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
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
This is a very bold meal, in many senses of the word. First, the colours. There is an explosion of vibrant reds, in shades varying from the deep, bloody magenta of roasted beetroot to the bright, glossy crimson of redcurrants, to the scarlet hues of harissa and the earthy tones of griddled lamb. There are flecks of bright mint, a spoonful of creamy yoghurt and a background of fluffy couscous. Then there are the flavours: hot, sweet, spicy, fresh, deeply savoury. It's a riotous plate of bold and assertive ingredients, and works wonderfully together.
Inspired by my recent experimentation with whitecurrants in savoury cooking, I decided to give the same treatment to redcurrants, their slightly more common and accessible cousins. I have only used redcurrants in desserts before, my favourites being a redcurrant cheesecake or a peach and redcurrant cake. I love their delicate sweet-sour flavour, peppering cake batters with delicious sweet bursts. More than that, though, I love their beautiful appearance, like a string of jewels. As with pomegranate seeds, they add instant sparkle and glamour to all food.
For that reason, I thought they'd look beautiful strewn through a blank canvas of soft, fluffy couscous, as I would normally do with pomegranate seeds. When one thinks of redcurrants and savoury food, redcurrant jelly with lamb instantly springs to mind. Their tartness is a welcome pairing with the rather rich, sweet flavour of lamb meat. Lamb also works excellently with couscous, as Moroccan cooking exemplifies. I had two Barnsley chops in the freezer - this is taken from across the lamb loin, and is sometimes called a double chop. It has the bone in the middle and a good layer of fat on the outside, and is perfectly suited for a blast of heat from the griddle or barbecue.
Keeping with a Moroccan theme, I marinated the lamb in harissa paste. Harissa is a funny ingredient - depending on the brand you buy or the recipe you use, it can be overwhelmingly spicy and even bitter, sometimes. For the first time, I decided to make my own, using a recipe from Nigel Slater's second Kitchen Diaries book, but swapping caraway seeds for fennel seeds as I didn't have any. This harissa is slightly unusual in that it features preserved lemons, which give it a wonderful deep flavour. It's hard to describe the taste of a preserved lemon until you've tried one, but they're wonderfully aromatic and lend a delicious tang to everything you combine with them.
I'd really recommend making your own harissa. It takes minutes, and the flavour is utterly wonderful - far richer, spicier and more interesting than anything you can buy in a jar. You can control the amount of chilli, and add your own aromatics depending on what takes your fancy. It's bold, vibrant and flavoursome, and a beautiful brick-red colour, just begging to be slathered all over some juicy lamb chops.
To accompany the lamb, couscous strewn with cubes of roasted beetroot, tossed in za'atar - a Middle Eastern spice mix featuring thyme and sesame, among other things - and flecked with mint and parsley, before beautiful bold redcurrants are stirred through. I served this alongside the lamb with a big dollop of minted yoghurt, to take the edge off the harissa spice and to add a welcome hit of coolness and creaminess. It works excellently with the deep flavours of the meat and beetroot.
The lamb is just griddled on a hot pan, though you could also barbecue it. The smell of searing harissa coupled with that sweet, unmistakeable aroma of cooking lamb is fabulous. Harissa, to me, just belongs with lamb more than any other ingredient. Something about the combination of all those delicious spices manages to bring out, rather than overpower, the taste of the lamb. The redcurrants are a wonderful addition to the dish, adding a welcome note of sweetness to freshen up all those other rich, earthy flavours in there, though you could also use pomegranate if you can't get redcurrants. I love the way they look on the plate, sparkling out of the couscous.
This is a gorgeous medley of Moroccan and Middle Eastern flavours and textures. The star is the beautiful pink lamb with its smothering of bold harissa, but the redcurrants are an unusual and an inspired addition, I think.
Much more exciting than roast lamb with redcurrant jelly, I think. Hopefully you agree.
