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A little taster of what's cooking...

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  • Turkish show and tell

    I spent a lovely hour in a Turkish shop today. I’d been there many times before, but hadn’t visited for quite a long time and as I was passing it, I thought I’d drop in. I’m really pleased that I did.

    The shop is in the centre of Birmingham and the first glimpse of the stalls outside give you a taste of what’s inside – a vast array of fresh chillies. I’ve taken these home before – the larger the chilli, the less heat there is. But the white ones in particular (yellow cap) are perfect for stuffing. They taste like normal bell peppers, but they have a little kick. The larger green ones are great to add to curries or wherever you’d normally add a green pepper. They have a lovely grassy, green pepper taste with a little heat.

    Upstairs, the Turkish flat bread had just come out of the oven. There’s a stack of white paper next to the piles of warm bread, so that you can pick up a flat bread, wrap it and to take it to the till. If I’d been a little later, they would have had Lahmacun ready for lunch. These are Turkish bread bases with a fiery lamb mince on the top, like a spicy pizza without the cheese. Again, the sheets of paper are there for you to fold the Lahmacun in half and take them to the till. I missed out today…

    As I got to the till to pay, my eye as normal was drawn to the lovely things they had on the counter to tempt you at the last minute – just like they do at the supermarket, but with gorgeous hand crafted goodies – Turkish Delight drenched in icing sugar, baklava that was still in the tray it had been baked in upstairs, grapes and some things in green net bags. I was so happy to see that half of the bags contained green almonds. I’d read about them so often – they are as eagerly anticipated in the Middle East as our first strawberries or asparagus. Their season is as short too: April – July so I was so lucky to find them!

    Almonds are, in fact a member of the peach family rather than being a tree nut and you can really tell with these green almonds as their skins are fuzzy, like peaches. When you cut them in half, there is the almond that we all know and love – except it’s not. When you lift it clear of its casing and bite into it, beneath the skin there is water/jelly instead of nut! The nut hasn’t yet developed and neither has the hard shell that surrounds it. That means you can eat the whole of the green almond, fuzzy skin and all. The taste is ‘pure green’ – it’s like everything that Spring should be! Vaguely nutty, with a firm taste of peas that turns to a bitter, chicory-like note with a crispy bite. The taste isn’t something that is immediately familiar, but I think that if you put them out as a snack with drinks, they wouldn’t last long. I’ve found a couple of dishes that they can be cooked in – mostly Persian Khoreshes (stews), so I’ll be experimenting with a Tastesmith’s kit tomorrow!
    Right next to the green almonds was another bag of green things – I didn’t know what these were. The shop keeper told me that they were green plums “a real delicacy”, he said, “you eat them with salt”.

    These were crunchy and sour – like a Granny Smiths apple, but tiny and juicy! They had the same effect on my mouth as rhubarb, but were really pleasing. They are good to add to tagines and stews as a sweet/sour addition. I couldn’t see why salt should be added, but after biting into one I added a tiny sprinkle. I immediately saw why the salt works – the fruit became much sweeter and took the acid edge off. I can imagine having a bowl of these and a pinch pot of salt at a dinner party to serve with cocktails, along with olives. They have the same moreish quality.

    I seem to have discovered a whole new set of bar snacks!

  • Tomato Thyme!

    This is about the only time of the year that you should be able to buy fresh tomatoes cheaper than tinned. You may be lucky enough to have a greenhouse or sunny back garden and are now harvesting your super tasty home grown tomatoes. Either way, it’s a perfect time to make tomatoes the star of the show when it comes to using them up.

    When I went to market last week, I picked up 5 kilos of gorgeous tomatoes for just £1.80. This is about the only perk when it comes to having to get up at 5 a.m. to go and find top quality fresh produce for the kits that we make – you get to find super bargains when it comes to seasonal fruit and vegetables.

    This is my favourite Tomato Tart recipe, which takes moments to make and tastes divine! You can use any fresh herbs that you have to hand (or even some dried) and use any cheese that you have lying around in the fridge.

    Tomato Thyme Tart with Goats Cheese

    You’ll need one pack of puff pastry for this recipe, so get it out of the fridge half an hour before you need it to give it time to soften a little.

    Heat the oven to Gas mark 5, 375F, 190C.

    In a bowl, mix together 150g cheese (crumbled if it’s a soft cheese, grated if it’s a hard cheese), 1 clove of garlic finely grated or chopped and around 3-4 tablespoons of freshly chopped herbs. If you’re using fresh thyme, you can just pick off the leaves from around 10 stems and put them in with the cheese. If you only have dried, use around 2tsp. Mix well and season with black pepper. Don’t forget cheese is quite salty, so you won’t need to add salt. Make sure all of the ingredients in the bowl are well mixed.

