I often find myself wishing that restaurants would offer a bowl of lime wedges alongside the ubiquitous salt and pepper shakers (or, as is increasingly the case in trendy establishments, a little bowl of salt flakes that you can pick at, unhygienically, wondering how many other people have contributed their under-nail dirt to the pile). I'm obsessed with sour things, whether it be a spritz of citrus to finish a dish, the vinegar that clings to pickled vegetables or a bowl of rhubarb compote that has seen only a pinch of sugar. It’s perhaps one of the reasons I love east Asian food so much, as these cuisines are all about balancing the different taste sensations and ensure a good hit of sourness alongside the sweet, salty and hot. My cooking is increasingly concerned with including that all-important sour element: a scattering of redcurrants over a smoky aubergine salad to accompany a recent barbecue; a bowl of quick-pickled cucumber and radish to cut through the richness of a teriyaki salmon fillet; a lemony tabbouleh to take the edge off a plate of sea bass smothered in tahini sauce.Read More
Help! There's a giant triffid in my garden! It has monstrous pink tentacles that fumble wildly from the earth, stretching towards the skies, and huge, grasping, green hands the size of dustbin lids, threatening to engulf and consume everything they touch. Every time I look it has grown, violently thrusting more of those rigid spears from the ground, one step closer on its mission to take over the world. Its proliferating legs creak stiffly in the breeze, like those of a spider with rigor mortis, threatening destruction. Its leafy clutches will soon start to block out the sun, throwing the planet into a state of black oblivion. We are doomed.Read More
If it wasn’t the kilo of Parmesan cheese, it was probably the plastic bag full of dates, welded into a rugged block with crystalline syrup, from a market in Aleppo. Or perhaps it was the log of palm sugar wrapped in dried banana leaves, which I’d cradled while still warm after watching it made before my eyes in a Javanese village. Maybe the Balinese coconut syrup, darker than maple, its bottle festooned with palm trees and bearing a curious resemblance to tanning oil. If not that, it was surely the bundle of white asparagus, albino stalks tied together like a quiver of arrows, brought home from a market in the tiny town of Chablis.Read More
1. Central American food.
I spent a couple of weeks in Costa Rica and Nicaragua this April, and although the prospect of rice and beans for every meal did start to get a little tedious (never before have I found myself going out for a pizza while abroad somewhere that isn't Italy...oh the shame), I am a fan of this simple yet hearty, wholesome, bolstering combination of ingredients. Rice and beans (all the better if fried with a little spice), fried plantain (sweeter and more caramelised in Costa Rica, like bananas, while crispier and more starchy in Nicaragua, like potato cakes), tortillas (soft and nutty, unlike the pallid flavourless things we buy in packets over here), and some form of protein: eggs for breakfast; fish, steak or chicken for lunch. You might also get some fresh cheese and/or avocado if you're lucky, and pico de gallo: a tangy relish of ripe tomatoes, onions and coriander. Perfect for breakfast and lunch, though I did crave a bit more variety for dinner. Luckily, there was ceviche to satisfy that requirement.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.
In an exciting new development in my food writing career, I am now a regular contributor to the beautiful and ogle-worthy Appliances Online lifestyle blog, which features everything from recipes to crafts to ridiculously stylish home design ideas. I'll be contributing recipes twice a month and already have some pretty exciting and delicious things lined up, so watch this space. My first recipe originated from Easter leftovers, but it was so good I had to make it again as a dish in its own right. The result is a gorgeous salad of creamy white beans, charred courgettes, caramelised fennel and green beans, spiked with a feisty dressing of garlic, anchovy and lemon juice. Atop sits a beautiful pink, rare lamb chop. For the recipe and to read more, head over to my post on the blog here. Enjoy!
This was almost a culinary disaster.
Well, as close to a culinary disaster as I ever really get. I've never dropped anything on the floor rendering it totally ruined. I've never burnt anything. I've never accidentally smashed glass into a dessert (though my mother has). I've never curdled mayonnaise (largely because I've never tried to make it, but still), collapsed a souffle, made something involving gelatin that has failed to set or accidentally used salt instead of sugar.