Harissa lamb with redcurrant and beetroot couscous (serves 2):
For the harissa paste:
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 bottled piquillo peppers (or roasted peppers)
- 1/2 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 medium-hot red chilli
- 1 small preserved lemon
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 2 tbsp olive oil
For the rest:
- 2 lamb Barnsley chops
- 2 beetroot
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp za'atar (or use 1 tbsp dried thyme if you can't find it)
- 160g couscous
- A few sprigs fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 100g redcurrants, removed from their stalks
- 200ml natural or Greek yoghurt
- A small bunch of fresh mint, finely shredded
- A pinch of ground cumin
- Baby spinach or salad, to serve
First, make the harissa. Toast the coriander, cumin and fennel seeds in a dry pan until fragrant, then grind to a powder in a pestle and mortar. Put in a food processor along with the garlic, peppers, tomato puree, vinegar and chilli, then pulse together. Discard the soft inside of the preserved lemon, and add just the skin to the food processor along with the paprika and olive oil. Blitz to a paste.
Rub the paste over the lamb, put in a shallow dish, cover with clingfilm and marinate for as long as possible - ideally overnight, but a couple of hours will work too.
When ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the beetroot into 1cm dice. Place in a baking dish, then toss together with some olive oil and the za'atar/thyme, and some salt and pepper. Roast for around 30 minutes, until just tender. Put the couscous into a large bowl, and pour over enough boiling water to cover it by about half a centimetre. Put a plate over the bowl, and leave it for 5-10 minutes until it has absorbed all the water. Stir through the parsley, some olive oil and salt and pepper, and the roasted beetroot, then gently stir through the redcurrants. Mix the yoghurt in a small bowl with the mint and cumin.
Get a griddle pan very hot, then griddle the lamb for about 3-5 minutes on each side, depending on how well-done you like your meat and how thick the chops are. Leave to rest for five minutes, then serve alongside the couscous with a dollop of yoghurt, and some baby spinach or salad.
For those of us who can't afford those tempting 'winter sun' breaks at this time of year (a notion I generally hate and associate with terrifying mental images of lobster-red English bodies splayed out on the Costa del Vomit), there is a much easier way to capture a little of that summer cheer on cold, rainy days: cook your way to it. In the market the other day, I was transfixed by the sheer brightness and colour of the fruit and vegetable displays: vibrant glossy red and yellow peppers; jewel-like cranberries; luminous citrus globes; vivid, feathery fennel; bulbous gleaming aubergines; hot pink shards of rhubarb; marigold, bulgingly ripe persimmons; dusky pink lychees...it's probably the most colourful and inviting I've seen the market all year, and it seemed very fitting that all this wonderful fruit and veg (admittedly, most of it imported), bursting with colour and flavour, appears at the time of year when we most desperately need it.
Inspired by a lovely box of goodies I received recently from Belazu, producers of Mediterranean and North African ingredients (I especially love their preserved lemons), I've come up with a recipe that will bring a little Moroccan sunshine into your life. It uses mangoes, which is obviously not very Moroccan, but these sweet cubes of golden fruit are exactly what both your eyes and your tastebuds need during the winter. They're paired with sardine fillets, used a lot in Moroccan cooking, although these ones have been smoked, rather like haddock. They sound unusual, but I found them in my local Tesco, and would definitely recommend them if you can find them. While normal sardines will work perfectly well for this recipe too, the smokiness definitely adds a lovely savoury edge.
I've used barley couscous from Belazu, which is exactly like ordinary couscous except with a lovely nutty flavour and slightly firmer texture. I've also used their rose harissa paste, which is a blend of over 40 herbs and spices with a beautiful deep red colour and intense spicy flavour. I went through a phase in my second year of university of putting harissa on practically everything, and I have a feeling I might be tempted that way again. It adds a great earthy kick to whatever you put it on - it's great rubbed over fish or meat before grilling, but it's also good stirred into couscous, as I've done here.
To the harissa couscous I've added chopped spinach and cubes of juicy ripe mango. The sweetness of the mango counteracts the spiciness of the harissa paste, and also works very well with the rich oily flesh of the sardines. I've rubbed the sardine fillets with ras-el-hanout, a Moroccan spice mix whose Arabic name means 'head of the shop', indicating the tradition whereby the mixture featured the best spices the seller had to offer. There's no set recipe for this, and different brands all have different mixtures, but generally they include cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, chilli, coriander, cumin, pepper, turmeric, and rose petals. You can buy ras-el-hanout in most delis and supermarkets now.
