Apologies for the large gap between blog posts recently. I’m hoping things will settle down to greater regularity in the near future. In the meantime, though, as very meagre compensation, here is something that is not a real recipe but more of a suggestion for how to eat the season’s figs for breakfast. This bowlful looks lusciously like something you might be served at a fancy restaurant for brunch, and I did actually have one of those moments when I sat down with it for breakfast the other day and thought ‘instagram this and everyone will ridicule you’. But in the spirit of not giving a damn, here’s how: put some thick Greek yoghurt (not low fat) in a sieve lined with muslin or a clean J-cloth, and suspend it over a bowl in the fridge overnight to drain. You’ll be left with labneh, a thick cream cheese. Spoon some of this into a bowl. Quarter some figs and roast them for 15-20 minutes in the oven with a drizzle of honey. Spoon the figs and their juices onto the labneh. Sprinkle with a few lemon thyme, lemon verbena or basil leaves (or any of your favourite herbs, really), a drizzle of pomegranate molasses or date syrup (or a little more honey) and a handful of toasted pistachio nuts, walnuts or almonds. Eat with warm flatbread or pitta. It’s a touch of Middle Eastern sunshine to brighten up the darkening days of autumn.Read More
Not content with the simple pleasure offered by a biscuit and a cup of tea, I have been experimenting with a very British method of gilding the lily: baking tea into the biscuit itself. It’s hardly an unprecedented move: just think of the humble Rich Tea biscuit, beloved by millions for its milky blandness and its perfectly calibrated texture, designed for dunking into a soul-soothing cuppa in the middle of the afternoon. I’m not sure if there is actually any tea to be found in the Rich Tea, but I’ve also come across excellent versions of Earl Grey shortbread, where crumbly butteriness blends perfectly with the refreshing snap of bergamot. Shortbread is the ideal foil for assertive tea flavours; comforting, rich, dangerously moreish, it can take a heavy-handed scattering of tea leaves through the mix.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
I hoard egg whites. It’s almost a sickness. I am physically incapable of throwing them away. It’s part of my general ‘physically incapable of throwing any form of food away’ neurosis. Sometimes, when there are leftovers after a meal, but an annoying amount that I either won’t eat or won’t turn into another meal, I have to enlist one of my dinner guests to tip them into the bin, such is my incapability of transferring food from plate to rubbish.
I think it’s Nigella who writes in one of her books that she now breaks eggs directly into the sink when she just needs the yolks. Sort of the egg-separating equivalent of ripping off a plaster really quickly – there’s a momentary pang as you watch the yellow, viscous substance slide quiveringly down the plughole, but there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. It’s a question of active agency, I think: somehow doing it that way seems like an accident, not your fault – as opposed to the reckless, pre-meditated crime of physically tipping a bowl of egg whites into the bin or sink.
I can’t even manage this, though. It’s ludicrous, I realise, since eggs cost all of about 30p each and are in plentiful supply. A few lost whites do not constitute a major crime against food conservation. I should probably see some kind of specialist about this - often inhibiting - reluctance to discard anything remotely edible.
Nothing sends me into more of a panic than a recipe that calls for egg yolks. Just the yolks. Those brilliant glossy globules of marigold goo, resplendently isolated from the slightly creepy alien-esque ephemera that suspends them delicately inside their protective shell. Curds, pastry, ice cream, pasta: you are not my friends. Much as I love your delicious end results, you are responsible for a sizeable chunk of unavailable freezer space.
Egg whites freeze well, you see. This is either a blessing or a curse. The former because it means you don’t end up wasting those whites if you don’t have an immediate use for them. The latter because they sit in the freezer, nagging you to use them, taking up space that could be occupied by more immediately useful items.
When you have four sets of four egg whites in your freezer (just put them in plastic bags, labelled with the number of whites, and freeze…not that I’m encouraging this practice…), you realise it is time to act. Or at least, I did. It may be OK if egg whites are the only thing hogging your freezer space, but I also have an unfortunate habit of hoarding most fruits known to man, and also, currently, rather a large quantity of meat.
The last time I made macaroons was also out of a desire to put egg whites to good use. Unfortunately, this time there were thirty of them. I am not even joking. This was when I worked in a restaurant as a waitress, and the chef had made a large quantity of pasta for lunch service. By ‘large’, I mean he used thirty egg yolks. Apparently also unable to crack them into the sink, he had put the whites into a large kilner jar, which I insisted on taking home to ‘put to good use’.