I have, however: sliced off part of my finger on a mandolin; spent the night weeping in agony over chilli burns; hideously overcooked a beautiful joint of beef that I was planning to serve medium rare; attempted to make gnocchi and ended up with a sieve full of watery mashed potato; put contact lenses in too soon after handling chilli; added water to melted chocolate resulting in a grainy mess...
...and nearly made this stew into something totally, mouth-puckeringly inedible.
The recipe was one with unknown provenance: it was hastily jotted down from a magazine article during a waitressing shift about five years ago. The identity of the magazine in question has long escaped me, but I must have liked the sound of this recipe because I'd taken the time to stop serving customers their morning coffee and furtively dart down behind the counter to pilfer the recipe contents of the weekend supplements. This was when I was just starting to get into food, when I'd finally worked my way out of the 'only-eating-cottage-cheese-sandwiches-and-fish-fingers' phase and consequently was obsessed with trying out new flavour combinations.
This passion has stuck, and the idea of combining lamb and rhubarb still seems as wonderful to me now as it did back then.
How is this not a more common pairing? For something so ubiquitous at this time of year, rhubarb is sorely underused in most British kitchens. It's common in crumbles and prevalent in pies, but its savoury applications are somewhat ignored. Serving it with mackerel has become more of a normal idea, but is still one that might strike some people as a bit wacky. Serving it with fatty cuts of meat like pork belly seems to be a relatively new concept, yet it is one that works so well. If you think about it, it makes just as much sense as pork and apple sauce: using that astringent fruity foil to cut through the richness of the meat. Apples, rhubarb - both interchangeable in their ability to be sharp, colourful and intensely British.
Rather like myself, I like to think.
Anyway, apparently the notion of a lamb and rhubarb stew is of Persian origin, where they use rhubarb like a vegetable in savoury cooking. Hence the word 'khoresh', which is a Persian stew often flavoured liberally with saffron and using various meats and vegetables.
Don't get me started on how much sexier the word 'Persian' is than 'Iranian'.
So, I finally decided to have a go at the lamb and rhubarb khoresh recipe jotted down on a scrap of paper in my recipe journal, seeing as rhubarb is everywhere at the moment and there's a limit to how many crumbles I can eat without expanding wildly. My recipe was a bit vague in places - perhaps a customer had come along during those moments demanding my barista services - but I changed a few things anyway, seeing as I have a total inability to directly follow a recipe these days.
The near-disaster occurred as a result of such a humble little thing: a lemon. My recipe clearly stated to add the juice of a lemon. Sceptical about this, I added the juice of half before putting the lamb on to braise for a couple of hours. Upon tasting it, it was rather too rich and fatty for my liking, so I added the juice of the other half, then the rhubarb. Big mistake.
I don't know if it was because my lemon was on the large side, or because rhubarb is obviously quite sour anyway and I hadn't factored that in, but on my next taste the khoresh was unpleasantly sour. I was prepared to overlook it, as I quite like tangy flavours, but the look on my mum's face as she tested it made it clear that immediate action would have to be taken. She looked like I'd just made her eat a lemon. Pure and unadulterated. A lamby lemon.
Salt, pepper, brown sugar and honey all worked to no avail. It still tasted...of lemon juice. Not of lamb. Or of rhubarb. Or of onions, stock or saffron. Just of lemon juice. Far too sharp and too sour.
What on earth to do? Adding other ingredients hadn't worked. I know what to do if a dish is too salty - you add lemon juice (!) or a raw potato to soak up the salt. I know what to do if it's too sweet - add salt or citrus. But if it's too sour? I had no idea, convinced sugar would work but sorely disappointed and still being grimaced at by a mother with a face like one of the Nazgul from Lord of the Rings. (Because of the sourness, I mean, not because that's what my mum looks like normally).
But you know what I did, like an utter genius? I went on the internet. I found out that you should add bicarbonate of soda to dishes that are too acidic.
Suddenly, GCSE Chemistry came flooding back. Of course, acid plus alkali equals a neutralisation reaction.
And also a bloody exciting mini volcano.
