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
Cauliflower is such an underrated vegetable. So frequently found unfairly buried beneath a smothering blanket of cheese sauce, this tragic brassica is often maligned for being watery, mushy and grey. We hide it away under a covering of fat as if we’re embarrassed by it, offering our apologies by way of a hefty dose of mitigating cheese. Its vibrant cousin, broccoli, suffers no such fate. Perhaps the anaemic whiteness of the cauliflower does it a disservice: after all, these days we are bullied by the health police into thinking ill of most white foods, be it sugar, your supermarket sliced loaf or refined rice.Read more
When I was a lot younger, I remember stumbling upon a very curious utensil in my family's kitchen. This little knife had a wooden handle like any other, but its blade was serrated on both sides and, bizarrely, curved sharply to one side. My mum explained that it was a grapefruit knife, designed to enable the scooping out of grapefruit flesh from the skin so you could enjoy it for breakfast. She must have shown me how to use it, because I distinctly remember enjoying, on several occasions, the ritual of slicing a grapefruit into two heavy halves, running that special knife in a circular motion around the pink flesh, using a small paring knife to cut in between the membranes, bisecting the fruit like the spokes of a wheel, and finally savouring the fruit of my labours with a teaspoon, scooping each tiny segment out of the skin and popping it into my mouth.Read more
I was teaching a student the other day when he asked me to explain the term ‘idiolect’. As with so many definitions, this is something that benefits from the giving of an example. I was plunged into a moment of introspective self-analysis, rapidly mentally running through the lexicon I use on a daily basis, the words to which I attribute non-standard uses or meanings and which therefore constitute my own, distinct, idiolect. I hit, suddenly, upon the word ‘insane’. “You see, when I use the word insane,” I explained to my student, “I use it to mean amazing; ridiculously good; incredible.”
The other night, I found myself murmuring, through a mouthful of pecan nuts, “Oh my god these are insane.”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
Few people seem to know what to do with a persimmon. In fact, most people I know have never encountered them before. They’ll either hear me mention one and say ‘what’s that?’, or they’ll glance over at it in the fruit bowl and look confused. I can kind of understand why: persimmons do resemble large, squat orange tomatoes, so seeing them nestled there amongst the bananas, apples and pears might seem a little odd (even though the tomato is, of course, technically a fruit). I explain the unique qualities of this fine fruit, tell them how good it is in a variety of dishes…and then of course they say ‘Oh right’ and promptly forget, assuming this is another of my mad fruit whims to be humoured and then quickly disregarded.Read more
'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.
I am heartily convinced that people who claim not to like aubergines have only ever experienced them in something like badly-cooked ratatouille or curry. If you don't treat a noble aubergine properly in such a preparation, it will be disgusting. It will be spongy and tough in the centre and slimy around the outside, watery and generally vile. An aubergine is not really a boiling vegetable. Stewing it in liquid will not do it any favours. The best way to treat an aubergine is to grill or bake it until its flesh turns from springy and spongy to molten, smoky and silky. Its skin will wrinkle and crisp, while its inside turns deliciously moist, full of rich, earthy flavour.
The only problem with this is that it takes a while. It's no real effort, but you do have to roast the aubergines for a good length of time to get the proper amount of molten-ness and smoky flavour. You then have to peel off the skin, and mash the flesh with your choice of seasoning to really bring out the best in it. Classic additions are garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and herbs - add these and you've got something approaching the middle Eastern dip, baba ganoush; add tahini as well, and you have moutabal.
Among the goodies I was recently sent to try by Belazu, producers of mediterranean ingredients and olives, is roasted aubergine paste. This is rather like an aubergine tapenade. It concentrates all that delicious smoky aubergine flavour into a spreadable condiment that can be used straight from the jar, rather than requiring faffing around with aubergines and seasoning. It's not the prettiest thing ever, being a sort of murky grey cement colour, but this shouldn't put you off, because it packs a deep punch of aubergine flavour.