    Roll out the pastry, trying to keep it as rectangular as you can (you can always trim it, if it goes wrong!). Don’t roll it out bigger than the biggest baking tray that you have. If you don’t have any big baking trays, cut the pastry in half to fit.

    With a sharp knife, score an edge all the way round your pastry – taking care not to cut all the way through. This will enable the edges of your pastry to rise, but will prevent the middle bit from rising and pushing off all of the tomatoes. Inside the area that you’ve scored prick with a fork to make extra sure that it won’t rise.

    Scatter the cheese mixture all over the pastry. You may think that there’s not enough of the cheesy mixture, but don’t forget – this is all about the tomatoes. The cheese is there to give an extra dimension, rather than providing all of the flavour.

    Finely slice around 10-12 tomatoes and lay them in lines over the cheese. It makes a nice pattern if you go down one way with the sliced tomatoes and up the other way – like this:

    Brush the cut edges of the tomatoes with melted butter or an oil of your choice. Season well with black pepper and sprinkle a little salt over the top before scattering some more herbs over the top of it all.

    Put the tart/s on the middle shelf and bake for around 50-55 minutes (30-40 minutes if you have two smaller tarts) until the outside is well risen and golden and the tomatoes are cooked and starting to brown and show signs of being well roast.

    Leave to cool slightly. Best served warm.

  • Sri Lankan Flatbread

    I’m a complete fanatic when it comes to authentic flatbread. I love the fact that these are the types of bread that have been made for (in some cases) thousands of years, which means that in the early days the recipes were handed down from mother to daughter rather than being written down, each region having subtle variations.

    Accompaniments replace cutlery, so if you imagine how you’d manage to eat your curry/stew without cutlery just using your hands (sometimes just your right hand), that gives you a good pointer to what you should be serving with your meal. How would you manage to eat the thinner gravy without a spoon? A spongy, thicker flatbread or plain boiled rice would enable you to mop these delicious flavours up using your hands alone. For dishes with less gravy and more substance, a good replacement for a spoon is a thinner, firmer flatbread that doubles up as a scoop.

    Yeast wasn’t always easy to come by and even if it was, the fuel that it took to cook a full loaf of bread was expensive or hard to come by. Cooking was done over a fire. Fire was essential to keep the family fed and warm, so no one wanted to waste any of the energy that it provided. Therefore, unleavened flatbreads fulfilled many needs – they didn’t need yeast or a lot of fuel to cook them. They were used as edible cutlery, plates and napkins.

    Leavened and unleavened flatbread served as a ‘filler’ too – flatbreads dipped into the flavours of the main meal meant that the person eating the flatbreads would feel full, even if they were low down the pecking order when it came to getting a serving of the main dish.

    Yorkshire Puddings are a type of British flatbread. A tray would be placed under a piece of meat to catch the drippings as they cooked. The Yorkshire pudding batter was poured into this tray and then served ahead of the main meal, so that the guests filled up before the main event. Children and servants didn’t usually get any of the meat, they made do with the Yorkshire pudding.

    The flatbreads are usually made with whatever is freely available in the region. If they can get away with using water as the liquid that binds the dough, so much the better – yogurt, coconut milk, juices sqeezed from vegetables/fruit. Anything that didn’t mean a long trek to the nearest water source.

    I made these flatbreads to go with our gorgeous Sri Lankan Curry – making good use of fresh coconuts.

    I managed to find three coconuts for £1 which meant that I opened them, prised away the coconut flesh, grated it and froze it. I also tasted the coconut milk inside and if it was sweet, I froze it in ice cube trays.

    If you haven’t got fresh coconut available, you can use desiccated coconut and a can of coconut milk as the liquid to bind the dough.

    Coconut Roti (makes 6-8)

    2 cups of white plain flour

    1 cup of grated fresh coconut or desiccated coconut

    1/2 tsp salt (optional)

    1 (ish) cup of liquid – water/canned coconut milk/fresh coconut milk

    1 handful of chopped fresh coriander (optional)

    1-2 green chillies sliced (optional)

    In a bowl, combine the flour, coconut and salt.

    Add the coriander and chilli if using and mix in.

    Add half of the liquid and mix with your hand, squishing the mixture through your fingers. Add more liquid until the dough is good and soft but not really sticky.

    Put into a plastic bag and leave for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, divide the dough into 6-8 balls. Put a dry frying pan onto the hob over a medium/high heat.

    Roll the balls of dough out quite thinly.

    Don’t stack the rolled pieces of dough because they’ll stick together.

    Place into the dry pan and wait until you see the dough starting to take on a drier appearance with tiny bubbles.

    Carry on cooking until the underside takes on brown speckles before turning over and cooking the other side. You can use a fish slice to press down on the roti to ensure even cooking.

    If you have any coconut milk that you need to use up, you can brush the cooked tops with it. You could also use solid coconut oil or butter. Plain is good too. Best served warm with a delicious curry!

