Sunday, 27 May 2012

Souvlaki with khoriatiki

I can't claim any ownership of these two classic Greek dishes, but when the weather's hot the simplicity of both makes the perfect meal. Some of the best dinners I've ever enjoyed have involved sitting on a restaurant terrace in Greece somewhere, eating grilled souvlaki with a traditional salad on the side and either some chips or pita bread with hummus. Not forgetting the bottle of chilled retsina.

You can rustle up the pair within minutes but you do need to give the meat at least 30 minutes to marinate, several hours if you have the time. I don't have any "twist" on these, unlike many well-known chefs - they are not dishes to be tinkered with, in my opinion.

What you need:
150-200g lamb fillet
A handful of ripe cherry or baby plum tomatoes
1 green pepper
5-6 cm piece of cucumber
7-8 dried black Greek olives
1 very small red onion
Olive oil
I lemon
A clove of garlic, crushed
Dried oregano
A small slab of feta cheese

What to do: 
First prepare the lamb. Trim off any excess fat and cut into about 12 2cm cubes. Zest the lemon and juice it. In a bowl, whisk up a marinade of a generous tablespoonful of olive oil, half the lemon juice and all the zest, garlic, a pinch of oregano and some freshly ground black pepper. Put the lamb cubes in, mix thoroughly, cover the bowl with clingfilm and chill in the fridge for as long as possible.

Make the salad. Halve the tomatoes (if you use regular tomatoes cut them into wedges). Halve the cucumber lengthwise, halve it again then cut into chunky quarters. Deseed the pepper and remove any white pith, then cut it half vertically and slice it horizontally into thin strips. Peel the onion and cut it into slim wedges. Put all the vegetables in a bowl and add the olives.

Grill the souvlaki. Thread the lamb cubes onto skewers, grind some sea salt over them and cook for about 9-10 minutes, turning them a couple of times.

While the meat is cooking, make the salad dressing. Add a good glug of olive oil to the rest of the lemon juice - about 3/4 oil. Add a pinch of oregano and some black pepper. Put the feta cheese in one piece on top of the salad and pour the dressing over.

Plate up - put the skewers on the plate, pile some salad next to it and add an extra lemon wedge for squeezing over the meat if you like. If you're very hungry, toast a pita bread for on the side - it's handy for mopping up the juices.

Cook's tips: 
Any of the lean lamb cuts can be used - neck, leg or shoulder fillet are all equally tender and grill well. If you can cook outdoors, do so as there may be a lot of smoke from the oil in the marinade. It's not worth firing up a full-on barbecue for one person, but the disposable ones are just the right size for this. If, like me, you don't even have a balcony then a ridged cast-iron grill pan on the hob is the best option - make sure it is scorching hot. You can also use the grill on your cooker, but the results won't be quite as good. 

Skewers - wooden or metal? I prefer metal myself as it conducts a little heat into the inside of the meat. I've never had much luck with wooden skewers - you need to soak them for at least an hour so they don't burn during cooking, which they always do when I use them.

There are only six ingredients ever in a Greek salad - tomatoes, peppers,olives, cucumber, onion and feta. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. There should be no lettuce of any sort, although even in Greece you might occasionally see a few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley - about the only permissible variation.

If you use an English cucumber for the salad, use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds first so they don't make the salad watery - the small Mediterranean sort have very few seeds and are much firmer, if you can find them (they look like raw gherkins). Crespo do really nice dried Greek olives in a jar - most supermarkets stock them, but if you can't find any get some kalamata olives instead.

The Greeks always use fresh feta, which is softer, creamier and a lot less salty than the packaged sort. Unfortunately, it's really difficult to find here unless you are lucky enough to have a good cheese shop or deli nearby. If you're using packaged feta, as is most likely, make sure it says feta on the wrapper and not "salad cheese", which is inferior. About a quarter of the slab is enough. I rinse it under the cold tap first to get rid of some of the saltiness, then pat it dry carefully with a little kitchen roll.

Dried olives are salty too - I never add salt to the salad dressing for this reason.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Fennel and orange salad with poached salmon

Happy days - it's hot, finally, meaning I can stop having my oven on for an hour every day. It's salad time, which is good because when the temperature goes above 25C outside the heat tends to kill my appetite and I only want the lightest food. Two days in from this late May heatwave and I thought I should stop picking at olives and bowls of hummus for my tea and make proper food.

This is a proper meal, one that requires a plate rather than a lap tray filled with nibbles, substantial but light enough that you won't feel like a boa that swallowed a horse.