I will say it now: there is no ‘good use’ for thirty egg whites. Three, maybe. Even thirteen, perhaps – three pavlovas and you’re done. But thirty? Good luck with that. I think I had to get my mum to throw the rest away, after I’d made about a hundred macaroons. Most recipes, you see, don’t use just egg whites. Mousse, for example, usually puts some yolks in there too for richness. Meringue pie has yolks in the fruit filling. Many cakes lightened with egg whites also incorporate the yolks along with the sugar. Pretty much the only options available to you are macaroons and meringues.
Also, incidentally: thirty egg whites in a kilner jar are not a pretty sight. It looks like something a mad scientist might have on a shelf in his eerie laboratory, or an artificial womb used to birth an alien life form. There are viscous strands of jellyfish-like white tentacles suspended within the yellowish mass, and the whole thing moves with an unpleasant quivering wobble that reminds me of the by-products of liposuction.
Macaroons are not to be confused with macarons, those overly fancy French creations that send baking bloggers into a total frenzy of violent perfectionism over ‘feet’ and ‘shells’ and the like. Macaroons are probably the easiest baked goods you will ever make. You whisk some egg whites (but not even in an energetic way – just lightly with a hand whisk until they’re a bit frothy), add some sugar and ground almonds (or desiccated coconut), shape into balls and bake. From start to finish, about 15 minutes.
Here, I have put a Middle Eastern twist on traditional macaroons by adding cardamom. Combined with the ground almonds, you end up with a macaroon that tastes like the filling of baklava. Add a crunchy, toasty pistachio nut on top, and the overall effect is deliciously and seductively reminiscent of those wonderful cardamom-scented, nut-rich Middle Eastern pastries that I love so much. I think finely chopping the pistachios and rolling the macaroons in them before baking would also be an excellent idea, but this keeps it super-simple.
For such a simple recipe, these really pack a punch in terms of flavour and texture. They have the most wonderful gooey centres, with a nice gentle crunch on the outside, and fill your tastebuds with sweet, fragrant cardamom and almond. They’re perfect with an afternoon cup of tea, or served alongside desserts like mousse or ice cream, and look a lot more complicated and impressive than they in fact are. The recipe is also easy to scale up, as you just mix everything in a bowl, so you can make a big batch and give them to grateful friends/neighbours/colleagues/family.
And, let’s not forget, they’re a great way to use up (some of) those egg whites that, if you’re anything like me, are haunting you and your freezer right now.
Pistachio and cardamom macaroons (makes about 30, so easily multiplied):
- 2 egg whites
- 230g ground almonds
- 140g caster sugar
- 10 cardamom pods, husks removed and seeds ground to a powder
- Pistachio nuts, to decorate
- Icing sugar, to dust
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Line a large baking sheet with non-stick baking parchment or silicon.
In a large bowl, lightly beat the egg whites with a whisk until just starting to turn bubbly. Add the almonds, sugar and crushed cardamom, then mix together with a spoon until firm but sticky. Roll into small balls, about the size of a walnut, with your hands or using a teaspoon. Arrange, evenly spaced, on the baking sheet.
Using a fork, press down slightly on the top of each macaroon to flatten it. Press a pistachio nut into the centre of each. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until lightly golden brown but still a little squidgy. Allow to cool before dusting with icing sugar.
Sometimes, you make a recipe that you know people are just going to love. It's hard to put your finger on exactly how you know this. Maybe it's because you yourself were just blown away upon first tasting it, and uttered a deeply antisocial grunt of 'ohmygodyum' with a mouth half full as you took your first bite. Maybe it's because it happens to incorporate a certain set of ingredients that are generally just pleasing to everyone. Maybe it's because it's sugary and cakey and is the kind of ridiculously moreish sweet thing that everyone just loves to partake in.
All of the above applies to this recipe.
One of the things I love about being a student again is that there are people around me every day who I can force my baked goods onto. There's nothing worse than whipping up a calorific feast in the privacy of your own kitchen only to be forced to devour the entire lot, when really you only wanted a few pieces to quality control. What could have been a pleasant sugary treat suddenly turns into a couple of extra inches on your thighs, and no one is happy.
What a hard life.
Anyway, now I can bake with peace of mind. I have neighbours. Supervisors. Friends. Sometimes people I don't know very well but who I am sure will appreciate cake. It's a good network to have.
