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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

On spices

Alternative title: Spice up your Life

The other week there was a really interesting article in the Guardian about out of date spices. 

“We called it the “Ottolenghi effect”. Where once our spice cupboard was really just dried basil and mild curry powder, suddenly it was playing host to harissa and sumac and saffron. And then we forgot all about them. According to a recent survey, there are £240m worth of unused spices languishing in UK kitchens. And 13% of us confess to owning jars of spices more than four years out of date. (Paraphrased)

I have always wondered about out of date spices. There are many family stories about jars of spices older than various family members, significant world events etcetera. It was reassuring to read that it isn’t just us.

Spices are brilliant, adding flavour and depth without extra fat or sugar. A good way to ensure that you don’t end up with four-years out of date spices is to incorporate more of them into every day cooking. Especially during these dark winter days, spices can add exoticism, and a kind of festive familiarity.

The history of spices is really fascinating, their usage spans so many different aspects of our history, discovering civilisations and causing wars. There is archaeological evidence of spices being traded since ancient times, from the Maluku Islands (Spice Islands) in Indonesia spreading throughout the ancient world. From around 1600, spices had such high value in Europe that the Portuguese, Dutch and English fought to gain a monopoly over the trade. The fighting was so intense in the 17th and 18th centuries that the Dutch gave the island of Manhattan to the British in exchange for the tiny island of Run in the Spice Islands, giving the Dutch full control over nutmeg production. Many of islands’ populations were killed off during the so-called ‘Spice Wars’.

Here are some words and recipe ideas about some of my favourite spices.

Cardamom

Green cardamom is native to India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. The seed pods look a bit like lemon pips, with a few black seeds inside. There are references to cardamom in the Bronze-Age Mycenaean Greek Linear B tablets (incidentally, I wrote an essay on Linear B for my masters, in case you are interested), and in the New Testament.

They can be used whole, lightly bashed, or split open and the seeds ground. They are intensely fragrant, and work really well in sweet and savoury dishes. If using whole pods, make they are removed after cooking. Cardamom is a common ingredient in Indian and South Asian cooking, used in curries, traditional sweets and masala chai. It is used in Scandinavian pastries, to flavour coffee and as a botanical in gin. Cardamom seeds can also be chewed, like chewing gum to freshen breath.

Green cardamom also has a lot of medical uses. It has been used to treat infections in teeth and gums, to treat throat issues, lung congestion and tuberculosis, digestive disorders, kidney stones and gall stones. It has also reportedly been used as an antidote for snake and scorpion venoms.

Here is my interpretation of Ottolenghi’s pistachio and cardamom shortbread recipe. It makes the most perfectly crumbly, short (positively tiny) biscuits, and the dough freezes well to. 


Cloves

Cloves are the flower buds of a tree native to the Spice Islands, and have been found in archaeological remains going as far back as 1721 BCE. Cloves are used in the cuisine of Asian, African, and the Near and Middle East, flavouring meats, curries, rice, and sweet dishes.

Cloves are used in Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine and dentistry, where their essential oil is used as a painkiller. This oil can also be used to anesthetize fish (I’m not sure how that was discovered), and repel ants!

Many Ashkenazi Jews use cloves as part of the ritual to mark the end of Shabbat, and for years that was all I thought cloves were for – getting stale in silver little boxes, brought out on Saturday night for a quick sniff, and put away for another week. While now of course I use cloves for so many other things, for me they always smell of that particular time.

Cloves are a key ingredient for my seasonal favourites, mulled wine and cranberry sauce. I genuinely don’t know how I would get through winter without them. My favourite recipe for cranberry sauce comes from Delia Smith, it is zingy and delicious. When cooking with cloves, be careful to count them, so you know how many to remove; nobody wants to bite down on a clove.

Coriander seeds

I absolutely love coriander seeds, and probably get through more of them than any other whole spice. They taste completely different from coriander leaf: when toasted and crushed they are lemony citrus, nutty and warm, with none of the leaf’s soapy tang. Coriander grows wild through most of the Near East and southern Europe. Traces have been found in the Pre-Pottery Nahal Hemar Cave in Israel, which may be the oldest archaeological find of coriander in the world. A lot of coriander was also found in the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Whole and ground coriander seeds are used widely in Indian curries, in its ground form used to help thicken curries as well as flavour them. Outside of Asia, coriander seeds are widely used when pickling vegetables, making sausages, brewing beer, or making rye bread.