What you need: 
Half a small fennel bulb
1 orange
4-5cm cucumber
Olive oil
1 salmon fillet

What to do:
Trim the root off the fennel and then slice it wafer thin until you reach the top stems. If there are any fronds, cut them off and set aside. Zest the orange, cut it in half and juice one half. Put the shredded fennel in a bowl, pour over the orange juice, toss and leave. Cut the peel off the other orange half, making sure you remove all the pith. Halve it and slice thinly. Slice the cucumber thinly.

Poach the salmon in a heavy lidded pan in an inch of water - bring the water to simmering point and as soon as it starts to bubble turn it right down so it's barely moving. Let the fish poach for 5 minutes until it's only just turned pale pink, then switch off the hob and leave the fish to cool slightly in the liquid.

Add the orange slices, zest and cucumber to the fennel, season and pour over 2 dessertspoons of olive oil. If you have any fennel fronds, chop them finely and add them. Mix everything well, then plate up with the salmon and some new potatoes on the side.

Cook's tips: 
The easiest way to shred the fennel and slice the cucumber thinly is with a mandoline. The fennel especially needs to be as thin as possible so it can soften in the orange juice. If you don't have a mandoline, a heavy, very sharp knife is essential.

If you prefer a sharper, less fruity dressing, swap the orange juice for the juice of half a lemon.

Don't overcook the fish. You need only 2-3cm of water in the pan and if you use a shallow sauteuse the water will reach simmering point much faster, while the lid will help the steam circulate in the pan to cook the fish from the top. As soon as the top is as pale as the bottom of the fillet take the pan off the hob. If you have an electric hob, as I do, that means moving the pan and placing it elsewhere. The fish will continue to cook in the water as it cools, leaving you with a perfectly moist portion. In hot weather I prefer to eat my salmon cool rather than hot or chilled. You can poach ahead - it'll keep in the fridge a day or two if covered in clingfilm.

It's still the season for Jersey Royals if you can find them. They are more expensive than the other varieties of new potato but the season is so brief I think it's worth paying the extra to enjoy their nutty flavour. I usually cook more than I need for a meal so I can turn the remainder into a salad.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

A fruity goat tagine

By now you're probably aware how much I love goat meat. It's not eaten just in Greece, but all round the Med - I've never quite managed to erase the memory of the sight of a row of skinned kids' heads lined up on a butcher's stall when on a stroll through the Arab market in Jerusalem's walled old city. Their eyes were blue and, like the Mona Lisa's, they seemed to follow me as I walked past. Creepy eyes aside, I'm sure the heads were delicious when cooked.

No heads for needed for this recipe, just some diced shoulder. And don't be put off by the long list of ingredients - this is simplicity itself to make. It takes just 5-10 minutes to prep. Makes enough for two portions, so you can eat one and freeze one.

What you need:  
A good glug of olive oil
About 300g goat meat, cubed
1 onion, chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
About 3/4 pint chicken stock
1 orange, juiced and zested
Piece of cinnamon stick, about 3cm
Piece of fresh ginger, about 2cm, peeled and very finely chopped
Half a preserved lemon, finely sliced
Handful of pitted green olives
Handful of dried apricots
Handful of finely chopped fresh mint leaves
2 dessert spoonfuls of ground almonds
About a dessert spoonful of flaked almonds
A little chopped coriander

What to do: 
Using a heavy sauteuse, brown the goat in the olive oil over a high heat then scoop it out and set aside while you fry off the onions and garlic in the same oil until translucent and giving off aroma. Return the meat to the pan and pour in the stock, plus the orange zest and juice, cinnamon stick, ginger, preserved lemon and green olives. Grind in some black pepper. Turn down the heat until it's just simmering and leave for about 2 hours. (You can transfer it to the oven if you prefer - about 160C.) Check on it occasionally and top up with boiling water if it looks like it might dry out.

After 2 hours, add the apricots, mint and ground almonds, stir through and let it cook for another half an hour or so. The meat should be tender by now and the juices thickened by the almonds. If the meat's not quite ready, just cook it a while longer - it won't spoil.

Season to taste, stir in the flaked almonds and scatter over the coriander then dish up with some cous-cous and a side salad of tomatoes, cucumber and mint dressed with a little olive oil and lemon juice.

Cook's tips:
If you can't get goat meat, use mutton - it'll need about the same cooking time, but be sure to trim off the fat first. If you use lamb, it will only need about an hour to 90 minutes in total to cook.

Tagines are very flexible - if you don't have any apricots, use some dried figs or dates. Black olives can be used instead of green.

If you freeze a portion, do it before you add the flaked almonds and coriander.