And if all else fails, there are lots of ducks on campus. In fact, the other day a duck was so intent on stealing my/my friends' lunch that it actually nibbled my exposed toes in a desperate bid to get me to part with my couscous. That was somewhat unexpected. The moral of this story is: probably don't feed ducks your lunch. They get accustomed.
Also, don't take pity on it and throw it one of the chickpeas from said couscous. The duck will not appreciate this, and you will have wasted a chickpea. Not sad if you don't like chickpeas, but I really do. I'm cool like that. Every chickpea thrown to an unappreciative duck is a chickpea wasted.
Back to the point. I bake a lot of things. I test a lot of recipes that I make up in my head, and need to turn into reality. Sometimes they are a little bit out of the ordinary, like maybe a mango, coconut and cardamom cheesecake, or a lime, lemongrass and ginger cheesecake. Or a quince and marzipan cake. Things that I am surprised don't exist already, because they just seem to make sense. So I make them happen.
And yet for all the creative love and skill that goes into something like that, all the many minutes of ingredient and technique planning, of scribbling down ideas while you're supposed to be writing a PhD, of deliberating in the aisles of the supermarket, of tasting as you go, tasting, tasting..
...what people actually seem to prefer is a totally trashy, chocolate- and butter-heavy blondie.
I can't even be cross, though. Much as I love some of the recipes I've created over the years, after a couple of bites of these I seriously considered never bothering to make anything more sophisticated ever again.
That basic combination of butter, sugar and chocolate appears in so many permutations, but it probably beats any other for sheer gastronomic satisfaction. Sure, dairy is nice - a lovely cheesecake can be a beautiful thing - and fancy sugary concoctions like meringues or macaroons have their place. But for serious tastebud and texture appeal, you want something like a good brownie or blondie. Rich. Moist. Gooey. Slightly crunchy on the outside. Inducing salivation with the very first taste.
These are what you'd call crowd-pleasers, in the dessert world. There's a reason restaurant dessert menus pretty much always feature some form of chocolate brownie. It's the ultimate 'treat yourself' food. While I hate to apply adjectives like 'sinful' and 'naughty' to food (no really, I loathe it), that's kind of what a brownie is.
Decadent. Decadent is a better word.
Much as I love to experiment with desserts, I also love to get into the kitchen on a beautiful summer evening, put on my apron, switch on some ridiculous music (think Carly Rae Jepsen), and spend twenty minutes mixing together vast quantities of fat and sugar in the knowledge that EVERYONE WILL LOVE ME FOR IT. I'm often pretty good about not licking the spoon (often because I bake straight after breakfast, having brushed my teeth, and I can't really be bothered to go and brush them again), but with these it's totally inevitable.
This is a recipe I've developed over a few different tries. The first time I made it, from an internet recipe, I was in love. Guttural, primal, salivating love. I've tweaked it (after making it at least four times, much to the delight of my nearest and dearest) to incorporate a few other favourite ingredients: cardamom, which goes wonderfully well with white chocolate. Pistachios, which also go excellently with white chocolate but also with raspberries, which are the star of the show here.
Actually, having said that, the star of the show is the brown butter and white chocolate base. It's basically everything you could ever want from a baked thing. Moist and cakey, with a ridiculously delicious biscuity-caramel flavour from the mixture of molten, brown-flecked butter and sweet chocolate, with a delicate fragrance of cardamom in there, so slight you can barely put your finger on its presence. There's also a mixture of light and dark muscovado sugar in there, beaten with eggs to a glorious caramel creaminess. Then on top you have a fabulous crunchy crust of white chocolate chips, which keep their shape and deliver little pockets of oozing sweetness, and toasty pistachios. The raspberries are crunchy on top and gooey within, sweet and sharp, balancing out all the sugary goodness around them.
I use frozen raspberries for these, which are much cheaper than fresh. You don't need fresh. You just need them to be bold and purple and stain the surrounding cake with their delicious sweet-tart juice, brightening the rich canvas of chocolate and butter. You could adapt these, too, to your taste - maybe use hazelnuts, almonds or pecans instead of pistachios (I reckon any of those would be divine); blueberries instead of raspberries; a mixture of milk and white chocolate; a little ginger instead of cardamom.
Think of them as a blueprint for all your most ridiculously decadent dessert dreams. Forget making anything more sophisticated - I can guarantee people will appreciate these more.