One of my favourite ways to use coriander seeds is with roasted vegetables. Toast the seeds in a dry frying pan, and then roughly crush them in a mortar and pestle. Mix the crushed seeds with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and coat lumps of sweet potato, butternut squash, or cauliflower, and roast in a hot oven until cooked through and caramelised, with crunchy bits. This will take around 30-45 minutes for the sweet potato and butternut squash, and about 20 minutes for the cauliflower. Serve with a drizzle of tahini sauce.

Toasted coriander seeds and peanuts, crushed for this aubergine curry recipe
Mustard seeds

Mustard seeds, funnily enough, are the seeds from mustard plants! They range in colour from pale yellow to black. Despite having such a strong flavour, they seem to be a really multi-purpose spice. I love the zing they give to dishes, and the fact that they always try and jump of the pan when being toasted, like they know what is about to happen.

When researching mustard seeds (on Wikipedia), I found that they are mentioned in quite a few religious or mythological texts*. Clearly mustard seeds have for centuries inspired people to think about their place in the world, and I think that is really special.

The earliest reference to mustard seeds comes from the Indian story of Gautama Buddha in the fifth century BC. Gautama Buddha told the story of the grieving mother and the mustard seed. When a mother loses her only son, she takes his body to the Buddha to find a cure. The Buddha asks her to bring a handful of mustard seeds from a family that has never lost a child, husband, parent, or friend. When the mother is unable to find such a house in her village, she realizes death is common to all, and she cannot be selfish in her grief.

In the New Testament, the mustard seed is used by Jesus as a metaphor for ‘the Kingdom of God’, which starts small, but grows to be the largest of all garden plants.

He said, “How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? It’s like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow.”
    Mark 4:30–32

Jewish texts compare the knowable universe to the size of a mustard seed, demonstrating the world's insignificance and teaching humility. The medieval Jewish Scholar and philosopher, Nahmanides (the Ramban) writes that the universe expanded from the time of its creation, in which it was the size of a mustard seed.

Mustard seeds work incredibly well in curries and Middle Eastern style stews. Make a quick and refreshing carrot salad to accompany an Indian meal by combining julienned or shredded carrots with toasted mustard seeds and a little lemon juice. Whole grain mustard is also a fantastic ingredient, making a wonderful vinaigrette or as a surprising addition to cheese sauce. 

*Religious as mythological?? Look into Karen Armstrong if you are interested.

Sumac

I wasn’t sure if I should include sumac, because it has become a bit of a cliché. But it really is one of my favourite spices, tasting a little bit like a cross between lemon and paprika. I seem to be adding it to pretty much everything these days.

Sumac is a dried berry of any one of 35 species of plants (Rhus genus), and is found throughout subtropical and temperate regions in the world, especially in Africa and North America. The berries are ground into a reddish-purple powder, used a lot in Middle Eastern cuisine. I had no idea that they had a history of usage in North America, so imagine my surprise when I came across ‘sumacade’! Like lemonade, but with sumac! Apparently Native Americans also used to combine sumac with tobacco and smoke it!

Sumac is a lot easier to get hold of here than it used to be, and it can often be found in most decent ethic corner shops, and many supermarkets. Nothing is as fun as getting huge red baggies of the stuff in middle-eastern markets.

Add a heaped teaspoon of sumac to a salad of chopped tomatoes, onion and parsley for that surprisingly authentic kebab-shop taste, or use it to roast or fry courgettes


Turmeric

Sunshine yellow turmeric is a rhizome, similar to ginger and galangal, native to southeast India. It has been used in Asia for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, as a remedy for stomach and liver ailments, as well as to heal sores. As of December 2013, turmeric is being evaluated for its potential efficacy against several human diseases, including kidney and cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, Alzheimer's, and irritable bowel disease.

Turmeric is considered to be highly auspicious and holy in India, and it is used extensively in Hindu ceremonies. In the mythology of the ancient Tamil religion, turmeric was associated with the sun (Thirumal). The solar plexus chakra is yellow, which in traditional Tamil Siddha medicine is the energy centre relating to the metabolic and digestive systems.

As well as its many culinary, spiritual and medicinal uses, turmeric is also used as a colouring. It is used in canned beverages, baked products, dairy products, orange juice and popcorn.