Cous-cous doubles in size when it's ready so measure out about half of what you want to eat. Dump it in a heatproof bowl and cover with the same amount of boiling water. Put a plate over the bowl to trap the heat and steam and leave it for 5 minutes. It should have fluffed up - fork it through to break up the grains. If it looks too dry, add a little more water and leave for another minute or so (it's better to have too little water and top up than too much, which will make it soggy). If you have leftover cous-cous, cover it with cling film and chill in the fridge - it makes a good base for a salad.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Larder larks no. 2

The more I think about it, the more I realise that food parcels are a jewel in any lone gourmet's crown. One of the downsides of living alone is not having others to cook for, unless you invite friends round to dine. And while as a solo foodie you can run riot buying unusual new ingredients to try, secure in the knowledge there are no housemates to object to your culinary or financial profligacy, if you don't like them they lurk in the back of the cupboard gathering dust and making you feel guilty each time you open the door.

Subscribing to a taster box scheme is a cheap way to try new foods, as they come in small quantities. My third Larder Box arrived earlier this month, containing coffee, a curry kit, a glut of chocolate, salt and a condiment.

Most of it has been consumed already - the dinky little bag of handmade chocolate caramels was delicious enough to make up for it being a late substitute for the promised passionfruit marshmallows, while the bar of chocolate was a surprise extra. I'm a heavy coffee drinker, but I didn't actually like the packet of high-end coffee included here - brewed in my filter machine it produced a thin and bitter drink that I abandoned after two mouthfuls. I poured the rest of the pot down the sink and made a fresh one with my regular blend. Luckily the pack was small enough for only one pot so I didn't feel bad about throwing it away - I suspect it would produce a better cup in an espresso machine, though.

The Goan curry kit was fabulous - two packs of spices plus fresh garlic and ginger and some nifty instructions. I'm not confident making curry - I tend to rely on using bought pastes - but I knocked up a tasty prawn curry with it and it was good enough that I could see me buying more of these kits either for myself or as a gift. The smoked sea salt is a welcome addition to my spice cupboard. The real revelation was the spicy banana ketchup. It sounds wrong and it doesn't look appetising - a thick, brown sludge of slurry in a bottle. But it tastes divine. It was perfect with some breaded chicken goujons and brought a new dimension to a breakfast bacon sarnie - less harsh than brown sauce, less sweet than a chutney, just a great balance of fruit and spice.

Then this arrived:

A few weeks ago I signed up to Foodie Penpals, a great idea for food lovers to send and receive a parcel every month, then blog about it. The box can contain homemade treats or bought goodies, up to the modest value of £10. The twist is that the box you receive comes from someone else than the person you send yours too. This beautifully wrapped box came from @Mellymeepmeep, who has a quirky blog about cakes and frocks.

Inside it was crammed with goodies - not only has Mel set the bar very high, I was worried she'd exceeded the £10 limit! As my benefactor lives in Yorkshire, she'd put together a box showcasing some of the great foods from her county.

The locally made pork pie was delicious - crisp pastry encasing a firm pork filling with not too much jelly (just as I like it) - and the artisan cheese is perfectly crumbly with a good balance of salty moistness and underlying sweetness. When it's gone I'll be keeping an eye out for more. Rough oatcakes to accompany the cheese came in a silver foil pack and there was also a tiny taster pot of strawberry jam, heretically matched with the cheese. The Divine chocolate also vanished quickly, but I brewed the Italian hand-blended coffee for breakfast today and it was satisfying in a way that the Larder Box pack was never going to be. So far, so very happy.

What put an extra smile on my face was the very thoughtful inclusion of a vintage cookbook full of recipes for one person as I regularly pick up old recipe books from charity shops. I've only dipped into Goode for One, an early 1980s BBC title, so far and not cooked anything from it yet, but I've already spotted a couple of ideas that are ripe for testing, updating and tweaking 30 years on. Thanks, Mel!

I wonder what June will bring?

Friday, 18 May 2012


Nearly the end of May and the weather is still so erratic that my cooking is veering between winter comfort food one day and lighter summer dishes the next. Peperonata falls into both camps.

This Italian dish is usually served as an antipasto, but it works just as well as main dish in itself or as an accompaniment to some grilled fish or meat of some sort. The classic version usually has tomatoes and garlic in it and some recipes have a list of ingredients as long as your arm. My preference is to keep it simple - no tomatoes, no garlic, just letting the sweetness of the peppers speak for themselves.

