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
The list of ‘annoying things I have read recently on obsessive clean-eating blogs’ is a long one, but hovering somewhere near the top is the suggestion that you should keep loads of cooked quinoa in your fridge, ready to whip up into a healthy salad or a ‘snack’ at a moment’s notice. There are two things wrong with this recommendation. Firstly, quinoa is not a ‘snack’. Snacks are portable and easily nibbleable commodities, like apples, granola bars and – if you must – almonds. They are usually sugary and designed as treats between meals. Much as I love quinoa, I would not consider munching on its dry, nubbly grains much of a treat if I were in the middle of a catastrophic blood sugar slump between lunch and dinner, with only the prospect of cake standing between me and an otherwise inevitable desk nap. Nor would I carry it around in my handbag. But the main gripe I have with what I shall henceforth term ‘The Cooked Quinoa Fallacy’ is, simply, who on earth can afford to cook quinoa in large batches just so it can hang around in the fridge on the off-chance you might use it in the next few days?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
I have a difficult relationship with yoghurt. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been unable to stand the stuff. I think I ate it as a child, but at some point something clicked in the back of my brain somewhere and I became deeply averse to the substance, to the point where watching a woman tucking into a big pot with a spoon early one morning at a bus stop in Oxford made me feel physically sick and sidle in precaution over to the nearest bin. I’ve tried to conquer my aversion, finding it irritating that there is a foodstuff out there that I don’t like, generally priding myself on my diverse omnivorousness – I used to hate melon, but a fairly un-rigorous process involving making myself eat more melon soon conquered that minor affliction – but I simply cannot get over it.Read More
I've recently discovered farro, a wonderful little ancient grain that apparently once sustained hordes of Roman legions and which is now a cause of some confusion. Believed to be Italian in origin, it's sometimes mistakenly translated or described as barley, spelt or wheat berries, when it fact it is not quite any of those. However, I don't think such definitions really matter, because what is important is the sheer deliciousness of these little nuggets of wheat, which are versatile and lend themselves to all sorts of culinary uses. They've become a new favourite in my kitchen, eclipsing hot rivals such as buckwheat, quinoa and couscous - at the moment I can't get enough of their delicious texture and subtle nutty flavour.
Unfortunately, farro is not easy to come by in this country. I've never actually seen it for sale, and I frequent all sorts of weird and wonderful little delis and health food shops. I managed to come across my stash in Italy last year, where I picked up a couple of bags in a small city supermarket for about a euro each, in the same way you might find pearl barley in most of our supermarkets. I was unfeasibly excited by the fact that I had finally found this elusive grain, a cause of some curiosity as I've read about it in a few recipe books. My boyfriend looked at the nondescript bags of brown blobs that I was brandishing feverishly, and appeared more than a little bemused.
Farro looks very similar to pearl barley, and is pretty much interchangeable in recipes. Both grains absorb large amounts of water when cooked to turn into fluffy yet nutty little pearls of chewiness, deliciously textured and the perfect plain vehicle for salad ingredients or a great bolsterer of hearty soups. You can also use them as you would risotto rice, for a less starchy and creamy but equally delicious risotto.
This, my final recipe for Thomson Al Fresco, is a suggestion for a delicious self-catering recipe based on Italian ingredients that you'd be likely to find in local markets and delis. It's quick to make, very simple, only uses one pan and is flavoursome and healthy too, plus possibly the most colourful salad you'll ever throw together. It's a blueprint for all the tasty things you may find around you, were you lucky enough to be on a camping holiday in Italy - salami, ripe tomatoes, fresh herbs, beautiful cheeses and balsamic vinegar. And, of course, that sustainer of Roman martial prowess: farro.
First, a blank canvas of chewy, nutty farro grains, simmered until just tender in stock. These are mixed with wilted spinach, roasted red peppers from a jar (so much easier than trying to do it yourself, plus they have a delicious depth of flavour you just can't get from making your own), chopped cherry tomatoes, slices of salami (take advantage of whatever delicious specialities you have in your region), torn mozzarella (again, you can adapt this to make use of whatever cheeses are good nearby) and fresh basil leaves (or you could use fresh oregano or thyme). A splash of balsamic vinegar to dress, a smidge of salt and pepper, and you have dinner or lunch right there.
I was expecting this to be tasty, but I wasn't prepared for quite how tasty. The key is the red peppers, which lend some of their delicious smoky oil to the mix and turn everything sweet, juicy and wonderful. The mozzarella adds a delicious buttery note, while the salami contributes piquancy and a rich smoky meaty flavour. There are tomatoes and basil for freshness, and that splash of balsamic to enrich the whole thing. While consigned to a supporting role, the farro definitely stands out, with its delicious firm texture and nutty flavour, contrasting very well to the other rich ingredients. Don't be put off by the sheer amount of vegetables in this - it's incredibly tasty, with nothing about it that would suggest 'health food' except the colours.
