I think it’s time to stop listening to ‘accepted’ kitchen wisdom. I first embarked upon this strand of culinary anarchy about four years ago, when I decided to take the dramatic - and, by all accounts, wholly inadvisable - step of baking a strawberry. Inspired by a berry upside-down cake I ate at a market in Prague, I whipped up a plain cake batter, lined a tin, and scattered handfuls of berries over the bottom with reckless abandon. Amongst their number was the controversial strawberry: hitherto I’d been warned by many a cookbook that strawberries are emphatically not a cooking fruit; they are simply too watery and will ruin whatever you dare to throw them into, bleeding like fresh corpses into your cake and polluting your puddings. The resulting dessert was a triumph, the cake crumb lightly flavoured by the intense sweetness of the berries, and I’ve been exercising my rebellious streak ever since.Read More
I have a difficult relationship with yoghurt. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been unable to stand the stuff. I think I ate it as a child, but at some point something clicked in the back of my brain somewhere and I became deeply averse to the substance, to the point where watching a woman tucking into a big pot with a spoon early one morning at a bus stop in Oxford made me feel physically sick and sidle in precaution over to the nearest bin. I’ve tried to conquer my aversion, finding it irritating that there is a foodstuff out there that I don’t like, generally priding myself on my diverse omnivorousness – I used to hate melon, but a fairly un-rigorous process involving making myself eat more melon soon conquered that minor affliction – but I simply cannot get over it.Read More
I returned to my house in York last week, after a rather longer Christmas break than I had anticipated, to find myself greeted with the kind of scene I imagine the most inconsiderate burglars leave behind. The saving grace, however, being that nothing was actually stolen. No, this was just the inevitable consequence of having a kitchen about 30% of the way through a glamorous makeover: a thick layer of dust adorning surfaces like snow, a lone fridge standing forlornly in the middle of the floor with a ghostly sheet draped over it, small nuggets of plaster and brick scattered like charming confetti o'er the sink and floor. Barely a trace remaining of the cosy place I had tried to make it when I moved in.
A week later, and while there are huge bare patches of brick and plaster all over the walls, the rafters in the roof are ominously exposed over one's head and the cupboards are bare unpainted board with no doors or shelves, it's looking a bit better. There is, at least, a shiny new induction hob and brand new oven. There is also a nice new sink, and worktop, replacing the inexplicable wood surrounding the old sink, which had developed a delightful plague of mould and was probably the cause of me getting ill when I first moved in.
(Yeah, that's right, it was the mouldy sink...not a stint of going to bed at 3am every night for about a fortnight, going out in the freezing rain on Halloween wearing nothing but a leotard, and living off leftover tarte tatin for every meal because I couldn't be bothered to cook. That had nothing to do with it, I am sure.)
Anyway, while it's looking decidedly less burgled, the kitchen is still a bit of a way off its completion. The one thing I find most difficult is the lack of worktop space, as the worktop half of the room has yet to be built. This means my chopping and stirring needs are met by a tiny square foot of worktop just next to the hob. There's no possibility of doing any fancy cooking involving more than a couple of pans and bowls, or any great amount of chopping. Certainly the KitchenAid mixer or blender will not be making an outing for a while.
It was great timing, then, for Thomson Al Fresco to get in touch and ask me to suggest a few healthy recipe ideas that can be cooked while camping. Although my lovely induction hob is hardly a campfire, and my house is a bit better than a tent, I am certainly in need of easy recipes that require very little surface space and can be easily cooked in one pan. While I imagine many people stick to pasta and jarred sauce, or endless barbecues, while camping (I wouldn't really know; I've only been twice, both times in England, and one involved inadvertently pitching our tent over an earwig nest, so they're memories I'd like to rid myself of), it's not actually that difficult to come up with a one-pan meal that is fairly good for you. Pulses are the key: filling, nutritious, and all you have to do is open a can.
Given that Thomson Al Fresco offer lots of camping holidays on the continent, I thought I'd give these recipes a European theme, adapting them to the local produce of the country you might happen to be camping in. This one is based around Spanish ingredients: chorizo, tomatoes, peppers, and chickpeas. It only needs one pan and one chopping board (you're chopping raw chorizo on it first, but everything you chop on it afterwards gets cooked, so you won't get any horrible diseases - just don't forget and nibble bits of the peppers while you chop them with the chorizo-y knife, as I nearly did).
