What can you tell about a person from the contents of their kitchen cupboards? When I was filmed for a cookery programme several years ago, the camera crew made me reveal, on film, the contents of my larder to prove that I was not your average student when it came to culinary ingenuity. ‘No pot noodles in my cupboard!’ they wanted me to declare with an impish grin, gesturing instead to the bottles of raspberry-infused balsamic vinegar, bergamot olive oil, buckwheat flour and dried edible rose petals. I refused, unwilling to abandon completely my dignity on national television, but they did have a point. You can infer a lot about a cook from rifling through their cupboards, whether they are of the Ottolenghi school of thought (giveaways: jars of za’atar and sumac, and wooden spoons forever tipped with purple stains from bashing out pomegranate seeds over every meal), the Nigella (fridge full of butter, double cream and bacon, mandatory carbonara-eating negligee draped over a chair), the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (weird offal in the fridge and boxes of home-cured meats lying around in various stages of fermentation), or an ardent follower of the Clean Eating brigade (chia seeds, bee pollen, cacao powder, a frankly alarming and small mortgage-worthy quantity of Medjool dates). Or, of course, an indifferent, fairweather cook (large quantities of pasta in various shapes and sizes, lots of canned sauces, a jar of 'all-purpose seasoning').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
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
I love what the summer is doing to my cooking at the moment. Something about hot weather just gives me an urge to serve up a feast to a crowd of people, preferably in my garden, with some magnificent form of fish or beast as its centrepiece, adorned by an array of fresh, vibrant salads. Recently there was a fabulous barbecue in which I cooked an entire salmon, rubbed with Cajun blackening spices and grilled on each side until the skin was rich and crispy, while the fish stayed beautifully moist and pink. We ate it with tortillas and freshly made guacamole, and a wonderful variety of salads and salsas (mango, chickpea and spinach salad; fennel, apple and mint salad; cucumber and melon salsa; fresh papaya and avocado salsa; watermelon and feta salad), all washed down with oh-too-moreish mango mojitos.Read More
Recently, I got to thinking about the way we express our appreciation while eating good food. How do you do it? Are you the type to take a mouthful, put down your spoon, lean back, close your eyes and raise your visage to heaven, indulging in a moment of quiet quasi-religious worship of the food gods? Or do you open your mouth, aforementioned mouthful still visible inside it, and make a thick, guttural, primal grunt of 'ommagodatsogood'? Maybe you go for a short and sweet 'mm', delivered with vim and gutso, in the style of Nigella? Or a longer and more voluptuously drawn-out 'mmmmmmmmm'? Do you go all out and emit a rapturous and somewhat inappropriate moan of 'oh my goddddd', or do you eschew such drama altogether and simply express your seal of approval with a restrained 'this is very nice'?
A couple of weeks ago, I had a friend over for dinner. We'd just polished off a delicious (even if I say so myself) main course of Mexican spicy marinaded roast chicken thighs, pineapple and avocado salad and corn on the cob. I'd found a new dessert recipe I wanted to try. I sliced a fat, ripe papaya in half, scooped out the seeds and stuffed it with a mixture of amaretti biscuits, stem ginger in syrup, sultanas, lime zest and juice, yoghurt and pistachios. I baked it in the oven for just under half an hour, let it cool for a few minutes, then tucked in.
We were talking about something, I forget what. Or at least my friend was talking, and I listened intently as I dug my spoon into the soft, gooey papaya centre and placed it in my mouth. Completely involuntarily, I suddenly let out a loud and deeply guttural cry. I forget what the words were - something in the vein of 'Oh my GOD THIS IS INSANE' - but they are, by and large, unimportant. What is important is the tone in which they were conveyed, a tone of wild, primal, unadulterated and lascivious food lust.
I'm pretty sure I have never expressed such deep regard for a single mouthful before. I'm certainly one for conveying my appreciation of food in vocal and often inappropriately loud and involved ways, sometimes with a mouth impolitely half-full, but this was on a whole new level.
I'm just going to go right ahead and say it. All my recipes are delicious, OK? That's why I blog about them, because they taste good and I want to share them. But, to grotesquely mis-quote Animal Farm, some recipes are more delicious than others. This is probably in the top five of all time.