The paste has a slight smoky bitterness, so is great combined with sweet or tart ingredients. I've used it to make a sort of mediterranean bruschetta, spreading the paste over toasted sourdough (homemade, of course), then topping it with roasted tomatoes. As with aubergines, roasting tomatoes concentrates all their delicious flavour. It also turns them slightly sweet and gooey, a perfect complement to the deep, earthy flavours of the aubergine paste. I added torn mozzarella for a light, fresh flavour to balance everything else, then a scattering of pomegranate seeds. Pomegranate seeds are more than just a pretty garnish (although I admit, I do throw them on just about anything to make it look a bit sexy): their sharp burst of sweetness works really well with aubergine. Finally, a few leaves of coriander, both for colour and for their slight citrus note.
This is a lovely light lunch or dinner, full of intense, bold flavours. It's also beautifully colourful, which is exactly what we need at this time of year. Make sure you get good bread and good mozzarella (the buffalo stuff in a pot rather than a bag, preferably), and you can't really go wrong.
Try it out on self-confessed aubergine haters. I reckon they just might love it.
Aubergine bruschetta with roasted tomatoes, mozzarella and pomegranate (serves 2):
- 20 cherry tomatoes
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 4 slices sourdough bread
- 1 jar Belazu aubergine paste
- 16 mozzarella pearls (or a ball of mozzarella, torn into chunks)
- Seeds from half a pomegranate
- Coriander, to garnish
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Put the tomatoes in a small oven dish and toss with the oil, salt and pepper. Roast for around 20 minutes, until charred in places and starting to burst. Remove and set aside.
Toast the sourdough slices and divide between two plates. Spread the bread with the aubergine paste, then scatter over the tomatoes, mozzarella and pomegranate seeds. Garnish with some sprigs of coriander.
This salad that showcases everything special and beautiful about our British autumn produce. It also uses my absolute favourite fish, mackerel, smothered in warm and aromatic spices and fried until crispy. This sits on a bed of tangy, crunchy, flavoursome salad that is also stunning to look at, using beautiful tangles of ivory fennel and apple, slivers of bold pink beetroot and sparkling pomegranate seeds. Just looking at it will make you feel warm and nourished, and every mouthful is an absolute treat to eat.
While not your stereotypical autumn comfort food - piping hot, featuring both meat and potatoes and generally various shades of brown - I sometimes think there is comfort to be had, in the frost of autumn, in vibrant flavours that wake your tastebuds up from their stew-induced stupor.
You can't think of British autumn produce without thinking of apples. I'm especially aware of their existence now that I have an apple tree in my garden, laden with bulbous blushing fruits ready to drop at the slightest breath of wind. I've been donning my wellies and heading into the long grass on a weekly basis to collect the windfalls. It always makes me sad when I find one too bruised or worm-eaten to be gastronomically viable, as it seems such a waste. Still, I try and do what I can to ensure they don't all become food for the lawn and the worms. This month has seen an apple and blackberry pie, an apple, date and cranberry crumble, a delicious apple and blackberry baked oatmeal for breakfast, and a wonderful quince and apple compote that I've been eating over cinnamon-enriched porridge studded with blackberries.
When they're not baked into a tart-sweet froth and nestled juicily under a buttery crust, apples have a lot of savoury potential in the kitchen too, particularly when coupled with other autumn ingredients - they're delicious in a casserole with pork, sausages or pheasant, or roasted in wedges with some potatoes to serve alongside a roast. I also love them thinly sliced in a sharp salad to accompany richer ingredients; their crispness and sweetness is always welcome, particularly when encased in a tangy mustard dressing.
Fennel is something I pretty much always have in the fridge. I can't resist a salad of thinly sliced fennel (I actually bought a mandolin just for this purpose) tossed in grain mustard, olive oil, herbs and salt. It goes with pretty much anything - meat, fish or cheese - and is infinitely adaptable, working with a huge variety of other fruit, herbs and veg. I usually add pomegranate seeds - their sweetness works well against the aniseed tang of the fennel - and sliced pear, which is a delicious contrast in texture, tending to be soft and melting against the crunch of the fennel strands. Here I've used apples, but pears would work well too. Fennel also goes very well with orange.
Also, a little cook's tip for you - don't try slicing a ripe pear on a mandolin, unless you want to be hunting around in your salad for the tip of your middle finger.
If you're not a big fan of the aniseedy crunch of fennel, try caramelising it in butter and a little brown sugar before using it in a recipe. It might have you converted. I love using it in any recipes involving fish, where its fresh, light flavour is a perfect complement. Fennel seeds are also a hugely underrated ingredient, working incredibly well with tomatoes, pork, fish, cheese and anything in need of a little herbal note.