  • Spicy Sweetcorn with nuts

    I’m always searching for tasty side dishes for curries, so that I can use them as part of a thali or for a quick meal. Something different, easy and yummy.

    People. Here it is.

    You can use any kind of sweet corn – frozen, tinned or fresh. This recipe also contains peanuts, but you could substitute them with cashew nuts or almonds if you prefer. There’s something moreish about the crunchy sweetcorn and cooked nuts combined with the chilli heat and spicy taste that had me addicted to it fairly quickly. If you’re catering for vegan or vegetarian guests along with meat eaters, this would be a general crowd-pleaser. It’s ready from start to finish in 15 minutes.

    The recipe calls for you to top it with Sev which is basically the spicy fried chickpea sticks that you get in Bombay Mix, which add even more yummy crunch. My advice to you is: seek it out.

    You will also need some asafoetida which is a resin used extensively in Indian cookery. It’s flavour is somewhere between garlic and onions and even though it has a very pungent smell similar to truffles, the flavour it gives to dishes can’t be replicated. It’s very cheap to buy in Asian food stores and usually comes in little plastic yellow tubs. While you’re in the Asian food store, you can get some Sev, too!

    Spicy Sweetcorn with nuts

    Drain 2 x 300g cans of sweet corn.

    First prepare a fresh paste to use in the curry:

    In a mini chopper or with a stick blender put between 1 and 5 green chillies (I used 3) chopped roughly and de-seeded if liked, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 large cloves garlic chopped roughly, a small piece (half a thumb) of ginger– peeled and roughly chopped and large pinch of turmeric. Add a small amount of water to enable you to whizz it all to a paste. When the paste is smooth, add 50g raw, unsalted peanuts (preferably still in their skin) and very briefly whizz. You don’t want to do anything more than very roughly chop the peanuts as they add a lovely crunch.

    Chop 2 handfuls of coriander (or parsley if you prefer) and set aside along with 2 tsp white sesame seeds.

    Have all of your ingredients to hand, ready to add to the saucepan quickly

    Heat a large saucepan or wok with a glug of oil and add 1tsp black mustard seeds. When the seeds start to pop and release their flavour, add a generous pinch of asafoetida closely followed by the drained corn. Turn up the heat to high and stir fry for a minute so that the sweetcorn takes on a little bit of colour.

    Use a large saucepan or wok to give the corn plenty of room to take on some colour

    Add the paste, coriander and sesame seeds and stir well before turning the heat to medium low. Leave to cook uncovered for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally until the raw garlic smell disappears. Taste and add a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and add more salt if necessary. Turn off the heat and cover. Leave for at least 10 minutes so that all of the flavours can get to know each other. You can also make this ahead of time and re-heat when required.

    Serve sprinkled with Sev and a freshly made buttered chapatti. Seriously good.

  • Savoury Steamed Cake — Dhokla

    I’m always on the look out for something savoury and spicy to eat for breakfast and this fits the bill perfectly. It’s a Gujarati snack and Gujarati snacks are the best, in my opinion! They always seem to capture the best in crunchy, sweet, salty, hot and spicy and go exceptionally well with a nice cup of tea (or cold beer!) A lot of Gujarati snacks are deep fried, but this one is steamed and made of lentils – it’s pretty much a health food!

    Gujarati’s are very proud of their Dhokla, like British people are proud of their Victoria sandwiches. Everyone who makes Dhokla will have their own ‘special’ twist to make it the best. I’ve tried lots of them and they all do differ – some are light and fluffy, some are dense and chewy, some are fiery hot, some are just savoury. All of them were delicious – it’s tangy and savoury all at the same time. You have to let go of the fact that it looks like the top layer of a Victoria Sandwich with a coconut topping and embrace the fact that when you bite into it, it’s savoury, spicy and nothing like a sweet cake! The more you make Dhokla, the more you can experiment.

    Dhokla is best served freshly made, or possibly eaten the next day. Store any leftovers in an air tight container and if eating the next day, make sure that you blast it in the microwave for 20 seconds to warm it through and make it soft again before you serve it.

    There are a couple of different ingredients which you may have to get, but none of them are expensive. You’ll probably need to go to your nearest Indian grocery store to find them though.

    Different thing #1

    Asafoetida (aka ‘hing’). This is a powdered resin from a plant that comes from Afghanistan. Some people think it has an unpleasant smell. I totally disagree – it is pungent, but I think it smells similar to a truffle with a deep, savoury, garlicky smell. This is the flavour it imparts – just a small amount makes you think that a dish has garlic in it, even when it hasn’t. It’s used extensively in Jain cooking who avoid garlic and onions in their cooking because it arouses passion! It’s sold in little yellow pots and costs around a pound.