The result of this colourful medley is a delicious thick stew, deeply flavoured from the paprika in the chorizo and the tomatoes, which collapse into a lovely sauce. There are tender sweet peppers and onions, comforting chickpeas and some crunchy greens, to make the whole thing that little bit healthier. It's about as healthy as you can get, in terms of hearty one-pot meals: tomatoes, peppers and onions are all very good for you, as are chickpeas, which bulk up the dish and fill you up in a much healthier way than pasta or rice. The meat here is used as a seasoning, rather than a main ingredient.
The beauty of this recipe is that it's very adaptable. You could use the cooked chorizo that comes in a ring if you can't find the raw stuff (which has the bonus of meaning you can then nibble those peppers as you chop. I assume everyone does this - it's not just me that loves to eat raw peppers while cooking, is it?). You could use tinned tomatoes instead of fresh. You could change the herbs depending on what you have, or omit them altogether. You could use any kind of tinned beans or even lentils instead of the chickpeas, and most greens instead of spring greens - spinach and kale work well. Think of this as a blueprint. What is essential, though, is that you serve it with lots of crusty bread to mop up the thick, smokey tomato sauce.
Although I rather like the romantic notion of tucking into a steaming bowl of this round a campfire under the setting Spanish sun, I think I'll stick with eating it in my ramshackle kitchen. The main reason being that I know it's earwig-free.
Tomato, red pepper, chickpea and chorizo stew (serves 4):
- 200g cooking chorizo, thickly sliced
- 1 tbsp olive oil (or just cook the veg in the oil released by the chorizo, if you don't have any oil)
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- 4 red peppers, deseeded and cut into strips
- 2 bay leaves (optional)
- 600g cherry tomatoes, halved
- 100ml water
- 1 tbsp tomato purée (optional)
- 1 tsp dried mixed herbs (sage, thyme and oregano work well)
- 2 x 400g cans chickpeas
- 300g spring greens or cabbage, thinly sliced
- Crusty bread, to serve
Heat a large casserole dish or saucepan over a medium heat, then add the chorizo. It should start to sizzle and crisp up, releasing orange oil. Cook for a couple of minutes, then add the olive oil, red onion, peppers and bay leaves. Cook for 5-10 minutes on a fairly high heat, until the onions and peppers have softened.
Add the cherry tomatoes, water, tomato purée and herbs. Cook for 10-15 minutes until the tomatoes have collapsed into a thick sauce. Add the chickpeas and cook for another 5 minutes, then add the spring greens or cabbage. Cook for a couple of minutes to wilt the greens.
Serve with crusty bread.
It's not really summer, is it England? Is this really your best offering? I was in London a couple of days ago and I actually welcomed the rush of warm air from a passing tube train - it took the edge off the bitter chill spreading through my limbs (though also messed up my hair, which I was less pleased about). There is a time and a place for seeking solace and shelter in the dank, humid depths of the London Underground. It's called 'January'.
Unfortunately, mother nature seems a little confused at the moment, and this schizophrenic weather only makes for schizophrenic cooking. I wake up to a dingy, clammy, chilly morning, and start planning something warming and meaty for dinner. A few hours later, the blazing sunshine has forced me to remove most of my layers and I'm squinting, due to lack of sunglasses, at the enticing vegetables in the market, having to completely rethink said dinner plan. Vegetables purchased and salad forming in mind, I then get on my bike and am greeted with a monsoon-style downpour, followed by the onset of the morning's chill. What is one to do when it comes to food?
Sartorially, layers are the key in weather like this. Why should it be any different for cooking? Take something summery - a salad, for instance - and dress it up in layer upon layer of gutsy, spicy, warming flavours. Here, of course, the metaphor breaks down slightly - you can't really take 'warming flavours' out of food in the same way you can wrench off a woolly cardigan, should it suddenly get a little bit less arctic, but I think the basic idea works. Should the weather perk up, your dinner will still be light, fresh and flavoursome, but in the more likely event that it's a classic British summer episode, you've got that gastronomic 'cardigan' to fall back on. In the case of last night's dinner, spicy chorizo was the cardigan.
When the English climate fails you, look to the continent. I'm a big fan of the new Mediterranean product ranges from Unearthed (available from Waitrose, Ocado, Abel & Cole and independent retailers), which are just right for bringing a smidgeon of sunshine into your life. Unearthed produce all sorts of continental delights, from olives and antipasti to cheeses, pâtés and cured meats. They get their ideas by travelling around Europe to find the best recipe ideas and producers, and then bringing this inspiration to our supermarket shelves. I always feel like the continental antipasti section in most supermarkets seems continually growing; where you once had maybe a few olives and some interesting varieties of ham, now you get all sorts of exciting delights like marinated balls of yoghurt cheese, sun dried tomatoes, chargrilled and marinated artichokes (one of my favourite things ever, but unfortunately not cheap), feta-stuffed peppers (last time I had these the peppers turned out to be chillies, and I've been rather put off ever since)...