The spices really enhance the deep flavour of the smoky sardine flesh, which is perfect with the sweet, juicy mango cubes and the spicy kick from the harissa couscous. All the dish needs is a scattering of toasted flaked almonds, for crunch and a deep toasty flavour, and a dollop of yoghurt, to cool everything down. It's nutritious, filling and satisfying, and the perfect recipe to transport you to sunnier climes.
Smoked sardines with harissa mango couscous (serves 2):
- 180g barley couscous
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tsp rose harissa (or more if you like it hot!)
- 2 large handfuls baby spinach
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
- 1 medium mango, peeled, stoned and cut into 1cm cubes
- 3 tsp ras-el-hanout spice mix
- 6 smoked/unsmoked sardine fillets (this would also work with mackerel)
- Olive oil
- 2 tbsp flaked almonds or pine nuts, toasted in a hot pan or under the grill
- Greek yoghurt, to serve
Put the couscous in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover it by around 1cm. Put a plate over the top of the bowl and set aside.
Meanwhile, wilt the spinach either in a large frying pan or by microwaving it in a bowl for a minute on high heat. Chop it finely. When the couscous has absorbed all the water, after around 5-10 minutes, stir in the rose harissa and some seasoning. Add the spinach, herbs and mango, and set aside.
Rub the ras-el-hanout over both sides of the sardine fillets. Heat a little olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and get it quite hot. Add the sardines, skin side down first, and cook for a couple of minutes on each side. Divide the mango couscous between two plates, then put the cooked sardines on top. Scatter over the flaked almonds and serve with a dollop of yoghurt on each plate.
My kitchen table is currently groaning under the weight of an enormous cardboard box packed with fruit. If you know me, you'll know this basically means I've reached my peak of happiness. Yes, I lead a life of simple and edible pleasures. There are three bunches of bananas (which are just crying out to be left to blacken and become prime banana bread material), a scattering of plump marigold clementines, several voluptuously tapered conference pears, and an abundance of round rosy apples. There are also some beautiful plums, deepest purple with a gentle white bloom. This delightful array was sent to me by Fruitdrop, a company that delivers fruit to workplaces in London and across the UK to help keep workforces motivated, healthy and productive.
There are, of course, many advantages to getting fruit delivered in this way. You're more likely to eat it if it's just there, rather than it involving a trip to the shops. I know too many people who work in offices and complain about the amount of junk food they eat, just because it's 'there' on someone's desk. A box of multicoloured fruits is likely to brighten up any workplace. It's good for you. The list goes on.
However, I was also thinking about the potential downside to having a huge box of fruit. This may not apply so much to offices, where each box (containing around 50 pieces of fruit) is shared between employees, but for someone who lives alone like myself, eating 50 pieces of fruit before it all goes mouldy is quite a challenge. I've been coming up with recipes, therefore, to use up any fruit that's going a bit past its best, to create something delicious, healthy, and much more eco-friendly than chucking the lot in the bin.
This is something I love doing - coming up with slightly novel (I flatter myself here, really, because there isn't much that is novel in cooking, ever) ways to use fruit that are a bit more exciting than just 'a pie' or 'a fruit salad'. It's so easy to consign fruit to the realm of desserts, yet it's an incredibly versatile ingredient in savoury food too, often bringing a much-needed freshness to earthy ingredients like meat, cheese or nuts.
For my first recipe, I wanted to use the lovely plums from my fruit box. Plums are one of the few fruits I don't experiment much with, simply because I know exactly how to get the best out of them - halve and stone them, put them in a dish with brown sugar and ginger in syrup, splash over some orange juice, then bake until soft, silky and oozing pink juice. The result is sensational spooned over porridge or muesli, but equally good with ice cream as a warming autumnal dessert.
However, the plum has a flavour suited both to sweet and savoury cooking. When unsweetened, plums can be rather tart, possessing a refreshing bite that partners well with meat, particularly game and red meat. I came up with this because I had some smoked chicken to use up (yes, OK, a frightfully middle-class sentence). Smoked chicken is one of those things that needs a lot of assertive flavours to go with it, because it's very rich and cloying on its own.