Turmeric is used widely in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking. As well as its fabulous, joyful colour, it also adds to flavour profiles helping create depth and overall flavour. I really like it because eating bright yellow food just makes me happy. At the moment I am using buckets of turmeric making celeriac sofrito, my delicious (if a bit farty) winter staple. Turmeric, along with cloves, coriander seed and cardamom also come together to make perfect pilau rice (to be blogged soon).

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Butternut squash and onion tart

Every time someone mentions Waitrose to someone I know, they quote the late Alan Coren’s observations about Sainsburys:

“The best thing about Sainsburys is that it keeps the riff-raff out of Waitrose.”

Personally, I think this is a load of nonsense. People may decide that they are in the ‘elite’ because they decide to pay more for vegetables and loo roll, but that doesn’t mean anything about anybody else.

Saying that, there are some very nice things in Waitrose, and their avocados are nearly always perfect. They also do excellent free recipe booklets every season, and this recipe is from the autumn book.

This tart/pie was very tasty, but probably would have been tastier if I had made my own pastry – meh. I’m still a bit scared of making my own pastry. Its silly really, but then I’m not as scared of spiders as I used to be. So it seems ok in balance.

Another good thing about using ready made pastry is that this dish then becomes something relatively speedy, of the weeknight supper variety.

Serves four, assuming that everyone will want a corner piece, with leftovers

Ingredients

1kg butternut or coquina squash, peeled, deseeded and diced
75g cream cheese (low fat or tofutti is fine)
½ or ¼ chilli powder
2 tbsp fresh thyme, leaves only
salt and pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, sliced
Handful pine nuts (optional)
(Guiltily) 1 sheet shortcrust pastry, defrosted if frozen (they are just over 200g)

Method

Boil of steam the cubes of squash for approx 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain well and mash them with the cream cheese, chilli, thyme and seasoning. Set aside to cool down a bit.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees, 180 with fan.

While the squash is steaming, fry the onion slices in olive oil with a pinch of salt over a medium heat, for 7-10 minutes until softened and golden. If using, add the pine nuts to the pan for the last few minutes.

Stir two thirds of the fried onions (and pine nuts) into the mashed squash, reserving the remainder for artful scattering.

Unroll the pastry sheet onto a baking tray. Lightly score a border in the pastry, roughly 3cm from the edge. Dollop the cooled squash mixture into the pastry (within the border), and artfully scatter the remaining fried onions over the top. 


Fold the pastry edges over the filling to make a snug little frame, and bake the tart for 30 or so minutes, until golden.
When I make this again, I would probably brush the pastry with a bit of milk or egg to make it shine.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Cavolo nero risotto with sweet roasted carrots

Adapted from For the Love of Food by Dennis Cotter


For the Love of Food is a really fun and very bonkers vegetarian cookbook. I really recommend it for creative and adventurous cooks who want to push the boat out. I have simplified this recipe from the original, but its still one of the most involved things I have made in a long time. I don’t usually make things that involve so many pots and pans, but it really was no trouble at all.

I normally find following recipes very tricky, because I’m not very good at concentrating, or doing what I’m told. I saw this hanger trick on a Buzzfeed a while ago but this is the first time I tried it. It worked really well and having something to prop the book open, right in front of my face made it a lot easier to follow the recipe.


As you all know by now, I really love risotto. This is the best risotto I have ever made, in terms of texture (they are all really good in terms of flavour). I have never been sure of the correct ratio of rice to liquid, and this one nails it.

I’ve always wanted to make something with cavolo nero because it just seemed so fancy. Really its just black kale, in Italian. I have used less cavolo nero than specified in the original recipe, because that was how much cavolo nero I had. I think it worked well, it might have been overly cabbagey and murky/pond-like otherwise.

The carrots might seem like overkill but its nice to have the contrasting texture and complimentary flavours. Lightens the whole thing up and the orange looks really pretty.

Serves four. This tastes a lot better if served straight away, rather than re-heated.