Raspberry, white chocolate, pistachio and cardamom blondies (makes 2 x 16-20 blondies):
- 300g butter
- 300g white chocolate chips (or chopped white chocolate)
- 200g light muscovado sugar
- 200g dark muscovado sugar
- 6 large eggs
- 6 cardamom pods, seeds crushed to a powder
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 200g plain flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 280g raspberries (I use frozen as they're cheaper)
- 60g pistachios, roughly chopped
In a large, wide saucepan, heat the butter until bubbling then cook over a medium heat, swirling occasionally, until the white solids separate from the gold liquid, then brown flecks start to appear, the colour darks, and it smells biscuity (for a tutorial on the technique, see here). Leave to cool for five minutes, then stir in half the chocolate chips to melt them. Grease and line two 8x8 inch cake tins, and pre-heat the oven to 165C.
In a large bowl with an electric whisk, or using an electric mixer, beat the sugars with the eggs until pale and creamy - about 3-5 minutes. Beat in the cardamom and vanilla, then the white chocolate and butter mixture. Gently beat in the flour and salt, then when you have a smooth batter fold in half the remaining chocolate chips and half the pistachio nuts.
Divide between the two tins, then scatter over the raspberries. Scatter over the remaining chocolate chips, then the pistachio nuts. Bake for 45 minutes, or until firm and golden on top with only a very slight wobble in the centre (they will continue to cook as they cool).
So often cheesecakes can be overly sugary, overly creamy and just a little bit much. This version might make you rethink your conception of a cheesecake. There's no biscuit base, but instead there's a beautifully light and fluffy ricotta filling, studded with all the flavours of Sicilian desserts: sherry-soaked raisins, emerald pistachios, vibrant candied peel and citrus zest. On top, a gorgeous burst of blood orange colour and a scattering of more pistachios. It's light, fresh, fluffy and really very good. For the recipe, head over to my latest post for the Appliances Online lifestyle blog, here!
The other day, I found myself standing outside the Co-op near my house crying a little bit. I had been trying to lock up my bike, when it fell violently onto my leg, scraping off all the skin and hurting rather a lot (there is very little cushioning on a shin). It had generally been a pretty bad day, a day that started at 5.30am due to my inexplicably overactive mind deciding it needed no further rest, and which by 2pm had turned into - in my mind - a tragedy of epic proportions. Why had I not just gone straight home and avoided this painful bike scenario, I hear you ask? Well, obviously, I needed to buy two pineapples.
At the moment, I am completely obsessed with pineapple. It started with these pineapple pancakes, an attempt to assuage feelings of deep nostalgia after my trip to Vietnam. I ate quite a lot of pineapple over there - in pancake form but also in the smoothies that I became obsessed with, a fixture of my daily diet. You can also buy prepared pineapple in supermarkets over there, just like you can in the UK, but the Vietnamese have an interesting habit of eating underripe pineapple as a savoury snack, with salt and chilli - it would come shrink-wrapped accompanied by a little sachet of this spicy salt, for dipping. I prefer my pineapple sweet, though, hence the delight caused by its inclusion in breakfast pancakes.
After caramelising chunks of fresh pineapple with cinnamon, vanilla and brown sugar, a revelation occurred in my kitchen. While fresh pineapple is, of course, delicious - bursting with juice, sweet yet tart at the same time, bright and almost perfumed - having tasted its cooked and sugared form, I'm not sure I can possibly express how infinitely more wonderful pineapple is after a little heat treatment.
Then there was this recipe for chilli and ginger stir-fried pineapple, a dish I've made at least fifteen times since discovering it only a couple of months ago, which is something I can't say for anything else I've ever made. The combination is just ridiculously moreish, with the sour and salty notes of fish sauce and the aromatic ginger and garlic spiking the sweet juice of the fruit. I'm now a big fan of pineapple in savoury dishes, a combination found in this incredible Cuban-influenced caramelised pineapple and avocado salad recipe from the excellent Food 52: I stumbled across it recently and had to try the very next day.
It didn't disappoint; my favourite part was sprinkling thick wedges of the fruit with molasses sugar and caramelising them under the fierce heat of my grill, ramped up as high as it would go. The combination with the creamy, delicate avocado and the peppery watercress was something else.