Beetroot is something I always mean to eat more of, but fail to. I think it's because I can find it quite sickly. I absolutely cannot stomach those dark purple globes that come ready cooked and peeled in the supermarket - they have a disgusting squidgy texture and vile sickly flavour that makes me gag. Don't even get me started on the pickled stuff.
However, raw beetroot sliced into wedges, tossed in oil and liberal seasoning, then roasted until tender and caramelised, is a beautiful thing. One of my favourite ways to eat it is in this beetroot, carrot, orange and mackerel salad. It goes really well with mackerel, providing a sweet earthiness to counteract the rich flavour of the fish. It also works well with apple, being similarly crisp and sweet.
Raw beetroot isn't something I've eaten a lot of, but when I found these gorgeous candy and golden beetroot in the supermarket I knew I didn't want to roast them and risk marring their stunning colours. Instead I decided to slice them wafer-thin (again using my trusty mandolin, and risking the tips of my fingers with every stroke) to add another layer of crunch to my salad. They were just so pretty. I tend to wax lyrical about the beauty of fruit and veg at the best of times, but these really were incredibly beautiful. Why would you ever buy that pre-cooked vacuum-packed (or worse, vinegar-soaked) stuff when you could get some of these globes of gorgeous goodness? (To use a Nigella-esque phrase).
I also like how they are called 'candy' beetroot, which conjures up images of lurid sweet shop jars and neon sherbet, somehow making the beetroot more appealing. Maybe it's a clever marketing ploy. If so, I fell for it.
Speaking of beetroot and candy, I've always been intrigued by the use of beetroot in chocolate cakes and brownies. Think carrot in carrot cakes - the vegetable adds a moisture and subtle sweetness, and apparently its earthiness goes very well with chocolate. Something on the 'to try' list.
Also, another bonus of these beetroot varieties - they don't stain your fingers nearly as badly as traditional beetroot, nor bleed horribly into the other salad ingredients, which is always sad.
Pomegranatesare everywhere at this time of year; they are, to me, the Christmas fruit (along with clementines). There's very little I won't scatter a load of pomegranate seeds over - their snap of juiciness is always welcome, as is their jewel-like appearance. Here they add a delicious bite to the salad, and a little freshness to counteract the strong flavours of the mackerel.
Finally, the mackerel. While perhaps not as obviously autumnal as something like pheasant or venison, mackerel is the perfect partner for a lot of autumn fruit and veg. It's very healthy, very quick and easy to cook, and you can throw all sorts of strong flavours at it without it blinking an eye (well, I'd hope not anyway - if your mackerel is blinking then your fishmonger probably isn't doing his job properly). Mackerel is one of those fish that is generally better cooked as fillets - you can roast a whole one, but because it's quite oily the skin doesn't really crisp up properly, and it's all a bit flabby. Go for a nice big fillet, which will sizzle deliciously in the pan, its skin becoming burnished and crispy while the oily flesh stays wonderfully moist and meaty.
Here I've covered it in turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes, mixed with a little oil to make a spice rub. This gives it a gorgeous aromatic crust, and the spicy flavours work so well with the oily flesh of the fish. It goes into a very hot pan to allow the skin to crisp up, and then is ready to serve alongside the salad.
I really love this dish. The salad, with its lemon and mustard dressing, is tangy, crunchy and fresh, which is perfect to sit alongside the spicy, oily fish. It's also cooling against the rather assertive heat of the chilli flakes, resulting in little explosions of sweet/spicy/sour flavour in your mouth as you eat it. It takes everything that is great about British produce at this time of year, and uses those ingredients in a slightly unusual, and exciting, way. If you're sceptical about raw veg, don't be - it really works.
If you wanted to, you could swap the fish for chicken or pork, or to make it vegetarian use thick slices of griddled halloumi. It's super-nutritious - by the end you'll have had all of your five-a-day!