Ingredients

1.3 litres vegetable stock (I used a stock cube)
200g cavolo nero, stalks removed
2 tbsp olive oil
2 eshalion shallots, or one medium onion, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, bashed a bit and finely sliced (cabbage and garlic are best friends)
300g risotto rice (I used Arborio)
125 ml dry white wine
50g butter (this is a lot less than the recipe suggests)
70g parmesan style cheese, grated. It is really hard to find vegetarian parmesan style cheese, but I recently discovered that the Sainsburys basics version is vegetarian, and it works very well here.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the carrots
200g chantenay carrots (or just small carrots), topped and tailed and cut in half lengthways
Zest and juice of half an orange
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp agave syrup
1 generous sprig of thyme (not vital - if you happen to have some knocking about)
Generous pinch of salt, preferably sea salt flakes

Method

For the carrots:
Preheat the oven to 200c (or 180 with fan).

Arrange the carrots in a shallow-ish pyrex or small roasting tin, so that they are more or less in one layer, but snug. Add all the other ingredients and mix well. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until caramelised at the edges, and cooked through but not too mushy.

For the risotto:
Bring the stock to a boil, add the cavolo nero and cook for two minutes. You may have to do this in batches. Remove the leaves from the water (keep the stock at a simmer for the risotto), shaking off as much stock as possible. Squeeze the leaves dry and shred them finely. It will smell a bit cabbage-water and horrible at this stage, but will get better.

Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a large-ish saucepan over a medium-low heat. Fry the shallots and garlic for about 5 minutes, and then add the rice and toast for a few minutes more.

Add the wine and simmer, stirring constantly until it is mostly absorbed.

Add one ladleful of the hot stock at a time, stirring until it is completely absorbed before adding the next one. This whole process should take about twenty minutes, until the rice is cooked but a little al-dente, and most of the liquid is absorbed.

Towards the end of the rice cooking process, heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan, and sauté the shredded cavolo nero for about five minutes, until it stops smelling like cabbage-water and starts smelling delicious.


Add the cavolo nero to the rice when it is done, along with the butter and about two thirds of the cheese. Taste the risotto and season with salt and pepper.

Serve the risotto in shallow bowls, sprinkled with the extra cheese, garnished with a few carrots.



Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Mushrooms on toast


Life’s simple pleasures.

Serves two classy people for a starter, or one greedy person for a meal.

Ingredients

200g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
1 tbsp (approx) Olive oil
1 echalion/banana shallot, or half an onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, crushed or finely diced
1 tsp grain mustard
1 tbsp crème fraîche
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper
½ tbsp (approx) lemon juice
Toast - as much as you like.


Method

In a large frying pan, fry the onions in a glug of olive oil over a medium/low heat for a few minutes until starting to soften and colour. Add the mushrooms and fry for another ten or so minutes, stirring from time to time. Add the garlic and parsley, fry for a further two to three minutes, and then stir in the mustard, crème fraîche, lemon juice, a little salt and a lot of pepper.

Serve with toast. Happy days.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Restaurant review: Mildreds


Established in 1988, Mildreds is part of the fabric of vegetarian London, and one of my favourite restaurants in the city. The first time I went to Mildreds was the day I handed in my masters dissertation, longer ago than I care to admit. I saw Simon Amstell at the next table, and had some of the best sweet potato fries I had ever eaten.

I have been to Mildreds many times since, and it is consistently excellent. The menu changes regularly, and contains many vegan and gluten-free options. All of the wine on their wine list is organic, mostly vegetarian or vegan, and with biodynamic options. They also serve organic soft drinks.

Mildreds doesn’t accept bookings, and I recognise that some people can find that annoying. Personally, I love no-bookings policies. I love the egalitarian-ness of them. Everyone gets a table, and everyone has to wait.  I have never had to wait very long for a table, and waiting with one of their excellent cocktails is no hardship (their elderflower martini packs a great punch).

The last time I went was with my cousin S, a foodie from NYC with an expense account. We had an excellent meal. For starters I ordered the chargrilled Roman style artichoke heart crostini with lemon aioli. Their artichoke crostini is quite possibly one of the best dishes known to man. There just aren’t enough superlatives in the world to describe how delicious it is. And by ‘Roman style’, they basically mean ‘Jewish style’.

For main course I had the Sri Lankan sweet potato and cashew nut curry with yellow basmati rice with peas and coconut tomato sambal. The curry was rich and well balanced, with a great kick from the sambal. For dessert, S and I shared the lemon, almond and pistachio polenta cake with pomegranate syrup and yoghurt. The cake was moist and delicious, and not too sweet.

For three courses with a shared dessert, cocktails and service, you can expect to pay around £30 per/head, completely reasonable for a central London restaurant of such quality.