It's not something I can take total credit for. I discovered it in an obscure Asian cookbook of mine that I looked up on Amazon and discovered is now out of print and therefore would cost you hundreds of pounds if you wanted to acquire a copy. I've tweaked it slightly to adjust it more to my taste, and the result is just so ridiculously good that it would be a crime not to make it available to a wider audience.
You've never thought of baking a papaya before, right? Me neither. There are some fruits that beg to be baked into luscious desserts - pears, banana, apples, plums - but there are equally some whose very structure and fruity identity feels ill at ease enveloped in a batter or exposed to the searing heat of oven or pan: mango, for example; strawberries; and, until now, papaya.
You just wouldn't think it would work. Papaya flesh is quite watery, and possesses such a subtle flavour - surely the oven would just destroy its creamy, slightly grainy, texture and fragrant flesh? Not so. If anything, the flavour is intensified by the oven, the texture firmed up and yet simultaneously made even more meltingly delicious. The sweetness is multiplied tenfold, the orange colouring becomes much more resplendent.
And the filling is just something else. It's quite a strange assortment of ingredients - or, rather, there are lots of established pairings of ingredients in there, but alongside lots of other pairings, so it's a kind of strange medley. Ginger and raisin, yes; amaretti and pistachio; ginger and pistachio; ginger and amaretti; raisin and amaretti; raisin and pistachio; yoghurt and pistachio...you get the gist. But it all melds together in the heat of the oven to form the most incredible flavour-packed stuffing for the papaya. The top turns crunchy and golden, knobbly with nutty pistachios and biscuit, while the inside is soft and gooey, deeply spiced with ginger and with surprising little bursts of sweetness from the raisins. I added even more ginger to the original recipe, and omitted the extra sugar, because this is a very sweet dessert already (not overly so, and there's actually no added sugar - it all comes from the fruit, raisins and stem ginger).
I've made this three times already, and the second time I decided to pair it with a homemade ice cream. Specifically, a gelato (a milk base rather than cream) made with toasted coconut. This has a delicious deep, rich, nutty flavour and sweet coconut perfume that marries very well with the papaya - it takes the edge off its sweetness, and the contrast between the cold ice cream and hot, juicy, gooey papaya is fantastic.
It's a bit of a strange ice cream recipe (I adapted it from the excellent online cooking resource, Food52), in that you cook the ice cream base with half the coconut, then strain it out, only adding the toasted coconut once the ice cream is churned. It also doesn't thicken as much as traditional cream-based ice cream custard mixtures. Despite that, you end up with a lovely subtle coconut flavour, enhanced by the addition of a vanilla pod. There's something about vanilla that seems to bring out the flavour of coconut; I wonder if they have some kind of similar chemical flavour component.
I'm really excited about this recipe, and could hardly wait to share it. It's fabulously unusual, and I think it's one of the prettiest desserts I've ever made, too - the colours both as you prepare it (jade green pistachios, deep sandy biscuits, bright vibrant limes, silky yoghurt) and when you take it out of the oven (that deep marigold colour of the baked papaya, and the burnished golden stuffing) are mouthwateringly beautiful.
Let us not forget, either, that this tastes so good that - even if this isn't normally your style - you will be forced to throw all caution to the winds, and emit a raucous, guttural moan of delight upon your first mouthful.
Baked amaretti, ginger and lime papaya (serves 4):
(Adapted from The Ultimate Thai and Asian Cookbook by Deh-Ta Hsiung, Becky Johnson and Sallie Morris)
- 2 ripe but firm papaya
- 2 globes stem ginger in syrup
- 8 amaretti biscuits
- 40g pistachio nuts
- 3 tbsp sultanas
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- Zest and juice of one lime
- 4 tbsp yoghurt
Cut the papaya in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds. Place cavity side up on a baking tray. Pre-heat the oven to 200C.
Put the stem ginger, amaretti and two thirds of the pistachios in a blender and pulse briefly to roughly chop - you don't want a powder, but coarse chunks of nut and biscuit. If you don't have a blender, crumble the biscuits, finely chop the ginger and roughly chop the pistachios. Put in a small bowl with the sultanas, ground ginger and lime zest, then stir in the lime juice and yoghurt. Spoon the mixture into the cavities of the papaya, then roughly chop the remaining pistachios and scatter over.
Bake for 25 minutes, then leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving with the coconut gelato.