Spiced mackerel with apple, fennel and beetroot salad (serves 2):
- 2 mackerel, filleted
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- A generous pinch of chilli flakes
- Olive oil
- Juice of half a lemon
- 2 tsp wholegrain mustard (I used Tracklements horseradish mustard)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 large eating apples (I used Cox)
- 1 small bulb fennel
- 2 small beetroot (about the size of a golf ball)
- 2 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
- A few sprigs lemon or normal thyme, leaves picked
- Seeds of half a pomegranate
- A large handful of pea shoots, rocket or watercress
First, make the spice rub. Mix together the turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes with some salt and pepper, then add enough olive oil to form a thick paste. Rub this all over the mackerel fillets, on both sides. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together a generous glug (around 2-3 tbsp) of olive oil with the lemon juice, mustard, and some salt and pepper. Cut the apples into quarters, remove the core, then thinly slice. Add these to the bowl. Using a mandolin, slice the fennel and the beetroot wafer-thin and add these to the bowl (or use a very sharp knife and try and slice as thinly as possible). Add the parsley, thyme leaves and pomegranate seeds, then toss together well. Divide between two plates or bowls and top with the pea shoots/rocket/watercress.
Get a non-stick frying pan very hot. Add a little olive oil, then use some kitchen paper to rub it evenly over the pan. Press the mackerel fillets into the pan, skin-side down. They should sizzle. Cook for around 3 minutes, or until the underside of the fish is nearly opaque. Flip over and cook for another minute. You may need to do this in batches if all the fillets won't fit in the pan at once.
Place two mackerel fillets on top of each plate of salad, then serve immediately.
In a bid to find a gluten-free alternative to all my favourite grainy lunchtime carbohydrates (couscous, bulgur wheat, pearl barley), I have fallen in love with buckwheat. Buckwheat, although it might look, cook and taste like your ordinary gluten-filled grain (and, of course, it has 'wheat' in its title) is actually a seed. In fact, it is related to rhubarb. It's not a grain and therefore is totally gluten free. You can buy it as flour, which is perhaps more commonly known - it's what the French use to make those gorgeous dark, nutty crêpes that they fill with savoury stuffings. This is ideal for a spot of gluten-free baking, although it has quite a strong flavour so is usually best 'diluted' with another more neutral gluten-free flour.
You can also buy it as groats, however, which is where it really comes into its own.
These are a funny little convex triangle shape, looking at first glance a bit like giant, angular couscous granules. They can be cooked in the same way as rice - boiled in twice their volume of water or stock - to result in creamy, nutty pellets of deliciousness. They have a similar sort of chewy texture to pearl barley, but not as dense. In fact, the closest similarity is probably with cooked risotto rice - tender and starchy, but still with a little bite. You can use them to make a risotto, and you can even cook them in water and milk to make gluten-free porridge. Incidentally, they are also packed with protein and other nutrients, so not only are they a lovely comforting carb-blanket, but they are even healthy, and very low in calories for something so squidgy and delicious.
I like to cook them simply in water or stock, and then use them as the starchy, comforting, chewy base of a delicious salad. The first time I tried buckwheat, I made this wonderful salad from Sonia over at The Healthy Foodie. The combination was irresistible: sweet, chewy pieces of dried fruit coupled with toasted nuts and tangy goat's cheese. Buckwheat works so well in salads because it has a slight nutty flavour of its own, which means it can assert itself well against both sweet and savoury ingredients.
For dinner this evening, I was really craving a favourite salad of mine: pomegranate-glazed roasted aubergine with couscous, mint, feta cheese and pomegranate seeds. Obviously, couscous was out of the question, but then I had the brainwave of replacing it with buckwheat.
I think I actually prefer it. Buckwheat has a creaminess that you don't get with couscous, which can be quite dry if not drenched in oil. It also has that deliciously moreish risotto-like consistency, so can easily be voraciously ingested, mouthful by starchy mouthful.
To my base of cooked buckwheat, I added broad beans - I can't get enough of them at the moment, and wanted something green and something with a crunchier texture than the soft aubergine - chopped fresh mint (goes so well with aubergine), aubergines tossed in a mixture of olive oil, honey and pomegranate molasses then roasted until soft and squishy, crumbled feta, and fresh pomegranate seeds. I dressed the buckwheat with a little tahini paste, for added creaminess and because in my mind nothing works better with aubergine, and Dijon mustard, for a bit of a kick.