Farro salad with roasted peppers, tomatoes, mozzarella and basil:
This recipe is more of a guideline than anything else. For each person, use approximately 100g (or half a cup) farro (or pearl barley if you can't find it). Cook this in boiling water (or stock if you have some) for about 20-30 minutes, until tender but still with some bite to it. Drain and return to the pan.
To the hot farro, add some baby spinach (a large handful per person), which will wilt as you stir it around the pan. Add some roasted peppers from a jar - you can drain these on kitchen paper or take them out of the jar using a fork if you don't want too much oil in your salad - around 3 tbsp per person. Add some quartered or halved cherry tomatoes, around 7-8 per person. Add 8 or so slices of salami per person. Season well with salt and pepper, and add a splash of balsamic vinegar. Mix well, then distribute onto plates before topping with torn mozzarella (or whatever cheeses you have to hand - goat's cheese or feta would also work well) and fresh basil leaves.
One of the downsides of working so close to a rather foodie area of town (well, for Cambridge, that is - so basically anywhere that doesn't have a Pizza Express, Nandos and Starbucks right next to each other) is that I inevitably end up drawn there in my lunch break. I have to get out at lunchtime, get some fresh air, walk and clear my head. These things are necessary. What is perhaps not quite so necessary is going to the butchers and the oriental grocers every time.
I can't help it. I hate walking without a purpose; even if my end goal is just to peruse aisles of weird and wonderful produce in jars, I need something to spur me on. Plus there is always something new and fascinating at the end of the tunnel: huge bunches of weird and wonderful Chinese greenery that I've never seen before; tofu in every conceivable shape, size and texture; giant bottles of soy sauce and other condiments; huge bags of rice, noodles and pulses. There's also stuff that's just downright weird, such as various undesirable bits of seafood or animal in big, bloodied bags in the freezer section. Still, I consider this my culinary education and I'd hate to miss out on it.
I'm usually drawn to the butcher on the corner as well, sucked in by signs boasting about salt marsh lamb, or something that, out of the corner of my eye, looks suspiciously like a row of neat, plucked, oven-ready pheasant on the front of the counter. I don't actually cook that much meat, especially not red meat, but I'm fascinated by all the different cuts and animals you can get from a good butcher, and I'm always looking to try something new. A couple of weeks ago it was oxtail. More recently, it was wild rabbit.
I was pretty pleased when I caught sight of the wild rabbit on the butcher counter. Admittedly not pleased because of any aesthetic reason; skinned, jointed rabbit aren't particularly nice to look at, rather resembling something that has been prematurely plucked from the womb. However, they promised all sorts of tasty delights. I've read a lot about the virtues of wild rabbit: free range, obviously, and you're also doing farmers a favour by eating a pest; more importantly, it's meant to be a lot more flavoursome than farmed rabbit. Having only eaten the farmed stuff before, I couldn't wait to try the wild version for comparison.
I cooked my rabbit fairly simply, so as not to mask its flavour. I braised it in cider with some bacon, carrots, celery, onion, rosemary and juniper. At the end I added mustard, creme fraiche and parsley. We ate it with soft polenta, and while it was delicious, I have to say it was actually rather too rich for me. Wild rabbit really does have quite an intense flavour. The texture is reminiscent of chicken thighs and is lovely, while the taste has that rich earthiness you associate with stronger game like pigeon and hare. I really enjoyed the first few mouthfuls, but after that I was defeated by the richness of the dish. And that hardly ever happens.
As a result, there was rabbit meat left over. I decided to use it in a salad, featuring something a bit sharper, sweeter and more astringent to cut through that intensely rich flavour. This barley salad with caramelised apples was the result.
I absolutely adore pearl barley. I can't get enough of its crunchy yet tender texture and its nutty flavour. It works so well in winter salads - one of my favourites features roast squash, feta or goats cheese, chestnuts, bacon and sage. I often cook a huge vat of it and use it for various salads throughout the week, throwing in whatever is in the fridge. It's filling and hearty and can stand up to strong flavours, contributing an irresistible crunch of its own. I figured it'd be the perfect base for my rabbit salad, for all these reasons.
The apples were a bit of a whim. I had some russet apples turning soft in the fruit bowl, and there's nothing I hate more than a soft apple. Then I realised that they could actually work beautifully with the rabbit; cooking rabbit in cider with apples is fairly common, especially in France, so there was no reason why they shouldn't work sliced, cooked and stirred into my salad. I caramelised them in some butter and brown sugar first, to bring out their flavour so they'd stand up to the rabbit. Russet apples are beautiful things; I love their burnished, matt skins and their mellow, intriguing flavour. They are, I can confirm, even tastier when coated in butter and brown sugar. Then again, what isn't?