A few weeks ago, I visited Dishoom, a fantastic 'Bombay Cafe' in Covent Garden. My menu choices were completely based around the fact that I knew I had to leave room for the pineapple crumble on the dessert menu. When it arrived, I was so glad I hadn't devoured a second bowl of lentil dahl. Underneath a deliciously buttery crumble lay a sweet, sticky blanket of caramelised pineapple, juicy and ridiculously tasty. The crumble crust was unusual in its texture, full of crunchy seeds and, I think, coconut, which added a beautiful dimension to this fabulous spin on a classic pudding. There was a hint of fragrant spice - the menu mentioned black pepper - which mellowed the acidic sweetness of the fruit. To top it all off, a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. It was one of the best desserts I've ever eaten.
So, naturally, I had to bring this combination of flavours into my own kitchen. And, incredibly, I think I got it absolutely right. It tasted exactly the same as the restaurant crumble. It's too good not to share. (The crumble itself, incidentally, is way too good to share - halve your estimation of how many people it will serve, right now).
When you melt butter in a pan and add molasses sugar (the really really dark, sticky, caramel-scented stuff), the world is instantly better. When you then add a sprinkling of cinnamon and a large amount of juicy fresh pineapple, it is almost too good to be true. When you then let that caramelise and turn soft, golden and toffee-esque, you may as well accept that few things will ever be as good. Finally, a splash of vanilla - heady, tropical fruity perfection. I added a dash of black pepper to my pineapple, to emulate the restaurant version - just enough to give the fruit a very slight spicy edge, but you'd never detect it was there unless you knew.
I've come across black pepper with pineapple before, in an Indian-style chutney. It works very well in dessert form too. Pineapple, though quite tart raw, is incredibly sweet once cooked with a little sugar; the pepper helps to mellow it a little, yet also allow its flavour to shine.
Tumble the pineapple into a baking dish. Then it's time for the crumble. This basically involved putting all the ingredients I love into a bowl. Spelt flour, for nutty flavour. Butter - of course. Demerara sugar, to give that all-important crumble crunch. Then we start to turn things a little bit sexy and exotic.
Ground cardamom, because its mellow fragrance works so well with all kinds of fruit and sweet confections. Desiccated coconut, an ingredient many people cannot spell and I wish would learn because it infuriates me. Sunflower seeds, for delicious nutty crunchiness and because I think the restaurant crumble had them, though it may have been pumpkin. Slivered pistachios, because they are green and pretty and I cannot think of anything that isn't improved by them (except perhaps a nut allergy).
Oh, the sweet goodness that was this crumble. I was thrilled with how it turned out, exactly as I was hoping. If I made it again, the only slight tweak necessary would be to add a little more butter to the topping - I used my normal crumble topping, but because I added a few extras (coconut, seeds, etc), I needed a little more butter to hold it together. It was, as I suppose it should be, quite crumbly, which is why it perhaps looks a bit of a mess in the photos. This had no impact, however, on the resulting taste. I've adjusted the recipe below to include a bit more butter.
Butter issues aside, the heady mix here of juicy, sticky, toffee-scented pineapple with an exotically spiced, crunchy, coconut-sweet, nutty crumble is just ridiculously good. For traditionalists who believe crumbles belong solely in the realm of orchard fruits or perhaps rhubarb, it's time to rethink things.
This is a dessert that will surprise and delight. The unexpected inclusion of pineapple in a crumble is pretty exciting alone, but when you combine that with the hint of peppery spice and the exotic allure of cardamom and coconut, you have something really special. I couldn't stop eating this. It's fabulous with vanilla ice cream, though one day I want to make cinnamon ice cream to go alongside, à la the restaurant original.
It's time to take pineapple out of the fruit salad and into the kitchen. If you haven't experimented with cooking this wonderful fruit before, I suggest you change this situation, starting with this crumble.
Definitely worth crying over outside the Co-op.
Spiced pineapple and coconut crumble (serves 4-6):
- 2 medium pineapples
- 25g butter
- 2 tbsp molasses sugar/dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 160g plain/spelt flour
- 100g cold butter, cubed
- 50g demerara sugar
- 8 cardamom pods, seeds ground to a powder
- 80g desiccated coconut
- 25g sunflower seeds
- 1-2 tbsp cold water
- 40g pistachios, roughly chopped
First, make the pineapple mixture. Peel the pineapple and cut into small chunks, discarding the woody core. Heat the 25g butter in a large non-stick frying pan and, when melted, add the sugar and cinnamon. Add the pineapple and cook over a high heat, stirring, until soft, juicy and caramelised - about 5-10 minutes. It should have released a little bit of juice and be quite sticky and golden. Turn off the heat and add the black pepper and vanilla extract. Pour the fruit into a baking dish - I used a pie dish about 30cm in diameter.