Basically this was a salad born of my cravings and of what I had in the fridge or just thought might work well if I chucked it into the mix. It ended up being utterly delicious, a simple meal with simple ingredients that tasted perfect and wonderful. It's super-healthy, but in an utterly satisfying, starchy way. You'd never believe something gluten-free could be so creamy and delicious. I'd highly encourage any gluten-free dieters out there, if they haven't already, to give buckwheat a go - it could be the answer to that empty, couscous-shaped hole in your life, and is the basis for so many wonderful and versatile recipes. If I can get my hands on some buckwheat flour, which I've totally failed to do so far, though I've been trying for months, I'd be really interested to experiment with some gluten-free baking.
Other than this pretty and perfect plateful, my gluten-free eating today has been as follows: porridge with grated apple, sultanas and blueberries for breakfast; more of yesterday's creamy smoked trout pasta salad for lunch, with a nectarine; a post-teaching snack of a mango and a banana. I've had a great day, feeling very energised throughout despite desperately not wanting to leave my bed when my alarm went off early this morning. I wouldn't say it's a hugely dramatic difference, but I definitely feel cleaner and healthier somehow. It might all be in my head, but it's still a pretty good feeling. I'm not even that happy it's the final day of my gluten-free challenge tomorrow; in truth, there's nothing I've really missed.
Apart from couscous.
But now I have buckwheat, so even that doesn't haunt my gastronomic dreams any more. Hurrah.
Buckwheat salad with pomegranate-glazed aubergine, feta, broad beans and mint (serves 3-4):
- 3 medium or 2 very large aubergines
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (or balsamic vinegar if you can't find this)
- 1 tbsp honey
- Salt and pepper
- 180g buckwheat groats
- Two large handfuls frozen broad beans
- 3 tsp tahini paste
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 20g fresh mint, leaves shredded
- 100g feta cheese, crumbled
- Half a pomegranate
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the aubergines into 1-inch cubes. Mix together the olive oil, molasses, honey and some seasoning, then toss the aubergine in this mixture and spread the pieces out on a baking tray. Season again and roast for 30-40 minutes until soft and sticky. Set aside.
Put the buckwheat in a pan, add 400ml water, bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 10 mins. After this time, add the broad beans to the pan, cover, and cook for another 5 mins or so, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the buckwheat is tender (if there's any liquid remaining, drain it off). Mix the buckwheat and beans with the tahini and mustard, and season well.
Mix the buckwheat with the aubergine pieces and most of the mint. Crumble in the feta cheese. Using a rolling pin, bash the seeds out of the pomegranate over the bowl and combine gently. Serve garnished with the rest of the mint.
The keen cook will always have a "must-try" list of ingredients that they keep tucked away in their head somewhere. This list is likely to be subdivided into "easily accessible ingredients that I see all the time but just haven't got round to experimenting with yet" and, the more interesting list, "ingredients that I read about every now and then but can't for the life of me find in any of the grocery stores or supermarkets I've ever visited". The latter list pretty much reads like your average Yotam Ottolenghi recipe: kashkaval cheese, okra, shiso leaf, dried barberries, fennel pollen, pandan leaf. It's apparently become the done thing, now, to read his recipes on the Guardian website every Saturday and leave bitchy comments along the lines of "oh good, a recipe with twenty ingredients, none of which I can source in my local corner shop". The Guardian has neatly organised Yotam's recipes into a handy list from which you can judge their exoticism and complexity in an instant - not from the title, but from the amount of comments posted below each recipe. My favourite one was a comment on one of Ottlenghi's recent recipes for a soup with halloumi croutons:
The fact that said comment was posted by someone with the username "hugelyirritated" only adds to the fun. I just love their idea that all recipes should only contain ingredients one is familiar with. Is the point of a recipe not to suggest new and exciting ideas in cooking, perhaps using new and exciting ingredients? Apparently not. Maybe "hugelyirritated" would like a recipe book consisting solely of instructions on how to make boiled eggs and toast.
I was also slightly astounded that an ingredient like halloumi could cause such controversy. How can anyone not know what halloumi is? (I ask with trepidation - surely it's only a matter of time now before "hugelyirritated" tracks me down and leaves a similar comment on this blog. If so, he/she might first like to have a look at my rant about bad grammar and spelling a couple of posts back).