This salad was the simplest thing ever to assemble: cooked pearl barley, shredded rabbit meat, caramelised apple slices, some fresh thyme and parsley, and a little of the rabbit cooking sauce from earlier in the week. A good grinding of black pepper to lift the richness, and I had lunch.
A delicious, filling, comforting lunch, full of intriguing flavours. The apples worked really well alongside the rabbit, better than I could have expected. They provided a beautiful sweet tartness against the soft, rich meat and the crunchy, nutty barley.
I don't really need to give you a recipe for this, but here's the general idea. Adapt to suit you - use chicken instead of rabbit, if bunny boiling scares you; add extra veg if you like (spinach and green beans would be good); use wild rice or brown rice instead of barley. You'll end up with something delicious, unusual, and rather pretty.
Wild rabbit and barley salad with caramelised russet apples (serves 1):
- Leftovers from a cooked wild rabbit (probably 1 leg or the loin), plus a little sauce*
- 50g pearl barley, boiled until tender but still slightly al dente
- 1 russet apple, cored and cut into thin slices
- 15g butter
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- A scattering of fresh thyme and finely chopped parsley
- Black pepper
Shred the rabbit meat from the bones. Be really careful to get rid of all the bones - some are tiny and may go undetected, until you bite into one resulting in a deeply unpleasant sensation. Mix the meat and sauce with the pearl barley, then toss with the thyme, parsley and a good grinding of black pepper.
Heat the butter and sugar in a small non-stick pan over a medium-high heat and add the apples. Cook until golden brown and caramelised, turning occasionally. Toss this with the barley salad. Sprinkle with a little more thyme and serve.
*(the recipe I used to cook my rabbit was basically this one from James Ramsden, but I added carrots, rosemary and juniper, and substituted creme fraiche for the double cream)
I've had no magical gastronomic revelations since then, no cookery classes or soufflé-making epiphanies. There is no secret to the fact that I can invent things from scratch; it's simply the result of a lot of hours in the kitchen and possibly even more hours watching food television, reading food books and magazines, and eating in restaurants. On top of that is the importance of confidence; once you've invented something and gained a positive reaction, you have more faith in your own ability and more drive to continue. I think one of the first recipes I ever invented was a Moroccan-style pheasant cooked with quince, pine nuts and spices. Delighted by the fact that it wasn't horrible, I persevered. The recipe wasn't ground-breaking, but simply a result of my extensive cooking from Middle Eastern cookbooks; I knew that quince would go well with gamey meat, and that cinnamon, turmeric and ginger make an excellent spice mix for a tagine. I now experiment with pretty much anything; if I read a recipe I like, I'll still usually alter or add at least one ingredient to give it my own personal touch. Desserts are my favourite to invent, often because I like to try out interesting combinations of fruit and spice. I can even bake cakes without a recipe now, which is widely regarded as the ultimate challenge. Again, it's no real expertise on my part, just the consequence of enough time baking cakes to know how a batter should look and feel before it goes into the tin.
I realised quite how far I'd journeyed from a recipe-constrained mentality yesterday when shopping in the market. I had a definite plan for dinner: I was going to make a risotto using some beautiful red rice I bought in Vercelli in April, pairing it with roasted peppers and cherry tomatoes, then a liberal sprinkling of fresh basil and homemade ricotta. I went to buy tomatoes. My favourite stall had sold out of the lovely little baby plum tomatoes I'm so fond of, and all the other stalls were charging extortionate prices for vine-ripened cherry specimens. Rather than dissolve into a panic, I had a further look around. There were some lovely yellow courgettes, so I got a couple of those to replace the tomatoes and add some colour to the whole affair. About to wander home, my eye suddenly landed on a huge bunch of rainbow chard. I have only seen it once before at the market; the last time I bought some to try out in a French dessert, tourte de blette. Whilst I'm eager to try that one again, I started thinking about the savoury possibilities of chard. Still in the risotto mindset, it struck me that a pile of creamy rice would be the perfect blank canvas for an outrageous splattering of coloured chard stalks. I bought the entire bunch.
How beautiful is this vegetable? I'm often inspired to wax lyrical about the beauty of my ingredients: the orange blush of an apricot, the glossy red flesh of a pepper; the nubbly rose-coloured skin of a lychee all send me into raptures of kitchen delight. This chard was no exception. It was so outrageously bright, almost neon in its pink, yellow and green hues. No wonder it caught my eye in the market. You rarely find so many gorgeous colours in one vegetable. The bright pink stems reminded me of early season rhubarb, but then there were the sweetcorn-yellow ones and the lime-green ones, all tapering into delightful bushy, cabbage-like leaves. I couldn't wait to see how these amazing colours looked on top of a risotto.