Toasted coconut gelato (makes around 500ml):
(Adapted from Food 52)
- 190g desiccated coconut
- 4 egg yolks
- 160g caster sugar
- 480ml whole milk
- 1 vanilla pod
In a large wide frying pan, toast half the coconut over a low heat until golden and evenly browned, stirring occasionally (or place it on an oven tray and bake for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally). Set aside.
In a mixing bowl, use an electric whisk to beat the sugar and egg yolks together until thick, pale and creamy - about 3-5 minutes.
Place the milk in a saucepan with the vanilla pod and heat gently. Add the sugar and egg mixture, stirring constantly, then the (untoasted) half of the coconut. Continue to cook over a very low heat, stirring regularly, until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon (it won't thicken as much as regular ice cream or custard due to the lack of cream). This could take up to half an hour. Pour into a jug and chill in the fridge for at least four hours, preferably overnight.
When ready to churn, strain out the coconut and vanilla pod from the mixture, then discard it. Churn in an ice cream maker until set, then quickly fold in the toasted coconut, pour into a tub and place in the freezer to firm up (preferably for at least six hours).
Until recently, my only experience of lime leaves was of the dried variety, that come crammed into little spice boxes in major supermarkets, often with a hefty price tag attached for the privilege of acquiring the exoticism conferred by the words 'Kaffir limes'. I'd throw these fragile, desiccated morsels, rather like crisp, curled bay leaves, into a heady mix of coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger and shallots, every time hoping that they'd impart the lusciously fragrant aroma implied by their limey affinity, and every time finding myself disappointed, completely unable to notice any difference whatsoever. I tried adding more, but to no avail. Even sniffing deeply at the box or jar, I'd notice very little olfactory impact at all.
Then recently, I finally opened a packet of lime leaf tea I bought in a market in Cambodia last summer. Straight away I was hit by the astringent aroma, sharp and crisp, like a muskier version of a fresh lime. Brewing the leaves in boiling water, I marvelled at the pale jade colour of the resulting tea, and its feisty citrus flavour, reminiscent of ginger tea in its peppery, citrussy heat. This, I suddenly realised, was the real thing. This was how lime leaves should smell and taste: a deep, earthy yet vibrant aroma, like crossing potpourri with a fresh citrus fruit.
Still finding myself with a huge crate of Brazilian limes (despite my best endeavours in the way of gin and tonics, cheesecakes, curries and many bowls of fresh papaya, I still have about twenty left), I fortuitously caught sight of Nigel Slater's recent recipe in the Guardian for lime and lime leaf marmalade. As it used a whole nine limes, this seemed the perfect way to both use up some of my lime stash, and indulge my deep love of preserving.
Though I don't have as much time as I'd like to devote to the stirring of vats of sugary confections, preserving is one of my absolute favourite cooking tasks. I love the transformation of bright, fresh ingredients into something more muted, subtle, possessing a sweet and aromatic flavour of its own. I love the frugality and home economics of the activity, capturing something of the delicious seasonal fruit to eat long after the original product has disappeared (yes, amazingly, there are still some fruits that aren't available in this country year-round: gooseberries, rhubarb, blackcurrants, quinces, to name a few - essentially, all of my favourites, because I'm a masochist like that).
I love that I can put a few slices of homemade sourdough or soda bread into the toaster in the morning, and, while the smell of burnished bread wafts through the kitchen, peer into my jam cupboard and find myself with an array of delicious homemade preserves to choose from: fig jam, apple jam, quince jelly, and rhubarb and vanilla jam are just some of the current inhabitants of the cupboard. I never have to buy jam; why would I, when ladling a generous spoonful of the homemade version onto steaming toast is so infinitely more rewarding? I also love that each and every jar has come out of a mundane need to 'use something up' yet has produced a result that is infinitely more than convenience.
The rhubarb, for example, was the woody, sour, summer kind. Five bags of it had been sitting in the freezer, when last November I decided to clear them out in one fell swoop, simmering them in a pan with sugar and a vanilla pod to make the most ridiculously gorgeous pink jam, far more wonderful than I'd ever have expected from beholding those thick, green chunks of the original vegetable.
The apple and blackberry jam, too, notable for it cost me absolutely nothing: the blackberries were foraged from hedgerows in the Yorkshire dales, the apples were windfalls from the tree overhanging our garden in Cambridge, and the sugar and jars were already sitting patiently in the cupboard.