Next, make the crumble. Pre-heat the oven to 170C. In a large mixing bowl, rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, cardamom, coconut and sunflower seeds, then stir in the cold water so that the mixture forms small 'pebbles'. Pour the mixture over the pineapple, gently pressing it down, then scatter over the pistachios.
Bake for around 35 minutes, until the topping is crispy and golden. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving with vanilla ice cream.
'Salad' is a funny word. I don't think there's any word in the entire realm of gastronomic lexicon so versatile as 'salad'. Originating from the Latin word 'sal', meaning 'salt', salads were originally assortments of raw vegetables liberally dressed with oil and salt. Today, the Italian word for salted - salata - is very similar to that for salad: insalata.
Yet in this modern day and age, the word 'salad' can be applied to pretty much anything. Without even thinking about it, I titled this recipe a 'salad'. It got me thinking a bit more about the word, and what sort of rhyme and reason lies behind the labelling of something as a salad.
At your most basic and primitive, you have the simple green salad. An assortment of leaves, dressed with a simple blend of vinegar, oil, and seasoning. This sort of salad is all about the dressing. Without it, you have a bowlful of slightly bitter greenery that is only going to be palatable in company with an onslaught of meat, cheese or carbs (or all of the above). Coat each leaf in a light film of tangy oil, however, and you transform it from worthy to worth eating, on its own, rather than as an afterthought during a mouthful of something more tasty.
To upgrade the green salad, you might want to add some protein. Meat or fish, for example - like a classic Caesar salad, or tuna nicoise. You could throw in some croutons - this turns it from a side dish to a main meal. Do you serve your choice of protein in chunks - flaked tuna, maybe, or shreds of chicken - or serve it whole, perched on top of its bed of leaves? Does this make it more of a meat/fish dish with a salad accompaniment, rather than a salad?
Do salads even have to have leaves in them? I've certainly made and eaten a few salads that lacked any leafy component whatsoever. A robust medley of roasted beetroot, carrot, flaked mackerel and orange slices, for example - no leaves there. I still called it a salad, though. What about carbohydrates? Does a bowl of couscous count as a salad if it contains vegetables? What about beans or lentils? Their comforting earthiness is about as far as you can get from a springy, sprightly bowl of leaves.
Thinking about it, I'd say there were two hard and fast rules, at least in my book, behind terming something a salad. Firstly, it has to contain at least two different vegetables, leafy or otherwise. Secondly, its ingredients have to be mostly cut into similar sized pieces, so the eye is presented with an agreeable colourful medley. Other than that, though, I really can't think of anything definitive about a salad. It can be hot or cold, with protein or without, involving carbs or not, leafy or decidedly lacking in greenery...the possibilities are pretty much endless.
Even the dressing issue doesn't seem to define a salad. We are no longer in those Roman times, where salt was the main crucial component. Some salads, if their ingredients pack enough of a punch, need nothing more than a slick of olive oil or a squeeze of lemon juice to brighten them up and make them tasty.
Some, however, just need that dressing - Vietnamese and Thai salads, for example, where a selection of otherwise lacklustre raw crunchy vegetables take on a new character when liberally soused in tangy fish sauce or rice vinegar, lime juice and brown sugar.
I used to think the word 'salad' meant 'boring'. This was before I thought outside the green salad box, before I realised the endless possibilities conjured up by the word 'salad'. If you don't limit yourself to leaves, there's a whole world of delicious potential out there. I love experimenting with salads, throwing things together often out of a desire to use up the contents of the fridge or fruit bowl. You can be pretty creative, adding a bit of fruit here, some canned pulses there, maybe some nuts or herbs.
This is one of those dishes that I've termed 'salad' due to not really knowing what else to call it. It's more substantial than your average leafy salad, because it contains quinoa. If you haven't tried quinoa, it's a little like couscous, only with a slightly firmer texture and delicious nutty flavour. It's also one of those healthy 'superfood' type things, which unfortunately means it's often extortionately priced, but supermarkets do sometimes sell it for a reasonable amount.