Enter tart plums, sliced and caramelised with honey, fresh ginger, and Chinese five-spice. The latter because plums are a component of hoi sin sauce, which goes well with duck therefore also chicken, and has a heady five-spice note to it. Ginger because plums and ginger are just meant to be. Actually I'm not sure this salad had any rational thinking behind it; it was very much a work of instinct and what I suspected might work well together.
Nutty couscous, savoury spring onion, deeply earthy toasted almonds for crunch, fresh lemony coriander, tender smoked chicken, tart juicy plums, and the bite of ginger and five-spice. This is fragrant and delicious, a wonderful combination of tastes and textures. It's a bit of an odd English-oriental-Middle Eastern fusion, with the coriander/couscous/plums. It is an ideal lunch for one, but you could also make larger quantities and take it to work for a few days - it's good cold too.
Incidentally, if you can't find smoked chicken, just use ordinary leftover cooked chicken. I also think you could happily substitute chicken for feta or goat's cheese to make this vegetarian.
Thank you Fruitdrop for the fruit, and watch this space for more fruit-based recipes!
Spiced ginger plum and smoked chicken couscous salad (serves 1, easily doubled):
- 50g couscous
- Boiling water
- Salt and pepper
- 1 spring onion, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp almonds, toasted
- 3 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
- 2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
- 2 plums, halved, stoned and thinly sliced
- 2cm piece fresh ginger, finely chopped or grated
- 1 tsp honey
- 1/2 tsp Chinese five spice
- 1/2 smoked chicken breast, thinly sliced or shredded
First, make the couscous. Put it in a bowl, pour the boiling water over it to just cover, then cover it with a plate and leave for a few minutes. When ready, stir in the spring onion, half the oil, the toasted almonds and coriander (reserve some for garnish) and some salt and pepper.
Heat the remaining oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the plums and ginger. Cook for a minute (they should sizzle), then add the honey and five spice. Cook for another few minutes until sticky and caramelised.
When the plums are ready, stir them into the couscous along with the chicken. Garnish with the extra almonds and coriander, then serve.
"Tita wasn't there, even though her body was sitting up quite properly in her chair; there wasn't the slightest sign of life in her eyes. It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal's aromas."
For my birthday this year I was given the Mexican novel Like Water for Chocolate. It was a present from two good friends of mine, chosen - I think - because it is very food-centric. It recounts the story of Tita, the youngest daughter of the De La Garza family, who has been forbidden to marry because Mexican tradition dictates that the eldest daughter must remain single to look after her mother until she dies. She falls in love with a man called Pedro, who marries her sister Rosaura out of a desire to be near Tita. This doesn't quite go to plan, and - as the blurb of the novel states - "for the next 22 years Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds."
The novel tells the story of Tita and Pedro through the medium of food; each chapter begins with a different recipe, and tales of Tita - who we are told has a "sixth sense" about "everything concerning food" - preparing numerous exotic and seductive dishes are interspersed with the story of her emotional life and her encounters with Pedro. There is a scene where Pedro stumbles upon her grinding toasted chillies, almonds and sesame seeds together on a stone, and is "transfixed by the sight of Tita in that erotic posture". Everything in the novel revolves beautifully around the domestic world of cooking and food preparation, intertwined with passion and romance.
From the way the book is written, you'd never guess that twenty-two years are supposed to pass from beginning to end. It's structured around the months of the year, a chapter for each, but rather than covering a single year we're supposed to assume that the 'March' that follows the 'Feburary' is in fact March several years later. Each month begins with a recipe. January features 'Christmas rolls' (ingredients: a can of sardines, half a chorizo sausage, an onion, oregano, a can of serrano chiles and 10 hard rolls), moving through April (Turkey Mole with Almonds and Sesame Seeds), July (oxtail soup), October (cream fritters: 1 cup heavy cream, 6 eggs, cinnamon and syrup) to December (Chillies in Walnut Sauce).
All the recipes are utterly fascinating, exotic and wonderful; I particularly love the idea of the turkey mole with almonds and sesame seeds. In each chapter the recipe is featured because it bears some relevance to the emotions and situation of Tita at the time, or because the plot demands it. Feburary's 'Chabela Wedding Cake' (granulated sugar, cake flour, 17 eggs and the grated peel of a lime) appears because of the forthcoming wedding of Pedro and Rosaura.