Mildreds are publishing a cookbook, which will be available in summer 2015.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Salmon and pistachio risotto


I spoke about this risotto in the third post I ever wrote on this blog, way back in January 2011. It really has been playing on my mind for a while.

When I was eight years old I went on a family holiday to Sicily. When moments are happening it is hard to know what is going to become a significant part of your history, and what will be forgotten as a distant memory. This holiday has definitely become part of my history.

We stayed in a little place called Taormina, in the shadow of Mount Etna. We saw ancient ruins, splashed in volcanic mountain streams, climbed acropolises, and ate incredibly well.

This salmon and pistachio risotto was apparently a regional speciality in Taormina, and I remember it blowing my tiny mind. I haven’t been able to find any recipes for it, and so this is my version, based on a twenty-year old memory.

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 salmon fillets (no skin)
Olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1 large shallot, small onion or half a large onion, finely diced
300g Arborio rice (or other suitable risotto rice)
125 ml  (small glass) relatively dry white wine – something that you would want to drink
1 litre hot chicken, fake chicken or vegetable stock
Approx 70g pistachio nuts, roughly chopped
25 - 40g butter (risotto loves butter, but your arteries might not)
1 tbsp grated parmesan or similar hard cheese

Optional additions – green zingy herbs like lemon thyme or marjoram, lemon zest.

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees (with fan).

Put the salmon fillets on an oven tray, and drizzle with olive oil and season with a pinch of sea salt and a grind or two of black pepper. Roast for 12-15 minutes, until just cooked through (you can do this while the risotto is cooking).

In a large saucepan, fry the onion in a glug of olive oil slowly on a low heat until soft and translucent (about 10 minutes).  Add the rice, and turn over in the onions until coated and glossy in the oil.

Add the wine to the pan and let it bubble for a few minutes, stirring all the time. Once the wine has bubbled to almost nothing, add the stock (I use fake chicken stock) a ladleful at a time, stirring and waiting for all the liquid to be incorporated before adding the next ladle.

This can take around 25-30 minutes.  When all the liquid is incorporated, check that the rice is cooked through, but still with a bit of bite. 
Flake the salmon (gently, so it doesn’t turn to mush) and add it to the rice, along with the chopped pistachios. Stir through the butter and parmesan, herbs if using, and season with salt and pepper.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Romesco sauce


This is a Spanish (my version Spanish-ish) dip/sauce thing, made with roasted pepper, tomato, garlic and walnuts. You could use other nuts, but I like the slightly bitter edge you get from the walnuts.

Romesco sauce works incredibly well as an accompaniment to some simply grilled or pan-fried fish, and I really love it with sweet potato wedges too, or on a bit of nice bread, or on a spoon. Basically, it is delicious.

Rachel Khoo made one and served it with burnt leeks, which had been steamed in newspaper. That sounded like the kind of bonkers thing I like to do, so I gave it a go – and I thought the leeks were horrible. If you like your sauce-accompaniments oniony and stringy, let me know and I’ll give you the directions.

This recipe is based on recipes by Rick Stein and Rachel Khoo. This amount makes approximately 6 dainty servings. More if you are less dainty, like me.

Ingredients

Pinch chilli flakes or 1 dried birds eye chilli
2 medium/large tomatoes, sliced in half
2 red peppers, slice in half and remove the seeds and white pithy bits
3-4 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
30g walnuts - or hazelnuts or almonds, toasted and skins crumbled off (half-heartedly is fine)
20g stale-ish nice bread – no crusts
100ml olive oil
1 ½ tbsp red wine/sherry vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

Pre-heat the oven to 180-200 degrees (I’m not sure exactly because my oven only has three temperatures: very hot, hot, slightly less hot).

On a baking tray, arrange the tomatoes and peppers cut side down. Hide the garlic cloves under the pepper shells to prevent them becoming too scorched (this does work). Roast (no oil needed) for 15-20 minutes, until the vegetables are fragrant and the skins have blistered and blackened in places.

Pinch off as much of the burnt pepper and tomato skin as you can, and peel the garlic cloves. Put the roasted veggies and garlic in a food processor with the chilli flakes, toasted walnuts and bread. Pulse to chop, and the slowly drizzle in the olive oil as you blend until you get a rough sauce-y consistency. Add a generous pinch of salt and grind of pepper and the vinegar, blend, and then taste to see if it needs more seasoning or more vinegar.