    Different thing #2

    Eno (a medicine!) Those of a ‘certain age’ will remember being given this as children when you had an upset tummy. Although it seems very strange to be putting medicine in your cooking, don’t worry. The ingredients in Enos are just good old bicarbonate of soda and citric acid which gives it a lemony flavour, along with the scary sounding ‘anhydrous sodium carbonate’, which is a common food agent which just stops powdery things stop clumping together. The acid and bicarb are in the perfect quantities to give your dhokla a bit of a fruity tang along with a raising agent to make it fluffy. It’s also handy to keep in for upset tummies! The only place you seem to be able to buy this now, is in Indian grocery stores. I’ve tried various chemists and they only stock Andrews which isn’t the same as it has a proper ‘medicine’ ingredient in it that shouldn’t be used for cooking! If you really can’t find it, you can use plain old bicarbonate of soda and a squeeze of lemon juice, instead.

    Different thing #3

    Moong dal (lentils). These are Mung beans which have had their green husks taken off and split into two. They’re tiny and don’t need to be cooked in this recipe before you use them.

    The topping (this is known as the Tarka or Tadka) for the Dhokla is optional, but it’s just not the same without it. It only takes 1tblsp oil to spread over the whole cake and you can use whichever oil you want. Although to be authentic, it should be a fairly flavourless oil such as sunflower/vegetable/rapeseed/groundnut. Feel free just to scatter the topping without the oil, if you’re on a strict healthy diet, although remember that this feeds at least 5 people.

    HOW TO MAKE DHOKLA

    Soak 1 cup of moong dal in enough cold water to come 5cm above the dal. Soak for at least 3 hours, or overnight.

    Drain the dal and put them in a food processor along with 1-5 fresh green chillies (I use 3 or 4 depending on how hot they are). Blend until the mixture is smooth. You can add a splash of water if needed to make the processing easier.

    Put the mixture into a bowl and add 1tsp finely grated ginger, 1 heaped tsp sugar, 3 tblsp plain natural yogurt, 1 tbslp oil, a good pinch of asafoetida, 1/2 tsp turmeric (optional) and 1-2 tsp salt. Taste for salt and heat. Add more of either if necessary. You can add a little more yogurt or a little sifted chickpea flour (if you have any) to adjust the batter if you need to. It should be thicker than pancake batter, but not as thick as cake mixture. Mix thoroughly. You can now cover with clingfilm and leave this somewhere cool overnight if you want to cook it fresh for breakfast or use it straight away. There’s no need to refrigerate as it will start to ferment slightly which improves the flavour.

    Leave the mixture to one side while you prepare to cook the Dhokla. Very lightly grease a Victoria Sandwich tin and find a saucepan that it will fit inside of. Practice this bit before you have hot water in the saucepan. If you have a steamer that the tin will fit inside of, even better – it doesn’t have to be a round tin. If using a saucepan, put something like a metal cookie cutter in the middle of the saucepan so that the sandwich tin won’t be sitting on the bottom of the pan. Fold some tin foil into a long strip so that you can put it under the sandwich tin and to use as handles hanging over the edge of the saucepan, to help you lift it in and out of boiling water without hurting yourself. You’ll need boiling water to cook the Dhokla, so practice how much water you need to put in, enough to cover the metal cookie cutter. Wrap the lid in a clean tea towel so that any condensation is absorbed and won’t fall onto the dhokla.

    Put the amount of water that you practiced with (plus a splash more, you don’t want the pan to boil dry), into the saucepan and let it simmer while you get everything ready.

    Stir the mixture once more and then add 1 large tsp of Eno. Stir thoroughly, but be quick. Pour the now bubbly mixture into the sandwich tin with the folded tin foil underneath. Using the foil, gently lower the tin onto the cookie cutter. Let the ends of the foil strip hang over the side of the saucepan and cover with the wrapped up lid (make sure the tea towel that the lid is wrapped in has the ends piled on top of the lid, well away from the heat source so it doesn’t catch fire!).

    While the dhokla is cooking prepare the following ingredients for the Tadka – 1tsp mustard seeds, 1tsp sesame seeds, 1/2 – 1 green chilli chopped finely, 1tblsp chopped coriander, a pinch of asafoetida, 1tblsp lemon juice, 1tsp desiccated coconut. All of these are optional, leave out what you don’t have.

    Keep the pan simmering and covered (don’t peep) for 18-20 minutes until the dhokla is risen and spongy when you gently press it.

    Using a toothpick, prick the dhokla all over ready for the Tadka to sink in – this will keep it moist.

    In a small saucepan, heat 1-2 tblsp oil and add the mustard seeds and when they start popping add the sesame seeds, asafoetida and chilli, followed by the rest of the ingredients. Stir well and pour over the dhokla making sure that everything is evenly spread out.

    Cut into 3cm slices across the pan and then turn the pan a quarter way round and do the same again making diamond shapes.

    Eat while it’s warm!