My stew erupted as I stirred in a bit of bicarb, frothing madly and developing a curious fishy smell that had me terrified for a second but quickly disappeared. Once it had subsided, I discovered to my delight and amazement that the sourness was gone. In its place was a pleasant deep, lamby flavour with a slight fruity tang from lemon and rhubarb.
I added fresh mint to lift the dish and give it a lovely vibrant edge. I scattered over toasted flaked almonds to give an earthy note that would counteract the still-rather-tangy sauce. I served it on a bed of rice which I'd boiled with a few crushed cardamom pods. The sauce was flavoured with saffron, ground coriander and more cardamom (my own idea, because it goes so well with rhubarb), with simple sliced caramelised onions to give it depth.
After its lucky rescue, this turned out beautifully. It's a bit like a classic Moroccan lamb tagine, but the use of rhubarb makes it really unusual. It lends a welcome bite to the otherwise very rich sauce, and is the perfect sharp foil for the earthy lamb chunks, which just fall apart under your fork due to the slow cooking. The subtle use of spice, especially the cardamom, give the sauce an intriguing flavour, and the garnish of fresh mint and almonds is the perfect complement to the whole thing.
Don't be sceptical - it really works, and provided you don't overdo the lemon (I've only suggested half in the recipe below, and if you go for it too much you can always rely on the trusty bicarb), it will be a triumph of exotic and unusual flavours.
Lamb, rhubarb and cardamom khoresh (serves 4-5):
- 1kg diced lamb (neck or shoulder is best)
- Olive or rapeseed oil
- 3 onions, sliced
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- Salt and pepper
- 600ml lamb or chicken stock
- A large bunch of fresh mint, shredded
- A generous pinch of saffron
- 3 cardamom pods, crushed
- Juice of half a lemon
- 400g rhubarb, cut into 1-inch lengths
- Toasted flaked almonds, to serve
- Rice, to serve
Heat a little oil in a heavy-based casserole with a lid. Brown the lamb in batches over a high heat, then remove and turn the heat down a little. Fry the onions in the lamb fat until softened and golden. Add the coriander and a little seasoning. Return the lamb to the pan and add the stock, half the mint, the saffron, cardamom and lemon juice. Cover and cook on a very low heat for 2 hours.
After 2 hours, remove the lid and simmer for 20-30 minutes to reduce the sauce (you could use cornflour or arrowroot to thicken if you like a thicker sauce). After this time, add the rhubarb and cook for 10 minutes or so until it softens (if you like, add some right at the last minute so it keeps its shape - for presentation purposes only, it makes no difference to the flavour) Check the seasoning - it might need more salt or pepper.
Serve the khoresh over plain or cardamom-infused white rice, with the remaining mint sprinkled over the top along with the toasted almonds.
The first time I ate köfte was in Istanbul. I'd tracked down, using the magical wisdom of Lonely Planet, a restaurant that was meant to serve the best in town. I dragged my travelling companions through the sweltering city, to find a gaggle of locals swarming around the door. We joined the disorderly queue, but for some reason, minutes later, were pulled to the front and shown to a table in the restaurant, despite there still being many unseated Turks left outside the door. We were then slightly puzzled to see that the restaurant was almost full of people, all sitting at their tables surveying the food that had already been served. There was salad, plates of peppers, a big basket of bread, and bowls awaiting soup. None of it had been touched, by anyone. It was then that we remembered it was the start of Ramadan, and that we were witnessing the last few minutes of the locals' fasting. The tension, hunger and relief in the air were almost palpable as everyone waited silently, eyeing the morsels of bread and inhaling the tempting barbecue aromas emanating from the kitchen.