If you didn't think salad could be sexy, this might just make you rethink. The colours alone whisper of exotic eastern promise: the bold scarlet of pomegranate seeds, the blushing magenta interior of ripe fresh figs, the jade green of chopped pistachios. It's an absolute beauty to look at, perfect for brightening up the depths of winter. It also uses some of my absolute favourite ingredients, ones that remind me of hot and heady days spent travelling the Middle East: dark, unctuous pomegranate molasses; bulgingly ripe fresh figs; toasty pistachios and beautiful sparkling pomegranate seeds.
Cooked spinach is stirred into cooked seasoned quinoa, for a flavoursome base. To this is added shreds of cooked chicken, which are briefly tossed with pomegranate molasses, spices and honey over a high heat to caramelise them on the outside and imbue them with the warm fragrance of cardamom, black pepper and garam masala, plus a lemony tang from the molasses. Figs are thrown in too, to turn jammy and sweet on the inside. This all sits on the mound of nutty quinoa, topped with fresh coriander and chopped pistachios for crunch and a rich earthy flavour. Finally, sweet pomegranate seeds to balance the sour tang of the caramelised chicken.
This is a great recipe for using up any leftover chicken, though most poultry would work with it - leftover duck would be delicious, or turkey, or even some game. The meat becomes deliciously moist, with a beautiful caramelised exterior that is sweet and sour and fragrant with warm eastern spices. The figs soften and turn syrupy, while all this is balanced by the nutty quinoa and pistachios. Pomegranate seeds and coriander add freshness and zest to the whole plateful. There's no dressing to speak of, so maybe this isn't technically a 'salad', but you really don't need anything more than a little drizzle of olive oil to bring together such vibrant and flavoursome ingredients.
These are ingredients that just seem to belong together: the fragrant spices, the sweet fruit, the earthy quinoa and pistachios.
Is it a salad? Who knows. Is it delicious, beautiful, and good for you too? Yes, so let's not get fussy over definitions.
Pomegranate glazed spiced chicken and fig quinoa salad (serves 2):
- 100g quinoa
- 2 large handfuls baby spinach
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 8 cardamom
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 12 black peppercorns
- 240g cooked chicken
- 3 tsp pomegranate molasses
- 1 tsp honey
- 8 fresh figs, quartered
- 2 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped
- Seeds from half a pomegranate
- 4 tbsp coriander leaves, to garnish
- Thick yoghurt, to serve
Put the quinoa in a saucepan and cover with boiling water by about an inch. Cover and cook on a medium heat for 12 minutes, then drain well and set aside. Cook the spinach briefly, either using a microwave (1 minute on high power) or by wilting it in a pan. Roughly chop and stir into the quinoa. Season with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
Crush the cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar and remove the husks. Grind the seeds to a fine powder, then crush and grind the peppercorns too. Add the garam masala.
Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a non-stick frying pan or saucepan. Add the spices and cook for a minute on a medium heat, then add the chicken. Cook for a minute or two, then add the pomegranate molasses and honey. It should bubble and sizzle. Stir to coat the chicken in this mixture, then add the figs. Cook for a couple of minutes, until everything is dark and sticky. Drizzle with a little olive oil.
Divide the quinoa mixture between two plates. Top with the chicken and figs, then scatter over the pistachios, pomegranate seeds and coriander leaves. Drizzle over a little more olive oil, if you like, then serve with a dollop of yoghurt.
Christmas in the kitchen, for me, is a time to start searching for those 'definitive' recipes. Seeing as the annual festival of getting fat and eating too much with some exchanging presents in between generally involves cooking the same dishes every year - mince pies, Christmas pudding, a roast, cabbage, sprouts, Christmas cake, cranberry sauce - I've been on the hunt for the past few years for recipes for these things that are so good I'll want to just go straight back to them next year, rather than continuing to experiment. So far, Delia's braised red cabbage with apple, Levi Roots' tropical Christmas pudding and Fiona Cairn's Christmas cake recipes are all lucky enough to have made it onto this list. My mum's mince pies are also a staple, but I long ago accepted that they'll only taste right if mum makes them herself, so they're not something I can really recreate on my own.
However, there's still a gap as far as stollen is concerned. Ever since I discovered this baked delight a few years ago - I can't actually remember when I had my first taste, but it had me hooked - I've tried every year to create the perfect stollen. For those of you who have never tried it, sort this out. It's a delicious cross between a bread and a cake, studded with dried fruit and nuts, with a thick vein of marzipan running through the middle. It's often glazed with butter and liberal amounts of icing sugar, and scented with spices like cardamom and cinnamon.