Even if you don't think you can invent recipes, risotto is usually an exception. Once you've figured out the basics (sweat onion and garlic, add rice, coat in butter, add splash of wine, bubble until absorbed, add ladle by ladle of hot stock until each is absorbed, stirring all the time), you can flavour a risotto with almost anything (I saw a recipe for a strawberry and radicchio one the other day - which sounds utterly horrible, yet I'm quite intrigued by it). Meat, cheese, fish, shellfish, vegetables - just as most things taste good covered in batter and deep-fried, most things taste good folded into the savoury, rich creaminess of a starchy risotto. I decided to make risotto largely because I had a big ice-cream tub full of homemade chicken stock in my fridge which needed using. I really would recommend making your own stock next time you have a roast chicken - all you do is chuck the bones into a big pan of water, add some chopped veg (carrots, onions, leeks and celery are all good), a couple of bay leaves, any herbs you have lying around, some peppercorns and some salt, and let it boil very gently, covered, for an hour or two. Although risotto is still great made with stock cubes, there's something rather satisfying about using your own stock, and the flavour is undoubtedly better.
For this recipe I used pearl barley, because I like its nutty crunchiness and warm beige colouring. The downside is it takes about an hour to cook, but you can just leave it to get on and stir it every few minutes. The individual grains retain their shape and bite, giving a much more interesting risotto than your usual white rice. It's also a bit healthier. For the base of the risotto I just used onion and garlic, stirring in my homemade stock, and then finishing with lemon juice and a good grating of nutmeg. I folded the leaves of the chard into the barley as it finished cooking, so they could soften and tangle themselves around the grains. The stalks I boiled in the hot chicken stock to add extra flavour before it went in the risotto. They were scattered over the barley at the end. I was pleased that they retained most of their colour; they weren't quite as outrageously neon by the time I'd boiled them, but still one of the more startling additions to a risotto I've ever seen.
Finally, a good sprinkling of lemon thyme, a grating of parmesan, and some cloud-like spoonfuls of homemade ricotta. I was genuinely surprised at how utterly delicious this tasted. I think it was all down to my homemade stock, which had an amazing depth of salty, savoury flavour. The nutmeg gave the barley a lovely warm note, and the lemon juice and lemon thyme a fresh zestiness. All this deep flavour worked extremely well with the tender chard stalks, which have a very slight bitterness about them, like spinach. The contrast between the hot, salty, flavoursome barley grains and the cool, mellow tang of the fresh ricotta was incredible. I'm not sure how it would work with vegetable stock, but I'm sure it would still be excellent, in which case this would be a very very good vegetarian main course - it's far more delicious than most meat-based dishes I've eaten recently. I have a feeling I'm going to make this again and again, especially because I still have half the chard left in my fridge (along with those yellow courgettes, which were sadly relegated once I acquired my more aesthetically pleasing option).
Does the idea of creating recipes make you break out in a cold sweat? Or do you agree that it's just the culmination of a lot of practice?
Pearl barley, rainbow chard and ricotta risotto (serves 2 generously):
160g pearl barley
1 onion, very finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
About 1-1.5 litre chicken stock (if you run out before the barley is cooked just use boiling water)
A bunch of rainbow chard (about 8 stalks and leaves)
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Juice of half a lemon
A few sprigs lemon thyme
Salt and pepper
Parmesan, to serve
About 150g ricotta (homemade is obviously best!)
First, put the stock in a lidded saucepan and bring to a simmer. Keep hot on a low heat. Slice the chard stalks into 1-inch lengths and place in the hot stock. Simmer until the stalks are tender to the point of a knife, then set aside and keep warm.
Heat a little olive oil in a heavy-based non-stick pan and fry the onions and garlic until soft and translucent. Add a knob of butter and leave it to melt, then add the barley. Stir it around to coat it in the butter for a couple of minutes.
Add a few ladlefuls of stock - it should hiss and bubble when it hits the pan. Put the pan on a medium heat and stir the barley, waiting until it has absorbed all the stock before adding another ladleful. Repeat this process for about 40-60 minutes until the barley is mostly tender but still has a little bite.
Just before the barley is ready, when there's still some liquid in the pan, roughly shred the chard leaves and stir them into the barley to soften and wilt in the heat. Grate in the nutmeg, juice in the lemon and strip the leaves from the thyme and add them too. Season to taste.
Pour the barley into serving bowls and top with the cooked chard stalks. Grate over a little parmesan, and crumble over the ricotta.