We were finally given the signal to tuck in. We had been told by the staff that we didn't have to wait like the locals, if we were hungry, but it seemed incredibly bad manners to start wolfing down food when they only had a few more minutes to wait. I thought I was ravenous, but then remembered that I hadn't starved myself since dawn, and suddenly my 'hunger' seemed rather shameful. Bowls of steaming soup emerged from the kitchen, closely followed by lamb köfte. The origin of the word köfte is from the Persian kufteh, meaning 'mashed' - it usually applies to a mixture of minced meat (though you can get vegetarian versions), pounded into a fine paste with spices, herbs and seasoning, before being either shaped into small balls or on a skewer like a kebab. Ours in Istanbul were the latter variety, and they certainly lived up to expectations, delivering a beautifully rich, smoky, meaty flavour with a hint of spice. It's hard to describe that incredible flavour of lamb kebabs, sweet and juicy on the middle but burnished and rich on the outside; these were like those generic lamb and mint versions you can buy in supermarkets for the barbecue, only infinitely better.
I've been meaning to try out Diana Henry's lamb and cherry köfte for ages, as I cannot resist the pairing of fruit with meat, and also because it reminds me of a dish ubiquitous on menus after we left Istanbul for Syria: 'Aleppo cherry kebab'. This apparently has a very brief season in Syria, when cherries are around, and features lamb meatballs in a rich, sweet sauce of cherries and pomegranate molasses. For some reason I never tried it (I think I was more obsessed with consuming every aubergine-related dish on the menus), but I figured Diana's version would be better than nothing, and it seemed sensible to make it during English cherry season. I've cooked lamb with quite a few fruits before (quinces and apricots being the best), but never cherries. If you can't get cherries for this recipe, Diana suggests using a mixture of dried and fresh apricots instead.
It's a pretty easy recipe - the only hard work involved is pounding the lamb mince with all the spices to incorporate them evenly and to mix it into a fine paste, but I found this rather satisfying. After that, you shape the lamb into meatballs, brown them in a pan (and watch buckets of artery-clogging fat ooze out - keep an old jar or tin handy to catch it), then fry an onion with some fresh and dried cherries (I couldn't find dried cherries so I used dried cranberries), add a little stock, and let the meatballs simmer in this sauce for a while until it thickens. Scatter over a generous amount of fresh mint, drizzle over a tahini yoghurt sauce, pile it into thick, warm flatbread, and you could be in Syria (as it was when I went, anyway, not the sad war-torn place it is now...although with all the madness going on in London at the moment, you probably can almost pretend you're in Syria).
This is my take on the Aleppo cherry kebab, combining it with another incredible Syrian/Turkish dish - shwarma. Shwarma is a much nicer version of the rotating-meat-on-a-stick kebab you get in vans everywhere over here; shredded meat is drizzled with tahini or garlic yoghurt sauce and served in a flatbread wrap with salad. It's incredibly delicious, and making it with lamb and cherries only adds to the tastebud sensation.
Be warned, though - this is incredibly messy to eat. Embrace the lamb, cherry and yoghurt juices drizzling out of the flatbread and down your arm, and keep some napkins handy.
Lamb köfte with cherries (serves 6):
(adapted from Diana Henry's Food From Plenty)
- 1 kg minced lamb
- 4 tsp cinnamon
- 3 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 350g pitted fresh cherries
- 100g dried cranberries, soaked in boiling water for 15 mins then drained
- Juice of half a lemon
- 150ml lamb/chicken stock
- A large handful of chopped mint, parsley or coriander (or all three)
- 200ml Greek yoghurt
- 4 tbsp milk or buttermilk
- 3 tbsp tahini
- Flatbread, to serve
- Salad, to serve
Put the lamb in a bowl and add all the spices except 1tsp cinnamon. Season. Pound the meat with the spices until everything is well blended. Form the mixture into walnut-sized balls and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the meatballs in batches, making sure they are well browned. Drain them on kitchen paper once they are browned, and pour off any excess fat, leaving about 1tbsp once you're finished.
Add the onion to the pan and fry until soft and golden. Add 250g of the fresh cherries and all the dried cranberries with the remaining cinnamon and cook for a minute or so until softening, then add the lemon juice.
Return the kofte to the pan and add the stock. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes or so until cooked through and the sauce is quite thick. Add the rest of the cherries towards the end of the cooking time, to heat through.
Mix the yoghurt with the milk/buttermilk and tahini. Drizzle over the lamb and cherry mixture, then scatter with the chopped mint. Stuff into warm flatbreads with salad, roll up, and devour.