I love Yotam Ottolenghi's recipes. I like that he introduces me to weird and wonderful ingredients along with new ways of cooking those things I'm already familiar with (aubergines, for example, or cauliflower - hopefully "hugelyirritated" doesn't need an explanation for those). He is almost wholly responsible for replenishing my "must-try" list of obscure ingredients, ensuring there's always something new I'd like to try in the kitchen, that I never become complacent with my cooking. Although I do admit that his inclusion of fennel pollen in one of his recent recipes made me a little exasperated. Yotam, my dear, I will normally be straight to your defence on the Guardian front line, but even I had to admit that this may have been pushing it a little too far. Very few cooks, very few keen cooks, (i.e. those that are "conversant" with the notion of halloumi), are going to go to the effort of ordering fennel pollen online.
How times have changed since I first gained an interest in food. Whereas now my "must-try" list is bursting with obscure middle-Eastern berries and vegetables, exotic Thai herbs, cheeses whose names I can't pronounce and fifteen types of mustard seed, for quite a while in the early days the most elusive ingredient on said list was orange flower water.
I seemed to read about it constantly. I remember Waitrose brought out a recipe book featuring an orange flower panna cotta. Nigel Slater spoke eloquently on the subject in his Real Good Food. Nigella suggested scattering a few drops of the stuff over a plate of baked figs. Ideas of this fragrant elixir wafted tantalisingly around my head; I had no idea what it would smell or taste like (our English climes don't really facilitate the blossoming of orange trees), but I was frequently assured by cookbooks that it would add a certain je ne sais quoi to everything I added it to. Too much, though (I was warned), and my food would taste like soap.
It wasn't until a trip to Morocco that I got my hands on the stuff (which I realise is a long way to go for an ingredient that you can now find in most supermarkets, but at the time I never took the initiative to do so - to this day I am unsure why).
I had stumbled across a shop that rather defies description; it seemed to be a pharmacy, an artist's supplier, a household store and a beautician all rolled into one. Huge tureens of powdered dye in all imaginable bright colours moulded into giant spiked cones lined one of the walls; big vats of loose spices and herbs stood in the middle of the floor; another wall was lined with mysterious looking bottles and bags. The owner took great delight in detailing all his wares to us, but it was the orange flower water that caught my cook's eye. This fragrant stuff of my dreams came not, as perhaps might have been fitting for something so exotic and wonderful, in a delicate glass vial adorned with a golden orange-shaped stopper. Rather, it came in a neon green plastic bottle with a garish Arabic label on the front bearing a picture of an orange tree. Still, I cherished it, tenderly encasing it in bundles of my clothes to ensure its safe passage back to England in my suitcase (even though it was a plastic bottle, so this was entirely unnecessary). Every time I scattered a few drops of that precious liquid from its green bottle, I remembered that weird and wonderful Moroccan shop.
I also remember the first time that elusive orange flower scent reached my nostrils. We'd taken a trip to the El Badi (meaning "incomparable palace") ruins, the remnants of a magnificent palace built in 1578 by king Ahmad al-Mansur. The original building is thought to have consisted of 360 rooms, an enormous courtyard, and a 90m long pool. It was apparently lavishly decorated with Italian marble and gold from Sudan, in its heyday. Unfortunately it was later torn apart and used to decorate another Sultan's palace, hence the ruins. I was completely captivated by what remained, which is unusual for me. I think it's because, shamefully, I was imagining the palace, in all its glory, to have looked exactly like the Sultan's palace in Aladdin (my all-time favourite film and the underlying reason for my love of all things Middle Eastern...although I try not to admit that too often).
The ruins were overgrown in places with orange trees. This also captivated my attention, simply because until then I'd never seen a real, growing orange tree in its natural habitat. What was most remarkable, however, was the scent. The oranges were blossoming, and the air was thick with the perfume of their flowers. It was completely new to me, and wonderful. It's hard to describe the scent of an orange flower; there's an underlying floral, perfumed note, with the tang of citrus cutting through it. I remember walking around and sticking my nose amidst the flowers, wondering if it would be worth stealing a bit of blossom to carry around with me (I didn't, remembering I am a Responsible Traveller).