The first recipe I tried was from a book that came with our bread-making machine at home. I made the fruity dough in the breadmaker, stuffed it with marzipan and baked it. The result was rather like a giant, elongated hot cross bun. It was bready rather than cakey, with quite a loose crumb. It was delicious, especially toasted and buttered, but not really what I was after. Stollen should have quite a dense texture, closer to bread than cake. It's moist yet crumbly at the same time, often from the addition of ground almonds.
The next recipe I tried was Dan Lepard's sour cherry stollen. This was much closer to what I wanted: it had a lovely cakey texture and was even better after maturing, soaked in rum, sugar and butter, for a few days (although I obviously had to nibble a piece before I put it away for its little rum bath, just to quality control). It had a lovely cardamom flavour, which I think is essential to a good stollen - the combination of super-sugary marzipan and the citrus hit of cardamom is fabulous. It's like the gastronomic equivalent of getting a snowball in the face. But in a good way.
Last year, I tried Richard Bertinet's stollen recipe, which was in the delicious magazine Christmas issue. The main advantage of this recipe was that it made not one, not two, but four stollen loaves. It was quite involved - a lot of kneading and proving and folding fruit into dough, as well as making a 'creme d'amande' out of eggs, sugar, ground almonds and butter - but the end result was gorgeous. The crumb texture was very buttery, rather like a croissant, with a wonderful almond hit. We froze two of the stollen and my mum begged me on a monthly basis throughout the following year to allow her to defrost one and eat it.
This year, I think I'll probably make the Bertinet version again. However, this recipe for orange and pistachio stollen bars, another Dan Lepard creation, has been sitting in my Bookmarks folder for an entire year, since it appeared in the 2011 Observer Christmas food special. The other day I felt the urge to bake something festive, and these sprung to mind.
The advantage of these is that they are incredibly quick and easy to make. Pretty much everything just goes into a bowl, then a pan, then the oven, then your mouth. No kneading or proving, as you often get with the more bread-like stollen recipes. Yet the end result tastes pretty much exactly like real stollen. There's that dense, cakey crumb - made with the addition of cream cheese, which I think gives it its richness - the hit of cardamom, juicy pieces of raisin, crunchy pistachios, and finally the delicious grainy squidgyness of marzipan pieces. The crumb is also infused with orange extract, which gives it a delicious Christmassy flavour.
Also, because it's baked in a wide tray, you get more of the delicious crunchy, caramelised crust, which is one of the best bits of stollen. Particularly here where pieces of marzipan near the surface of the mixture bubble up in the oven and turn crunchy and toffee-like.
When I make these again, I think I'll chop the pistachios rather than leave them whole, as I prefer a little bit of crunch rather than whole nuts. I'd also chop the marzipan into smaller pieces - Dan suggests 2cm squares, but that's a sizeable chunk of marzipan to chew on, and they're also harder to fold through the batter, which is pretty dense already. [Since I wrote this post I have indeed made them again, and can confirm that chopping the nuts and using smaller marzipan pieces is definitely the way forward]. I think the raisins would be excellent replaced with dried cranberries or cherries, or maybe with some dried apricots added too.
The best part of this is removing the warm cake from the oven, then brushing it with melted butter and dousing it in icing sugar. The smell as it bakes is sumptuous, filling the kitchen with the aroma of Christmas; fruit, spice, nuts and butter. Slicing the cake into squares is also deeply satisfying, particularly when crumbs or corners end up crumbling off and you have to eat them to neaten everything up.
While not a true stollen, these may just make it onto my list of 'go-to' Christmas recipes. All the flavour of stollen, with none of the faff. Apparently they keep for a good while if you're generous with the melted butter and sugar, and wrap them tightly in foil. But of course, if you're generous with the melted butter and sugar, you're going to want to devour them all in an indecently short amount of time, as I did. Fortunately my department at university has an actual thing that we call 'Cake Thursday', which involves sharing home-baked treats on a weekly basis. Without these human bins in which to dispose of all my baking, I would be well on the way to obesity right now. It's cold up in York. I need baked goods for insulation.
These little squares are the essence of Christmas. Whip up a batch to sustain you through the arduous weeks of shopping, card-writing and turkey-buying ahead. Make some and give them to your friends. Just make sure they don't have a nut allergy.
For the recipe, from Dan Lepard, click here.
"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.