The fig jam I am most proud of, for it arose when I came home from holiday to find one of Mum's colleagues had given her a huge tray of figs from his garden, yet she'd allowed them to almost rot, sitting in the fruit bowl. They were far too far gone to be edible, soft and squishy with fruit flies hovering eagerly around in droves, but I managed to rescue them with the aid of a bag of jam sugar, transforming them into the most incredible jam, a deep khaki green, flecked with crunchy seeds and chewy pieces of fig flesh, and possessing a rich, caramelly flavour. I only made a few jars, but with every mouthful I feel proud of myself for rescuing those sad fruits - true testament to both the transformative and economical power of preserving.
Preserving may not be as trendy these days as the homely putting together of a Victoria sponge in a kitchen decked with bunting while wearing a Cath Kidston apron and using a Mason Cash mixing bowl, or the frivolous piping of buttercream onto a fussy cupcake, but for me it has an honesty and an integrity greater than almost any other kitchen pursuit. There is a quiet dignity in a homemade jar of jam or marmalade, adorned with a slightly wonky handwritten label. It speaks of promise and of patience.
Patience was definitely the keyword for my marmalade adventure. Now that I am a PhD student, my weekends have acquired something of a sacred quality. I try, as many PhD students are advised, to treat my research undertaking as a full-time job, working nine to five on campus during the week then taking the weekends off. By and large, it works well (except I won't lie, it's more like ten til five. But I cram a lot of intense work into those hours, so I think it's okay). Even then, I usually have at least something I can't escape doing at the weekends, so I try and make the remaining hours of leisure time count.
Last weekend, those hours were spent extracting the juice from nine limes, then using a teaspoon to scrape every last fragment of pith and membrane out of the shells of said limes. There are three things I would advise at this stage. Firstly, if, like me, you have a nasty habit of biting the skin around your fingers, this is going to hurt a LOT. Secondly, don't use a pretty Whittards teaspoon with a pleasantly decorated plastic handle, because the acid from the limes will melt the pattern into something veritably Dali-esque. Thirdly, don't be in a rush. This is not something to be rushed.
Oh, and one more thing - you can skip the gym for the weekend if you do this. Purging eighteen lime shells of their innards is surprisingly taxing on the upper arm muscles.
The fun doesn't end there. You then need to shred the lime peel. Nigel Slater was kind enough to anticipate that by this stage, the last thing you probably want to do is painstakingly slice the peel into slivers, so he offers the alternative of chucking it all in the food processor. While I think hand-slicing it would give a more attractive final result, with delicate tendrils of peel suspended in the golden sugary liquid, I probably would have burst into frustrated tears had I decided to attempt this. Instead, it was made light work of in seconds by those spinning electronic blades, and I could sit down for a minute. I had juiced a couple of Meyer lemons for a lemon tart that day, and by some presence of mind had saved the skins, so they went in there too - Meyer lemons have a gorgeous floral fragrance that I thought would be fabulous with the limes and lime leaves. The result of the ferocious blitzing was a beautiful speckled medley of green and yellow shreds.
After that, everything is fairly simple. You bring the lime juice to the boil with some water, add the peel, then put the pulp from the limes into a muslin bag and suspend it in the mixture, boiling it for an hour or so. Then you add the sugar and lime leaves.
This is part two of my lime leaf revelation.
Three words: buy them frozen.
I was vaguely aware you could get frozen lime leaves in Chinese supermarkets, but I'd never remembered while there to have a look. I was delighted to find a large tub of frozen leaves in the Chinese supermarket just down the road (my house is excellently located in York for two reasons: one, it's opposite the gym; two, it's about ten minutes from a brilliant Middle Eastern and a Chinese supermarket), for the princely sum of £1.60. There must be at least a hundred leaves in it, so it's ridiculously good value for money.
Comparing frozen lime leaves with dried is like comparing fresh basil with dried: there is simply no contest. The leaves, added to the bubbling syrupy vat of citrussy marmalade, imparting the most incredible fragrance to the liquid and to my house. It's hard to describe the smell of fresh (well, frozen, but once thawed they're as fresh as you'll get outside Thailand) lime leaves, but suffice to say they possess all the positive attributes of a fresh lime - zesty, zingy, citrussy - plus something extra in the form of their aromatic fragrance.