I'd like to say something rather clichéd along the lines of "I am transported back to those orange groves every time I use orange flower water in my cooking..." but if truth be told I've now gone through so many bottles of orange flower water, purchased from various Middle Eastern or Indian supermarkets, that I don't tend to go in for Proustian recollections, instead just savouring the mysterious aromatics of that distilled liquid as I drizzle a little over a cake or some couscous.
I admit that it was hard to say goodbye to the original green plastic bottle; I was deeply upset when it finally ran out, believing that no orange flower product I could purchase in the UK would be anywhere near as good as that acquired just a kilometre or so from those lovely orange flowers themselves. I was, of course, wrong, especially as the brand I buy (Cortas) is a Middle Eastern one, so likely to be just as authentic.
This recipe is a celebration of the humble orange, both in flesh and in flower. It's an absolutely incredible cake, with a really pronounced flavour both of oranges and their blossom. There's just enough orange flower in there to lend an intriguing perfumed note, without being too overpowering. The cake itself is gluten free, made with polenta and ground almonds and pistachios (for no particular reason, but I think it's good to have a gluten-free cake in your baking repertoire). I love the resulting texture; very slightly grainy, but soaked through with a sweet, sticky syrup after baking to lend a wonderful moisture. The pistachios are less finely ground than the almonds, so you have a lovely crunch from the pieces of nut too.
It's hard to describe the flavour of this cake. There's a sharp citrus tang from the use of orange, but that's somehow mellowed by the flower water. I've given it to a few people to sample, and the results have been very positive. I think the orange flower is the key here, because it gives it a whole new level of flavour that's hard to pin down but incredibly moreish.
Pistachios, almonds, pomegranate, and orange flower - favoured ingredients in so much Middle Eastern and North African cooking, and some of my favourite to cook with. I used whole pistachios as well as pre-ground almonds, and just ground them in a blender. We've lost the plastic lid that goes over the funnel of the blender while it's working, meaning you have to hold your hand over it so bits of pistachio don't fly out. Instead I stuck my nose in there and inhaled the deeply delicious scent of fragmented pistachios; warm, toasty, nutty, slightly sweet.
The cake recipe itself is incredibly simple - everything just gets mixed together in a bowl and then baked. The genius lies in the sticky, orange flower-scented syrup that soaks the cake as it's still hot from the oven. Rather like a lemon drizzle cake, but with an exotic floral twist. I scattered some pomegranate seeds over the finished product which look beautiful and add another layer of texture. This is a great cake for transporting, too, as you can cut it into squares like a brownie. It also means you feel a bit less guilty when coming back for a second piece. Or a third.
This cake actually reminds me a bit of baklava. Obviously it is totally different, as there's no pastry involved, but the grainy crunch of nuts infused with sugar syrup and flower water is a feature both desserts share. I honestly can't get enough of it. It's really light, as well, from the citrus and the flower water and - I think - the lack of flour. It has an almost mousse-like texture.
Light as a cloud and fragrant as a flower. If you only make one cake from my blog, I think it should probably be this one.
Orange flower, pistachio and almond polenta cake (makes 20 squares):
- 180g butter, softened
- 180g caster sugar
- 3 eggs
- 150g polenta
- 50g ground almonds
- 50g ground pistachios (buy shelled ones and just pulse in a blender until finely ground)
- 1 tsp orange flower water
- 2 tsp baking powder (use a gluten free version to make this cake totally gluten free)
- Zest of an orange
- Seeds from half a pomegranate
For the syrup:
- 50g caster sugar
- 1/2 tsp orange flower water
- Juice of an orange
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (165C fan). Line a shallow brownie tin or traybake tin with baking parchment (mine was about 15x25cm).
Beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until pale and creamy. Beat in the eggs one at a a time. Add the polenta and nuts along with the orange flower water, baking powder and orange zest, and beat until thoroughly combined.
Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 35 minutes.
Just before the cake is ready, make the syrup. Bring the orange juice, sugar and orange flower water to the boil in a small saucepan and simmer for a couple of minutes until thick and syrupy.
Remove the cake from the oven. Use a skewer or fork to pierce holes all over the surface of the cake (try not to pierce it all the way through). Pour the syrup evenly over the cake and scatter with the pomegranate seeds. Leave to cool. When cool, dust with icing sugar and cut into squares to serve.