Olives are a classic summer ingredient, reminding me of holidays in Spain and Italy, where many evenings were passed with a glass of wine and a big bowl of olives before dinner. Unearthed have just brought out three new olive varieties - almond stuffed olives with smoked paprika, a French olive mix (big green and small black olives in a French dressing), and green olives with pesto and pine nuts. These are the real thing, more suited to spearing on a cocktail stick and devouring greedily with a pre-dinner drink than for cooking with (though I think I say this mainly because I was too impatient and ate most of them before I had a chance to use them in anything). My favourite are the almond stuffed variety - they have a lovely smoky depth of flavour from the paprika and the contrast in texture between the squeaky, soft olive and the crunchy almond in the centre is immensely satisfying. The French olive mix would be perfect in the Nicoise salad, I think (especially as the black olives are a Nicoise variety).
Continuing the Spanish theme, I also experimented with Unearthed's new chorizo variety. Apparently sales of chorizo rose by 35% last year - clearly the combination of pork and spices is the ultimate recession-proof formula. Taking advantage of this desire for sausages with a bit of a kick to them, Unearthed have brought out a new spicy cooking chorizo. Unlike the U-shape ring so ubiquitous in supermarkets now, these sausages have to be cooked before being eaten, and they actually look and feel like little sausages, rather than being weirdly hard and scaly like the cured variety, often needing something more akin to a hacksaw than a kitchen knife to get through it. You get twelve rather sweet little red chorizo in a packet, and the packet instructions suggest grilling them whole, but I decided to dice and fry them to use in a squid salad. The smell as the cubed chorizo hit the hot pan was wonderful; I could tell these were spicier than normal when my eyes started to water as I inhaled the smoke. They released a lot of delicious, bright red oil as the edges crisped up and emitted a beautiful toasty, smoky aroma.
Squid and chorizo is one of the more well-known surf-and-turf combinations. The delicate, slightly sweet flavour and unmistakeable texture of fresh squid goes rather well with the more assertive notes of a spicy chorizo sausage, particularly when tumbled together with a few other summery ingredients. The base of my salad was a mixture of chickpeas, lots of fresh parsley, lemon juice and zest, and garlic-infused olive oil. To this I added some roasted cherry tomatoes and red peppers, and their delicious cooking juices, some generous handfuls of rocket, the cooked chorizo chunks and their fragrant oil, and finally some fresh squid, sliced into rings and stir fried on a very high heat in a little of the chorizo oil.
Incidentally, carrying on from my discussion of the inferiority of supermarket produce last week, I've made another discovery - supermarket canned chickpeas are rubbish. I never realised this until I picked up a can from an Indian grocery. The squat, mealy, slightly sweet specimens inside were absolutely nothing like the unpleasantly crunchy bullets you get inside supermarket tins. I honestly think our major supermarkets are responsible for the fact that so many people don't like chickpeas - who can blame them when they are so often dry, hard and crunchy? Buy your chickpeas from a continental or Asian store, and you are likely to experience a chickpea revelation - they can be deliciously softy, starchy and satisfying (just think of good houmous), the perfect vehicle for all sorts of big flavours in a filling and gutsy salad.
As I said before, layers are the key. In this salad you have the satisfying graininess of the chickpeas, tossed with the zesty, fresh flavours of parsley, lemon and garlic. Next there are the soft, juicy, tangy roasted peppers and tomatoes. A sharp bite of fresh rocket, then there's the intense spicy flavour from the chorizo - the proverbial cardigan, if you will - and finally the sweet crunch of lightly-cooked squid. I was thinking of adding chilli to this salad, but I'm glad I didn't - these mini chorizo are quite spicy, and provided all the heat needed. It's a perfect meal for this schizophrenic weather, and also incredibly easy to throw together - you need to roast the vegetables about 40 minutes in advance, but apart from that it just involves putting everything in a bowl together, then adding the cooked chorizo and squid at the last minute. I served it with lots of crusty bread to mop up the delicious juices that accumulate in the bowl when you've finished, and of course a couple of bowls of olives. We have a Spanish lodger staying with us at the moment, and he seemed to devour these olives with relish - there's not really any better praise than that, and I'm sure the people at Unearthed would be thrilled! I'm quite eager to try out some more of the range, particularly the cheeses and cured meats - they could be just the culinary cardigan I'm looking for.