This marmalade makes your house smell wonderful, like a sweet shop: warm, spicy, cosseting. It turns a beautiful amber colour, flecked with pale shards of lime peel that soften in their sugary bath so that you can crush them easily with your fingertips. The lime leaves work beautifully to consolidate all that fresh lime flavour, adding a little delicate perfume too.
Ladling the glossy, golden mixture into jars, I suddenly didn't mind so much that I'd spent my weekend in agonising pain, hands smothered in acid, teaspoons melting, millions of sticky, sugary utensils waiting in the sink to be washed. Because I'll get to spend my next precious weekend kicking back, relaxing, and eating doorstop slices of dark soda bread spread thickly with this beautiful fragrant preserve.
It's hard to describe the complex flavour of this marmalade; it's fresh and citrussy, yet also has an amazing deep, fragrant tang to it from the lime leaves. It's a beautiful golden colour - not an artificial green, as you often find in inferior commercial lime marmalade - and it isn't too sweet; there's just enough sugar to bring out the myriad flavours within. It's really best if you just give it a go for yourself and see what I mean.
The marmalade recipe, by Nigel Slater, is here on the Guardian website. I didn't make any changes apart from using the peel of two Meyer lemons as well as the lime peel, instead of the one normal lemon he suggests, as I happened to have some left over and thought their unusual bergamot-esque fragrance would work well in the mix.
I sampled my first pomelo in rather insalubrious surroundings. Perched unceremoniously atop a wall, sweat clinging tenaciously to my shoulders and brow, overlooking a rubbish-strewn ditch with the sickly aroma of rotting fruit permeating my sinuses, I hacked off its mottled green skin with a penknife and proceeded to prise away at the flesh within, the hand sanitizer I'd zealously rubbed over my fingers doing little to assuage my feelings of filthiness. Its pearly pink flesh and sweet, tart flavour stood in sharp contrast to the ambience, and I spent a few happily relaxed moments concentrating on pulling apart its rosy segmented lobes, deaf to the madness of motorbikes and hawkers around me.
This was in Hué, Vietnam. I'd purchased a pomelo from the main market, having been intrigued for years about these gigantic grapefruits and finally deciding to bite the bullet and get one. I probably should have tried it first in the UK, sitting down at a table with a nice chopping board and serrated knife rather than perched on a crumbling wall doing my best with a blunt penknife and a complete absence of plate or napkin, but that's life for you. Besides, I was doing my bit in terms of food miles - better, surely, to eat a fruit in its country of origin rather than thousands of miles away from it?
The pomelo is like a grapefruit, but bigger, and possessing none of that sour astringence that makes people dislike grapefruits. They're quite sweet, no sharper than oranges, but with a lovely floral citrus flavour. In Vietnam I was often served wedges of pomelo as an after-dinner snack; you would just take a big bite and suck the fragrant juice out of the pithy membranes. They were delicious.
However, one of the most famous pomelo dishes is the pomelo salad. Found all over south east Asia, this is an incredible combination of sweet pomelo pieces, crunchy vegetables, and a classic south east Asian salad dressing: a fusion of hot, salty, sour and sweet flavours, usually comprising lime juice, chilli, fish sauce and brown or palm sugar. It might sound an odd combination, but the sweet, bursting pomelo against the zingy dressing, coupled with the crunch of vegetables is amazing.
There are often other ingredients too. In Hoi An I had a pomelo salad with chicken and prawns, a combination that works very well indeed - the mellow flavours of the meat and seafood provide a perfect foil to the zesty pomelo madness going on around them. Often, toasted peanuts are scattered over the dish, both to add texture and a delicious rich toasty flavour that works so well with the other very zingy ingredients. The vegetables may vary, but usually you find carrot and cucumber, in shreds. Sometimes peppers, or beansprouts. There are sometimes shallots, for a savoury earthy flavour. Lots of fresh herbs - mint and coriander, mostly, but perhaps Thai basil.
I knew I had to recreate a pomelo salad, having enjoyed it so much in Vietnam.