It's almost an empty phrase to say that a food combination "just works"; what does that even mean? Lots of things work, food-wise, but every now and then you come across a pairing of ingredients that leaps out at you. At a restaurant a while ago I tried a dish of chicken pâté with toast and a quince chutney. I'm no stranger to the combination of meat and fruit, but this was the first occasion on which it had tasted absolutely perfect to me. Normally I just enjoy fruit and meat because it involves two things I like; in this case, the two became more than just the sum of their parts; you could barely distinguish in that exquisite mouthful where fruit ended and meat began. Every now and then I come up with a recipe that pleasantly surprises me, when things I hoped might taste nice together in my head work out better than I thought. This is one of them.
It's also surprising because it involved something I've never cooked before: herring. I went to the fishmonger intending to buy tilapia for a tikka-marinated fish dish, but saw these beautiful glistening herrings lined up on the ice. I can never resist something new, so I bought three (and, incidentally, was taken aback by how cheap they were). I read a recipe in the Telegraph recently for roast herring with tahini sauce and freekeh, which is a type of grain that I've never had any luck finding. Undeterred, I figured I'd just make a variation of it using things I had in the cupboard/fridge. Apart from spinach, I had everything for this dish sitting around in the kitchen. This hardly ever happens, and I relished not having to tear manically around the markets for some obscure ingredient that would prove vital.
I love tahini. It's the sesame seed paste they use to make hoummous, which gives it that deliciously moreish, silky quality. I've used it before in a few Middle Eastern recipes, usually mixed with yoghurt, water and lemon juice to make an absolutely sublime sauce. In this case I did the same, crushing a clove of smoked garlic into it too. The result was a little like hoummous in flavour but much stronger and more tangy. I can't recommend this sauce enough; it goes beautifully with so many things. It's ideal as a replacement for yoghurt alongside rice pilaffs or spiced lamb, but also goes very well with fish and roasted vegetables.
Instead of the freekeh and Swiss chard in the original recipe, I used bulghur wheat, mixed with cinnamon, allspice, salt and pepper. I pan-fried some chopped spinach (huge leafy bunches of the proper stuff, not the clinically packaged, uniform baby leaves you find in the supermarket), stirred it in, and finally mixed in some pomegranate seeds. I'm not sure why; I think it was probably a knee-jerk reaction to the tahini, bulghur and allspice pairing. I also love the glistening, jewel-like appearance of a scattering of pomegranate seeds. They perk up any dish, both in appearance and in flavour.
Finally, the herring, which I just roasted in the oven for about 15 minutes. I anticipated it would taste like mackerel; in fact, I couldn't really distinguish the two, and either would make a good substitute for the other. Sardines would work too. In fact, I think in future I'd choose mackerel, simply because herring seems to have so many more fiddly little bones to deal with. The result was one of the best things I've cooked in a while, and it's so simple. The bulghur, spinach and pomegranate is great on its own and I could eat platefuls of it. However, when you mix in the tahini sauce it adds another layer of intriguing flavour and also moisture. Finally, add the succulent flakes of rich, oily fish, given the welcoming sweet burst of the pomegranate seeds, and you have something superb. Really. It just works.
Roast herring with bulghur and tahini sauce (serves 4):
- 4 large herring (or mackerel), gutted and cleaned
- 2 tbsp tahini
- 4 tbsp yoghurt
- Juice of one lemon
- 1 garlic clove
- 200g bulghur wheat, soaked in boiling water for 30 minutes and drained
- Two large bunches of spinach (or one large bag)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Seeds of half a pomegranate
- 1/2 tsp each cinnamon and allspice
- Salt and black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Crush the garlic with a pinch of salt in a pestle and mortar. Add the tahini and mix well, then add the lemon juice and yoghurt. Stir and mix to form a fairly runny sauce.
Roughly chop the spinach - if using a bunch you can use the stalks too if you chop them fairly finely. Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the spinach until it has wilted. Stir this into the bulghur, then add the cinnamon, allspice, pomegranate seeds and a generous amount of salt and pepper - taste to check the balance is right.
Lay the herrings on a sheet of foil on an oven tray and roast for about 15 minutes - they're ready when the flesh is opaque. Serve the herring on top of the bulghur with the tahini sauce poured on top and lemon wedges for squeezing over.