).
Rather than make your standard fajitas, however, I decided to do something a bit different. If you're feeling lazy, it's stupidly easy to whip up fajitas with Discovery's fajita kits, which include basically everything except the meat and veg (it's even easier if you follow their recipe for all-in-one chicken fajitas, where everything is fried in one pan). I love their fajita spice mix, which contains just the right amount of heat, flavour and piquancy to liven up chicken and make an authentic-tasting dinner, and they have a great range of salsa and relish (guacamole, sour cream topping, whole red and green jalapeños...) to make your fajita more interesting on its journey from plate to mouth (the green jalapeño is even better for being green - you can pretend it's one of your five-a-day!)
I've made this Mexican salad on several occasions, though, and figured it was time to blog about it. The photos aren't great, and certainly don't do this vibrant salad any justice, but given that the fifth of May is nearly upon us, I may as well suggest it to you as a dish for the occasion, as it's utterly delicious.
OK, so this is my interpretation of Mexican. I rarely eat Mexican food and have never been to Mexico, but I know what ingredients can be combined to make something vaguely authentic. This salad features all the staples - sweetcorn, beans, red peppers, avocado, lime juice, chilli, coriander and spiced chicken. Only instead of being stuffed into a tortilla, they're served in salad form. The chicken is coated in Discovery fajita spice mix and seared over a high heat, then serve atop its colourful bed of sweet, tangy, crunchy vegetables. The dressing is a mixture of lime juice, coriander, and Discovery chipotle paste. If you've never tried chipotles, you're missing out. They're smoke-dried jalapeños and they have the most incredible addictive aroma and flavour. They lend the salad a real kick. Discovery do them in a handy paste form which is ideal for adding to sauces and stews, but you can also buy them as dried whole chillies.
When I first made this, I used freshly cooked black beans, as they seem more Mexican (and by that, I mean they're normally the kind I find in burritos I buy every now and again). You can use a tin of black beans if you can find them, but I've never succeeded - in which case tinned kidney beans are fine. Discovery also do refried beans, which might work, and cannellini beans would probably work too. The point is to have those pillowy, starchy pulses to contrast with the crisp crunch of the vegetables. This is a pretty easy salad - you just chop stuff and put it in a bowl, and some of it you don't even need to chop because it comes out of a tin (not normally my style of cooking, but sometimes there's something so therapeutic about just opening tins and throwing things into a bowl, particularly when the end result is this good).
The avocado is, in my opinion, essential. It gives a really gorgeous creamy texture to the salad, and I love its mild flavour against the spicy chicken. Avocado, lime and coriander are such an excellent trio, and they feature well in this dish. It's such a healthy-looking and healthy-tasting plate, and pretty filling considering there aren't really any carbohydrates involved, but go ahead and add some nachos or a tortilla if you're that way inclined.
The beauty of this salad is its versatility. If you omit the chicken, you can stir some grated cheese into the vegetable mixture, sandwich it between two tortillas, and fry it in a pan to make a lovely melting quesadilla (be warned, though, that it'll be impossible to flip without at least some of the filling leaking out). That's how I first came across this combination, and it was delicious. You could wrap the whole thing in a tortilla and eat like a fajita, or stuff it into tacos, or maybe even bake it into enchiladas. Add some feta cheese instead of the chicken to make it vegetarian, or even coat slices of halloumi with the spice mixture and fry. Use steak or pork instead of chicken. Change the vegetables a bit. It's up to you.
My version has a bit of yoghurt on top - I didn't have any sour cream, but that would be preferable - and is served with lime wedges and Discovery salsa alongside. I find it quite spicy, but you can add some of that feisty green jalapeño relish if you want to make it hotter. Use it as a template for your own Mexican-themed feast, and enjoy its fresh, tangy, spicy flavours and beautiful vibrant colours.
Happy Cinco de Mayo! Will you be cooking up anything to celebrate?
Mexican spiced chicken salad (serves 4):
- 1 x 400g tin sweetcorn, drained
- 1 x 400g tin black beans or kidney beans (or cook your own from scratch if you like)
- 4 sweet pointed red peppers, chopped into 1cm dice
- 4 spring onions, thinly sliced
- Juice of 1 lime
- A large bunch of coriander, finely chopped
- 1 tsp Discovery chipotle paste
- 2 ripe avocadoes, sliced or cubed
- 4 chicken breasts
- 1 sachet Discovery fajita spice mix (mild or medium, depending on your preference)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- To serve: sour cream or yoghurt, lime wedges, and Discovery salsa
In a large bowl, mix together the sweetcorn, beans, peppers, spring onions, lime juice, coriander and chipotle paste. Toss well and check the seasoning - if you like it spicier, add more chipotle. Gently fold in the avocadoes without turning them to mush. Divide the salad between four plates.
Thinly slice the chicken breasts and coat in a couple of tablespoons of the spice mix and the oil. Heat a non-stick frying pan over a high heat then add the chicken, turning occasionally until slightly charred on the outside and cooked through. Taste - you might want a bit more spice mix if it's not flavoursome enough for you.
Divide the chicken between the plates. Top with a dollop of sour cream, a wedge of lime, and Discovery salsa, if you like. Serve immediately.