I decided to render it a more substantial meal by adding noodles. Specifically, cooked slippery rice noodles, to provide a calming squidgy backdrop to all the other intense flavours. The rest is all there, though - crunchy julienned vegetables, loads of vibrant fresh herbs, a zingy dressing of lime juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce and brown sugar, and the ever-important scattering of toasted peanuts. Then there are big chunks of torn pomelo flesh, lending their sweetness and juicy yet crunchy texture. I decided to go down the prawn route, because they have a lovely sweetness and a meaty crunch that is excellent paired with the other ingredients. To keep the flavours Asian, I pan-fried the prawns with ginger and lemongrass.
I've generally never felt very comfortable cooking Asian food; it's one of the cuisines I'm least familiar with. This has changed recently, though, as I've started cooking more and more of it. To get to the point where I can invent my own Asian-inspired recipe is a pretty big achievement for me.
Even more so, this thing is absolutely insanely delicious. If you can't imagine how it would all work together and taste, make it and be blown away. It's just got the perfect combination of textures and flavours, as south east Asian food so often does. Mellow slippery noodles, zesty dressing, juicy prawns, sweet pomelo, perfumed herbs and toasty peanuts. That's the best I can do to describe it, so if you want to know more, get into the kitchen and make one yourself. You can often find pomelos in big supermarkets and Asian grocers.
Asian pomelo salad with lemongrass prawns and peanuts (serves 2-3):
- 100g thin, flat rice noodles
- 1 carrot
- 1/4 cucumber
- 3 spring onions
- A large handful chopped mint
- A large handful chopped coriander
- 100g mange tout
- Half a large pomelo, or one grapefruit-sized one
- 1 stick lemongrass
- A 1-inch cube fresh ginger
- 200g raw prawns
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil, or sesame oil
- 3 tbsp peanuts, toasted in a dry pan then roughly chopped
For the dressing:
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 3 tsp brown sugar
- 2 tsp rice vinegar
- 1 tsp garlic-infused olive oil
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 1 tsp chopped fresh ginger
- Juice of half a lime, plus extra lime wedges to serve
First, soak the noodles in boiling water until soft (5-15 minutes, depending on your brand/thickness). Drain, rinse in cold water and set aside.
Slice the cucumber into thin batons. Grate the carrot. Thinly slice the spring onions lengthways. Place them all in a large bowl with the herbs. Steam or boil the mange tout for 1-2 minutes then finely slice lengthways and add to the bowl. Add the noodles and toss together well.
Prepare the pomelo by slicing it into quarters, slicing off the thick skin with a knife and then using your fingers to prise the flesh away from the pithy membranes. Tear the flesh into bite-sized chunks. Add it to the noodles and mix together well.
For the dressing, mix all the ingredients together in a small jug. Pour it over the noodle mixture and toss together. Divide the mixture between 2-3 plates or bowls.
Finely chop the lemongrass and ginger. Heat the garlic/sesame oil in a non-stick frying pan, then add the lemongrass and ginger. Cook for a minute or so, then add the prawns, cooking on each side for a couple of minutes until cooked through. Place the prawns on top of the noodle salad, then scatter over the peanuts. Serve immediately, with lime wedges to squeeze over.
What would you do with forty limes?
A question I'm sure most of you will not have given much thought to. I admit it isn't something that had ever crossed my mind before (although I was in the enviable position a couple of years ago of speculating the uses for twenty mangoes). I tend to have, at most, five limes in the fridge at any one time. I use them a lot more frequently now than I used to, having fallen in love with south east Asian food during my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia last year, and it's rare that a lime doesn't get squeezed over most of my meals prior to eating.
I love the fragrant zing of a fresh lime, that beautiful perfume that emanates as you scrape the flesh with a grater or squeeze the skin between your fingers. Limes have a magic about them that lemons just don't possess for me; maybe it's their association with more exotic climes, and more exotic cuisines. They seem to have fragrance as well as sourness. I also think their colouring is far more beautiful than that of lemons, particularly when you find a ripening specimen that is mottled, blushing yellow, promising bountiful juice within.
Although, as I write this, I wonder if that 'fragrance' I keep attributing to limes in my mind is more to do with the fact that one of my favourite ways to have limes is sitting in a glass of gin. Hmm.
I use limes in many ways in my kitchen. Their juice gets squeezed over a Thai curry, along with a scattering of fresh basil and coriander, just before eating, where it lifts all the flavours and makes everything riot. It also gets sprinkled over a bowl of fresh papaya, one of my absolute favourite breakfasts. Like rhubarb and ginger or apple and cinnamon, lime and papaya for me have a deep affinity that is almost primal. There's something gorgeous about the contrasting colours as you mingle the two - that beautiful vibrant green against the deep orange flesh of a succulent papaya.