I think maybe I enjoyed this book so much because I can relate to Tita in some ways; I often feel like my emotional life is inextricably bound up in my life with food. I don't mean that if I've had a bad day I'll devour an entire chocolate cake to cheer myself up, or that I comfort eat. More that I tend to remember significant or important episodes in my life via what I had cooked or eaten at the time, or that my cooking nearly always reflects my mood in some way, or that my state of mind is frequently governed by what I've cooked or eaten.
It is a wonderful, beautiful book. It's also rather surreal in places; I hate to use that over-used and rather vague term 'magical realism', but I think that's the best way of defining it. You're reading about something that appears to be a normal, realistic situation and then something utterly bizarre will happen.
The best example of this is in the March chapter, where Tita's sister Gertrudis is affected in a surprising way by the dinner Tita has prepared:
Gertrudis goes to shower, because "her whole body was dripping with sweat. Her sweat was pink, and it smelled like roses, a lovely strong smell." Little does she know that the scent of roses from her body travels all the way to the town, engulfing the solider she had seen the week before.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that I am not the first to try and recreate the splendid 'Quail in rose petal sauce' that is the focus of the March chapter and the cause of such wild, tempestuous carnal urgings. I was honestly convinced I might be, and was so excited about this prospect, but of course there are various recipes from other bloggers out there who have given it a go. My attempts at original creativity are always thwarted by others in the blogosphere.
However, I should probably add a disclaimer before I go any further: I did, by no means, decide to make this dish because I was hoping a rippling, muscular, semi-naked Mexican warrior would gallop down to my house and whisk me off into the sunset on his horse.
No, I...er...actually made it because I thought it sounded tasty. Like you're going to believe me. But honestly, I did.
This is a recipe that has poetry. Pedro brings Tita a bouquet of roses to celebrate her becoming the official cook of the house. Rosaura is not impressed and runs off crying. Tita, overcome with emotion, clasps the roses to her breast "so tightly that when she got to the kitchen, the roses, which had been mostly pink, had turned quite red from the blood that was flowing from Tita's hands and breasts". Not wanting to waste the roses, Tita remembers a recipe she was once taught involving pheasants. She adapts it to use quail, which is all they have on the ranch.
"It truly is a delicious dish", the novel states. "The roses give it an extremely delicate flavour".
Fascinated by the idea of using roses in a sauce of meat, and also by cooking with quail, which I've never tried, I just had to give it a go.
The book gives one of the strangest ingredients lists I have ever seen:
- 12 roses, preferably red
- 12 chestnuts
- 2 teaspoons butter
- 2 teaspoons cornflour
- 2 drops attar of roses
- 2 tablespoons anise
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 cloves garlic
- 6 quail
- 1 pitaya
There are very vague instructions as to how to make the actual dish, from which I was able to improvise a little and come up with my version.
It's actually a simple recipe, even if its ingredients are a tad bizarre. The sauce is made by frying some crushed garlic in a little butter and honey until softened and fragrant. To this is added a puree of cooked chestnuts and 'pitaya', which is more commonly known over here as 'dragon fruit'. I've seen them in supermarkets before and have eaten them occasionally - they have translucent white flesh full of little black seeds, that look rather like raspberry seeds. The taste is slightly sweet but generally a bit bland, which is why I don't really eat them. You also grind together anise and rose petals, and add these to the sauce, along with 'attar of roses' which I assume is rosewater or similar, and cornflour if needed, to thicken.
As I was making this, I looked at my Kenwood and I thought "this is the weirdest combination of things I have ever put in a blender". Roses, chestnuts, dragon fruit. Totally bizarre.
But, can I tell you something? It works.
It's hard to describe the flavour of this sauce. It's rich and earthy from the chestnuts and garlic, but also quite sweet from the honey. There's a nice nutty texture from the seeds of the dragon fruit, which just lends it a slight mild fruitiness. Finally, there's the perfume of roses. I used dried rose petals for this rather than fresh - if you have roses in your garden that you can guarantee haven't been sprayed with anything nasty (hence don't use shop-bought), then go ahead and use fresh petals. Dried petals, though, can be found in Middle Eastern cooking stores and are rather lovely. I felt like I was cooking with confetti or potpourri.