Do you have a favourite 'culinary cardigan' for bringing a bit of cheer to lacklustre summer days?
Squid and chorizo salad (serves 6):
- 400g baby plum or cherry tomatoes
- 6 red or yellow peppers, core removed and quartered
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 3x400g cans of chickpeas, drained
- A large bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil
- 250g cooking chorizo, diced into chickpea-sized pieces
- 800g squid, cleaned and sliced into rings, tentacles sliced into manageable pieces
- One bag of rocket
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Toss the tomatoes and peppers with some olive oil, salt and pepper, then roast in the oven for about 40 minutes until very soft and charred in places.
Meanwhile, toss the chickpeas with the parsley, lemon juice and zest, and garlic oil. Season generously. Slice the cooked peppers into strips and add to the chickpeas along with the cherry tomatoes and any roasting juices.
Heat a non-stick frying pan until very hot. Add the chorizo and stir fry for a couple of minutes until cooked through. Add to the chickpeas along with most of its oil. Put the pan back on the heat and stir-fry the squid in the chorizo juices for about a minute until no longer translucent (better to slightly undercook than overcook it, or it will turn rubbery). Toss the squid with the rest of the salad.
Serve the salad on a bed of rocket along with some crusty bread to mop up the juices, and maybe a bowl of Unearthed olives!
I've had no magical gastronomic revelations since then, no cookery classes or soufflé-making epiphanies. There is no secret to the fact that I can invent things from scratch; it's simply the result of a lot of hours in the kitchen and possibly even more hours watching food television, reading food books and magazines, and eating in restaurants. On top of that is the importance of confidence; once you've invented something and gained a positive reaction, you have more faith in your own ability and more drive to continue. I think one of the first recipes I ever invented was a Moroccan-style pheasant cooked with quince, pine nuts and spices. Delighted by the fact that it wasn't horrible, I persevered. The recipe wasn't ground-breaking, but simply a result of my extensive cooking from Middle Eastern cookbooks; I knew that quince would go well with gamey meat, and that cinnamon, turmeric and ginger make an excellent spice mix for a tagine. I now experiment with pretty much anything; if I read a recipe I like, I'll still usually alter or add at least one ingredient to give it my own personal touch. Desserts are my favourite to invent, often because I like to try out interesting combinations of fruit and spice. I can even bake cakes without a recipe now, which is widely regarded as the ultimate challenge. Again, it's no real expertise on my part, just the consequence of enough time baking cakes to know how a batter should look and feel before it goes into the tin.
I realised quite how far I'd journeyed from a recipe-constrained mentality yesterday when shopping in the market. I had a definite plan for dinner: I was going to make a risotto using some beautiful red rice I bought in Vercelli in April, pairing it with roasted peppers and cherry tomatoes, then a liberal sprinkling of fresh basil and homemade ricotta. I went to buy tomatoes. My favourite stall had sold out of the lovely little baby plum tomatoes I'm so fond of, and all the other stalls were charging extortionate prices for vine-ripened cherry specimens. Rather than dissolve into a panic, I had a further look around. There were some lovely yellow courgettes, so I got a couple of those to replace the tomatoes and add some colour to the whole affair. About to wander home, my eye suddenly landed on a huge bunch of rainbow chard. I have only seen it once before at the market; the last time I bought some to try out in a French dessert, tourte de blette. Whilst I'm eager to try that one again, I started thinking about the savoury possibilities of chard. Still in the risotto mindset, it struck me that a pile of creamy rice would be the perfect blank canvas for an outrageous splattering of coloured chard stalks. I bought the entire bunch.
How beautiful is this vegetable? I'm often inspired to wax lyrical about the beauty of my ingredients: the orange blush of an apricot, the glossy red flesh of a pepper; the nubbly rose-coloured skin of a lychee all send me into raptures of kitchen delight. This chard was no exception. It was so outrageously bright, almost neon in its pink, yellow and green hues. No wonder it caught my eye in the market. You rarely find so many gorgeous colours in one vegetable. The bright pink stems reminded me of early season rhubarb, but then there were the sweetcorn-yellow ones and the lime-green ones, all tapering into delightful bushy, cabbage-like leaves. I couldn't wait to see how these amazing colours looked on top of a risotto.