Lime juice also makes an excellent addition to salad dressings, when you want a really zingy snap of freshness. This works particularly well in salads of the Asian variety, mixed with a little fish sauce for the salty element, chilli for heat, and brown sugar for sweetness. However, it's also a good substitute for lemon juice in any other salad dressing, particularly delicious mixed with olive oil and mustard and used to dress wafer-thin sliced fennel.
I also enjoy the zest of limes scattered over desserts for a snap of freshness; it's surprisingly delicious sprinkled over peaches baked with ginger and brown sugar. The zest adds a richer, more fragrant note than the juice, so is lovely in curry pastes or cakes. The smell as you rasp a grater over the glossy skin of a fresh lime is so, so utterly worth the labour-intensive nature of the task, or any scraped knuckles.
In fact, there's very little that isn't improved by limes. I remember in Vietnam they were served with almost every meal. The limes over there are gorgeously tiny, about the size of a ping-pong ball, and are delicious squeezed over everything from fruit to noodle soup. The juice mixed with a little salt makes a fabulous dipping sauce for fresh seafood. Limes, to me, have the same culinary use as salt: they sharpen and bring out the flavours of whatever you choose to mingle them with, often negating the need for any salt at all.
The other week, I was sent a basket of Brazilian limes. These are seedless limes with thinner skins than your average, so they are plumper and juicier. I was expecting a sample of maybe ten limes, at the most, so when I unwrapped my hamper of around forty, beautifully arranged and wrapped in cellophane, I admit I did wonder how I was going to use them all (OK, I lie. All I did was glance up at my cupboard where a bottle of Bombay Sapphire was winking enticingly at me).
However, in the interests of not promoting alcoholism on this blog, and because I much prefer ingesting calories that I can chew on, I decided to take advantage of my bountiful lime supply to experiment with a few recipes. First on the list was a cheesecake, inspired by one I ate a few weeks ago in a Malaysian restaurant and have been dying to recreate ever since. I was captivated by its fabulous combination of lime, lemongrass, coconut and ginger.
If the knee-jerk partners for apples are nuts, raisins and cinnamon, or for bananas brown sugar, maple syrup, chocolate and pecan nuts, those for limes surely have to be coconut, ginger and lemongrass. I like to think of food in 'semantic fields' like this; a literature term but one I think is highly relevant to gastronomy. Certain ingredients just cry out to be paired with other ingredients with which they have a certain affinity, often because they share a climate or region. This is the case with limes: lime, lemongrass, coconut and ginger are the basic component of many south east Asian curries and stir-fries.
In fact, when one of my friends tried a piece of this cheesecake, her first reaction was 'This tastes like Thai food. In a dessert.'
Which is exactly what I was aiming for.
This is a baked cheesecake, because I wanted a properly dense, creamy texture to stand up to all the assertive flavours in there. It has a beautiful crisp ginger biscuit base. I never buy cheesecakes, always preferring to make my own for one simple reason: you can have as thick a biscuit base as you like. As it's the best part, I generally think a ratio of 1:1, base to cheesecake, is a good idea. This cake puts that into practice (however, if you want more filling, I've included instructions in the recipe to adapt it).
The cheesecake filling, lightened with ricotta rather than cream cheese, is permeated by shards of lemongrass, blitzed finely in a blender but still possessing a little crunch, and chunks of syrupy stem ginger that bring heat and sweetness. There's the mellow, creamy flavour of coconut running through the filling, and flakes of toasted coconut on top. It's a riot of beautiful zingy flavours, mellowed by the comforting sweetness of the coconut.
For the topping, I decided to be a bit fancy and make some candied limes. This basically involves simmering lime slices in sugar syrup until they soften and become sweet rather than sour. The peel still stays quite tough, but they make a lovely sharp contrast to the rich, dense cheese filling. Plus I think they look beautiful. You can make a batch of these and keep them in the fridge or freezer to decorate other types of cake.
While some cheesecakes can be cloyingly rich, this is the opposite. It takes everything that is fresh, vibrant and healthy about Asian food and transforms it into a dessert that possesses all those qualities. There's the fiery heat of ginger, the fragrance of lime zest and lemongrass, and, underlying it all, the delicious sweet creaminess of coconut. Add to that the crunch of a sweet-tart candied lime and flakes of sweet, nutty, rich coconut, and you have something that I think is pretty special.