Because rose is a strong flavour and one we don't generally tend to associate with edible things, you don't want to use too much. I added the rose petals bit by bit, tasting as I went. I didn't use any rosewater, as the recipe suggests, but the rose flavour of my finished recipe was very subtle, so by all means add a couple of drops of rosewater if you want it a bit more floral (only a tiny amount, though, as otherwise you'll think you're eating quail baked in soap).
I made a few changes to the book's recipe, adding chicken stock to make a runnier sauce that would soak into the couscous. I also used cornmeal (polenta) to thicken it, rather than cornflour, because it seems right with the Mexican theme. You could use either, depending on how thick you want your sauce. I also thought it needed something to give it a bit of sharpness, as it's quite rich - lemon juice would work perfectly, so I've included it in the recipe. I didn't grind the rose petals with anise in a pestle and mortar, as the book says; rather, I put the rose petals in the blender with the chestnuts and dragon fruit, and I put two whole star anise into the sauce while it was simmering. If you have ground anise, though, either add that directly to the sauce (I'd suggest two teaspoons rather than two tablespoons) or grind with the rose petals, if you like. If you don't have dragon fruit, you could try adding a few raspberries instead, for the texture, or just leave it out. You could try other fruits in its place - peaches might work quite nicely, or pears.
I'd never tried quail before, apart from once at Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant Nopi, where I had it smoked with an utterly incredible fruity sauce that I think had kumquats in. It was divine. I was almost as impressed with it the second time round. These plump little birds (serve 2 per portion) have delicate, tender breast meat and rich, meaty legs that are small and diminutive enough to pick up and gnaw on without looking like a wannabe caveman. They're not hard to get hold of - Waitrose sell them, and any butcher should be able to order them for you. There's something delightful about being served two tiny little quail, perky and burnished like mini roast chickens, all for you.
I served this on a bed of couscous mixed with toasted pistachios, because I had an inkling it would all work very well. I wasn't wrong. The sauce is quite sweet and rich, so really needs that earthiness from the toasted nuts to balance it out. Couscous is a perfect vehicle for the sauce and, although not really Mexican, seems to work with the textures and flavours involved.
This is a delightful dish. The sauce infuses the tender, flavoursome quail meat with its intriguing blend of flavours, and forms a lovely crust on top of the birds. It's addictive in its combination of flavours, a gorgeous blend of chestnuts, sweet honey, fruit and that light floral touch from the roses. The pistachios add the final flourish. This is exactly my kind of food: flavoursome, fruity, earthy, and served with couscous. I loved every minute of devouring it.
Best of all, it's not even very difficult, despite sounding a bit odd.
This would make the perfect romantic meal for Valentines Day or some kind of special occasion, especially given its origins in the book. You could decorate it with real rose petals or roses, if you like. It's romance on a plate; it's exotic, exciting and unusual.
I love the associations this recipe has with the wonderful writing of Like Water for Chocolate; like the book, it is romantic, sensuous and bursting with flavour and excitement.
Quail in rose petal sauce with toasted pistachio couscous (serves 2):
- 4 oven-ready quail
- 12 vacuum-packed cooked chestnuts
- 4 heaped tsp dried rose petals, plus extra to garnish
- 1 dragonfruit, flesh scooped out (omit if you can't find one, or use another fruit as suggested above)
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp honey
- 2 star anise or 2 tsp ground anise
- 250ml chicken stock
- 1-2 drops rosewater (optional)
- 2 tsp cornflour or 1 tbsp cornmeal/polenta
- A good squeeze of lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 150g couscous
- 3 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Put the chestnuts, rose petals and dragonfruit flesh in a blender and blitz to a puree. In a small saucepan, heat the butter and saute the garlic until it is golden and softened. Add the honey. Add the chestnut and rose puree along with the star anise and cook for a couple of minutes. Season well, then add the chicken stock and lemon juice, and simmer for another couple of minutes. Add either the cornmeal or cornflour to thicken the sauce. If using cornmeal, add it directly. If using cornflour, stir it into a little water first to make a paste, then add this. Taste - if you want more rose flavour, add the rosewater. It might need a little more lemon juice or salt to give it a bit of sharpness, as it's a rather sweet sauce.
