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!