I should add a disclaimer here: this is not the answer to 'how to use up forty limes', as it only uses four. But it's so nice that you probably should make ten, and then you'll have used them all up. Voila.
Lime, lemongrass, ginger and coconut cheesecake (serves 8):
If you want more filling compared to the amount of base, just multiply the asterisked ingredients by 1.5 (for example, you'd use 375g ricotta cheese, 300ml creme fraiche, etc)
- 16 ginger nut biscuits
- 60g butter, plus extra for greasing
- 1 stalk fresh lemongrass, roughly chopped*
- 250g ricotta cheese*
- 200ml half-fat creme fraiche*
- 90g caster sugar*
- 2 large eggs*
- 1 tbsp runny honey*
- 1 tsp coconut essence (use vanilla if you can't find this)*
- Zest of 4 limes*
- 3 globes stem ginger in syrup, finely chopped*
- 2-3 tbsp desiccated coconut, toasted in a dry pan
- For the candied limes:
- 240ml water, plus extra for blanching the limes
- 225g sugar
- 2 limes, very thinly sliced
[I would recommend making the candied limes - see below - the day before you want to decorate the cheesecake]
First, make the biscuit base. Pre-heat the oven to 180C, and place an oven dish or tray on the bottom shelf. Blitz the ginger nut biscuits in a blender until fine crumbs. Melt the butter in a saucepan or in a bowl in the microwave, then stir the biscuits into it. Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin with a circle of baking parchment, then press the biscuits into an even layer on the bottom of it. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes then remove and leave to cool. Once cool, grease the inside of the cake tin. Lower the oven temperature to 160C.
Meanwhile, clean out the blender. Put the lemongrass in it and blitz until very finely chopped. Add the ricotta cheese, creme fraiche, sugar, eggs, honey, coconut essence and lime zest, then blitz again briefly to combine all the ingredients. Stir in the stem ginger (don't process it as this will chop it too finely). Pour the cheesecake mix over the base, then cover the tin with foil. Have a jug of cold water ready. Put the cheesecake into the oven, then quickly pour the water into the tray on the bottom, to create steam. Close the door quickly. Bake the cheesecake for 45-55 minutes, or until set with only a slight wobble (peel back the foil to have a look). Leave to cool.
For the candied limes, blanch the lime slices in boiling water for 3 minutes, then drain. Bring the 240ml water and 225g sugar to the boil in a saucepan, then add the lime slices and simmer gently for around 45 minutes, until the rind has softened. Remove from the syrup and leave to cool and dry out on a sheet of greaseproof paper, preferably overnight. You can keep the lime syrup to drizzle over the cheesecake while serving, if you like.
Remove the cake from its tin and put on a plate. Decorate with the lime slices and toasted coconut, then refrigerate. Remove from the fridge around 30 minutes before serving.
Do you like the look of this mango and avocado salsa?
It's a creamy, guacamole-style avocado dip with chilli and lots of fresh herbs (basil, mint and coriander), beautiful sweet chunks of ripe, juicy mango, and lashings of zesty lime goodness.
Zesty lime, mango and avocado salsa:
- A large handful of basil, mint and coriander (about 20g each) - save a few leaves for garnishing
- 1 red chilli, deseeded and roughly chopped (or half a chilli if you're not keen on spice!)
- 3 very ripe avocadoes, stone removed and flesh scooped out with a spoon
- 2 tbsp sour cream or yoghurt
- 2 tomatoes, roughly chopped
- Juice and zest of 1 lime
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 ripe mango
Put the herbs and chilli in a food processor and blitz until finely chopped. Add the tomatoes, avocadoes, sour cream or yoghurt, lime juice and zest, and salt, and blitz until you have a fairly chunky purée. Taste and season - you may want a little more salt, herbs or lime juice. (If you don't have a food processor, finely chop the herbs, chilli and tomato by hand, then use a fork or whisk to mash them together with the avocado, sour cream/yoghurt, lime and salt.)
Peel and chop the mango into 5mm cubes. Stir into the avocado mixture, reserving a few mango pieces to scatter over the top. Garnish with a little extra chilli and/or herbs, and serve immediately.