Place the olive oil in a frying pan and place over a high heat. Brown the quail on the side of one of its legs for a couple of minutes, then flip over, then finally brown the breast side.
Place the quail in a small oven dish so they fit snugly together. Season them well, then pour over the sauce.
Bake in the oven for around 20 minutes until the sauce is rich and bubbly, and the quails are cooked through - test them as you would chicken.
Meanwhile, place the couscous in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover by about 1cm. Cover with a plate and leave to fluff up. While this happens, toast the pistachios in a dry saucepan over a low heat until fragrant. Fluff the couscous with a fork, season, and add the pistachios.
Serve the quails on top of the couscous, with the rose sauce poured over. Garnish with a few dried rose petals.
I didn't think this sounded that odd when I first heard about it, but the general reaction from people I know to the concept of a couscous cake has been to turn their nose up, and look at least sceptical, if not downright disgusted. Upon tasting it they are usually pleasantly surprised, but I can't tell if this is just to keep me happy and unoffended, or because they are genuinely sold on the idea of couscous as a dessert. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by this cake, and was also told by a couscous-hating friend that "it doesn't really taste like couscous", which apparently is a good thing.
Perhaps it isn't odd to me because during my near-constant perusing and acquiring of Middle Eastern and Moroccan cookery books, I have come across sweet couscous before. Gillie Bhasan's Moroccan cookbook features it, served with nuts, dried fruit, orange flower water and plenty of sugary butter to stop it drying out. I've never tried it, but it's always sounded delicious. Couscous is basically little balls of dough, and you often find sweet doughs, so why shouldn't it work?
Also, I suppose, my favourite way to serve couscous is studded with jewelled dried apricots, sultanas, and sometimes figs or prunes, flecked with pistachios or toasted almonds, and used either to stuff a roast chicken or as a pillow for the delicious juices of a slow-cooked lamb shoulder or fragrant lamb tagine. The sweetness of the grains are a perfect foil for the tender, rich meat, the dried fruit and nuts giving a great contrast in texture. It's only one small step to start serving that couscous without the meat, as a sweet rather than savoury treat.
It also makes sense if you think about polenta cakes, which are all the rage at the moment, I think because they offer the pretence of a healthy dessert, polenta being one of those grain/pulse (I've never known which it is) things that are so lauded for their health benefits. I was having this conversation the other day with someone; one of my pet hates in the world of gastronomy (and believe me, there are many) relates to cakes that purport to be healthy simply because they contain vegetables. Beetroot and chocolate cake, courgette and chocolate cake, even a butternut squash cake I once came across, often appear in cookbooks with a little intro remarking upon their health benefits. Until you look at the ingredients list, and find that the cake still contains exactly the same amount of butter as a normal cake. In fact, these vegetables usually only replace the flour and a bit of the sugar in the cake mixture. A little healthier, yes, as vegetables always will be over flour, but it is misleading to market these cakes as healthy when they still contain oodles of butter - or, in the case of the beloved, nutritious-sounding yet magnificently un healthy carrot cake, vegetable oil.
The same is sort of true for this couscous cake. I came across it in delicious magazine, and the recipe writer had suggested it to be an 'everyday' cake (as opposed to a 'treat' cake) because it contains no refined sugar or fat. Great, I thought. I scanned the ingredients list - dried fruit, couscous, cinnamon, citrus juices - so far so good...and, oh yes, an entire jar of honey.
Now, I accept that honey is marginally better for you than sugar. It's natural. It comes from lovely happy honeybees roaming the country, pollinating as they go, and conjures up idyllic pastoral scenes and also - for me, though I'm not sure why - a sense of nostalgia. It doesn't have the same evil health connotations as the white, granulated stuff that so many nutritionists would have us believe is basically powdered devil horn. I admit, I sometimes find myself feeling a pang of guilt as I weigh out huge mounds of sugar for a dessert or cake; the stuff is just empty calories and does nobody any good. I try to avoid sugar when it's not necessary, only using it in desserts if I have to, and hardly ever using it to sweeten things like fruit compotes or fruit-based desserts, because I like the tartness.