Even if you don't think you can invent recipes, risotto is usually an exception. Once you've figured out the basics (sweat onion and garlic, add rice, coat in butter, add splash of wine, bubble until absorbed, add ladle by ladle of hot stock until each is absorbed, stirring all the time), you can flavour a risotto with almost anything (I saw a recipe for a strawberry and radicchio one the other day - which sounds utterly horrible, yet I'm quite intrigued by it). Meat, cheese, fish, shellfish, vegetables - just as most things taste good covered in batter and deep-fried, most things taste good folded into the savoury, rich creaminess of a starchy risotto. I decided to make risotto largely because I had a big ice-cream tub full of homemade chicken stock in my fridge which needed using. I really would recommend making your own stock next time you have a roast chicken - all you do is chuck the bones into a big pan of water, add some chopped veg (carrots, onions, leeks and celery are all good), a couple of bay leaves, any herbs you have lying around, some peppercorns and some salt, and let it boil very gently, covered, for an hour or two. Although risotto is still great made with stock cubes, there's something rather satisfying about using your own stock, and the flavour is undoubtedly better.
For this recipe I used pearl barley, because I like its nutty crunchiness and warm beige colouring. The downside is it takes about an hour to cook, but you can just leave it to get on and stir it every few minutes. The individual grains retain their shape and bite, giving a much more interesting risotto than your usual white rice. It's also a bit healthier. For the base of the risotto I just used onion and garlic, stirring in my homemade stock, and then finishing with lemon juice and a good grating of nutmeg. I folded the leaves of the chard into the barley as it finished cooking, so they could soften and tangle themselves around the grains. The stalks I boiled in the hot chicken stock to add extra flavour before it went in the risotto. They were scattered over the barley at the end. I was pleased that they retained most of their colour; they weren't quite as outrageously neon by the time I'd boiled them, but still one of the more startling additions to a risotto I've ever seen.
Finally, a good sprinkling of lemon thyme, a grating of parmesan, and some cloud-like spoonfuls of homemade ricotta. I was genuinely surprised at how utterly delicious this tasted. I think it was all down to my homemade stock, which had an amazing depth of salty, savoury flavour. The nutmeg gave the barley a lovely warm note, and the lemon juice and lemon thyme a fresh zestiness. All this deep flavour worked extremely well with the tender chard stalks, which have a very slight bitterness about them, like spinach. The contrast between the hot, salty, flavoursome barley grains and the cool, mellow tang of the fresh ricotta was incredible. I'm not sure how it would work with vegetable stock, but I'm sure it would still be excellent, in which case this would be a very very good vegetarian main course - it's far more delicious than most meat-based dishes I've eaten recently. I have a feeling I'm going to make this again and again, especially because I still have half the chard left in my fridge (along with those yellow courgettes, which were sadly relegated once I acquired my more aesthetically pleasing option).
Does the idea of creating recipes make you break out in a cold sweat? Or do you agree that it's just the culmination of a lot of practice?
Pearl barley, rainbow chard and ricotta risotto (serves 2 generously):
160g pearl barley
1 onion, very finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
About 1-1.5 litre chicken stock (if you run out before the barley is cooked just use boiling water)
A bunch of rainbow chard (about 8 stalks and leaves)
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Juice of half a lemon
A few sprigs lemon thyme
Salt and pepper
Parmesan, to serve
About 150g ricotta (homemade is obviously best!)
First, put the stock in a lidded saucepan and bring to a simmer. Keep hot on a low heat. Slice the chard stalks into 1-inch lengths and place in the hot stock. Simmer until the stalks are tender to the point of a knife, then set aside and keep warm.
Heat a little olive oil in a heavy-based non-stick pan and fry the onions and garlic until soft and translucent. Add a knob of butter and leave it to melt, then add the barley. Stir it around to coat it in the butter for a couple of minutes.
Add a few ladlefuls of stock - it should hiss and bubble when it hits the pan. Put the pan on a medium heat and stir the barley, waiting until it has absorbed all the stock before adding another ladleful. Repeat this process for about 40-60 minutes until the barley is mostly tender but still has a little bite.
Just before the barley is ready, when there's still some liquid in the pan, roughly shred the chard leaves and stir them into the barley to soften and wilt in the heat. Grate in the nutmeg, juice in the lemon and strip the leaves from the thyme and add them too. Season to taste.
Pour the barley into serving bowls and top with the cooked chard stalks. Grate over a little parmesan, and crumble over the ricotta.