All that said, I did not feel particularly great about pouring an entire jar of honey onto a mound of couscous. In fact, it wasn't a jar, because I halved the recipe to make less cake, but had I made the entire quantity that is what I would have had to do. An entire jar - all 450 grams of it. That's nearly half a kilo of honey. Practically Winnie the Pooh quantities. I appreciate the writer's claim to health benefits because of the lack of refined sugar and any fat (the cake is simply held together by the sweet stuff, no butter or oil required) - yes, it's better for you than a slice of buttercreamy Victoria sponge, but I don't think I'd advocate eating this every day. Unless you have a bad cake habit and are trying to lose weight, in which case swapping your chocolate fudge slice for a bit of this may well be the key.
Well, dubious health credentials aside, this cake is very good. It's also probably the laziest cake I have ever made. Chopped fruit (apricots, sultanas and figs) go into a pan with the honey, some cinnamon, and a little orange and lime juice. I also added some orange flower water for that Moroccan fragrance. Once it is all warm and runny, you stir the mixture into some cooked couscous. It makes a wonderfully satisfying sticky, squelchy noise as you stir it around and mix it in. Then you pour it into a greased and lined baking tray, drizzle over a little more honey and some toasted flaked almonds, and leave it to set. As simple as that. It sets fairly solid so can be cut into squares and turned out like brownies.
I wasn't really sure how to serve this. I served it as a dessert twice, accompanied by some sliced oranges drizzled with orange flower water. The sharp fruit is very good against the sweet, sticky couscous - it's such a sweet, rich cake that you need that tartness. Honey somehow makes things more sickly-tasting than just plain sugar, probably because of its caramelly, butterscotch notes. For that reason I'd suggest serving with oranges, or maybe even orange ice cream or lemon sorbet - something tart and fruity. Greek yoghurt was suggested by the recipe, but the thought of yoghurt sets off my gag reflex so naturally I refrained.
I think the best way to serve this cake, though, is as an alternative to a muesli or cereal bar, or a flapjack. It has a nice chewy texture reminiscent of a health bar, but is much tastier. It would be perfect with a cup of tea or coffee (particularly a strong espresso, because the bitterness would counteract the sweetness nicely) to ward off those mid-afternoon energy slumps. Especially because honey - I think - is better for fluctuating blood sugar levels than plain sugar, which is likely to send you into a stupor within about half an hour. The texture of the couscous and fruit also has a satisfyingly filling quality that I don't think you get from cereal bars.
An interesting recipe with lots of potential, I think. Next time I want to try mixing fresh orange juice with sugar to form a syrup and drizzling it over the cake, for the kind of stickiness you get from baklava. I also fancy putting cardamom in it as well as cinnamon, and maybe orange zest to cut through the sweetness. I just love the flavours of Morocco throughout the couscous, particularly the tart dried apricots and the nutty figs. But I'm still not convinced that it can be branded 'healthy'; rather, it should be described as 'a healthier alternative to your usual afternoon piece of sponge cake/chocolate biscuit/muffin'. Also, who cares really about the health benefits - it's tasty.
Sticky couscous cake (makes 15 pieces):
(Adapted from delicious magazine, June 2011 issue).
- 250g couscous
- 100g chopped dried apricots
- 100g sultanas
- 50g dried figs, chopped
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp orange flower water (optional)
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- Juice of half an orange
- 225g honey, plus a little extra for drizzling
- 2 tbsp toasted flaked almonds
Pour 375ml boiling water over the couscous in a large bowl, cover with a plate, and leave to soak for 10 minutes. Line a shallow baking tray with baking parchment (mine was 28x18cm).
Meanwhile, put the fruit, cinnamon, lime and orange juice, flower water and honey in a pan and heat gently until runny and the fruit has softened a little. Pour over the couscous, stir thoroughly to mix, then pour into the lined tray. Flatten with a spoon.
Drizzle over a little more honey, sprinkle over the almonds, then leave to set. Serve with an orange salad, Greek yoghurt, or ice cream...or as a snack.