This takes just 5 minutes to prepare and makes enough for one very generous portion (depending on the size of the peppers) or two smaller ones. Like a lot of slow-cooked dishes, this tastes just as good if not better when reheated the next day.

What you need:
3 peppers
1 onion
Olive oil
What to do: 
Halve the peeled onion and slice it thinly. Pour a very generous glug of olive oil into a heavy sauteuse and sauté the onion over a medium heat until it turns translucent. While the onion is cooking, deseed the peppers, remove any white pith inside, halve them vertically and slice thinly.

Add the peppers to the pan and stir them through thoroughly so they are completely coated in oil. Leave them to cook down over a low heat for about an hour. Stir them once in a while so they cook evenly and put a lid on halfway through to generate some juices. Season to taste at the end.

Cook's tips: 
Like ratatouille, peperonata should be lush and unctuous, never watery.  Plenty of oil and a low heat (gas/electric 2 or 3 depending on your hob) are essential, as is time. Cook it too quickly on a higher heat and the water will leach out, the peppers will break down too fast and you'll end up with a soggy mess.

The peppers need to be very ripe to maximise their natural sweetness, but they should still have smooth, wrinkle-free skins. The Italians use red peppers throughout but I like to mix it up with different colours - those trio packs of red, green and yellow or orange peppers produce lovely colours as well different levels of sweetness.

You can add a small pinch of sugar to boost the sweetness if you wish. A bayleaf tucked in will add a little savoury depth, as will a small sprig of lemon thyme. You could also add a few torn fresh basil leaves at the end. But, really, this is not a dish for mucking around with - simple is best. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The prize-winning beetroot

I don't have an allotment (I wish), so I can't have a little boast about beating off stiff competition from other gardeners for growing a giant specimen.

However, I've just learned that my beetroot and broad bean risotto has just won a prize in a risotto competition organised by E Cuisine (they make stocks, if you're wondering, and no I haven't ever tried them although I think I'm about to get some as a prize).

I am chuffed to bits to have one of my recipes recognised this way.

If you missed it in March, here's the recipe again. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Braised fennel

Fennel is a very underrated vegetable, I think - we don't eat nearly enough of it in the UK and it can be hard to find as many supermarkets simply don't stock it, not even the bigger branches. And with greengrocers in ever-dwindling supply, finding fennel can be tricky. All of which is a shame as it's tasty both cooked and raw and it's the perfect companion for pork.

It has a pronounced aniseed flavour so it's not surprising it's used as a flavouring in that most aniseedy of drinks - pastis. I like to add fennel to fish soups, or slice it thinly to make a crisp slaw in summer, when the warmer weather demands salads. It's also delicious in its own right when cooked and makes a good side dish for a pork chop or sausages.

What you need: 
2 medium bulbs of fennel
Olive oil
About half a pint of vegetable stock

What to do: 
Heat the oven to about 160-180C. Trim the fennel by slicing off the top stalks and paring the root to remove any brown hardness. If you have fronds, set them aside. Quarter the bulbs and brown gently on all sides in a frying pan or sauteuse with the olive oil.  Transfer to a heatproof dish, sprinkle over the finely chopped fronds, season and cover with the stock. Bake for about 45-60 minutes - they are done when you you can easily insert a fork into the base of the stem. 

Cook's tips:
Choose the freshest bulbs - they should be bright white with pale to mid-green tips and feel very firm. Don't buy if they look dry and wrinkly or they are starting to turn beige or yellow.

The fronds taste like dill - they can be used as a herb in their own right or used as a dill substitute. Just chop finely after washing. 

To boost the aniseed flavour, add a glug of pastis to the pan to deglaze it before transferring the dish to the oven.

You can turn it into a gratin by topping it with fresh breadcrumbs and a little grated parmesan. Bake as usual, add the topping then pop under a hot grill until until it's crisp and golden.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Sweet potato bubble and squeak

Bubble and squeak is the classic way to use up leftover mash and greens, usually from the Sunday lunch. The greens are most likely to be sprouts these days, the one green veg I really hate although I'll eat any other sort of cabbage. If you have one of the two basic ingredients hanging around cooked, it's worth making up the other half to mix up a panful of bubble squeak. I often find I have some braised kale left over as a prepacked bag contains around two portions. I rarely eat mash as a side dish - it seems a lot of work for one portion - but if you have plans to make fish cakes or gnocchi, then double up and make enough for this too. I find about 60% sweet potato and 40% greens is about the right proportion.

The flavour of the sweet potato marries well with the greens, while the added spring onion and garlic will cook during the frying and add extra notes. The colour is also appealing as bubble and squeak made with potato can look a bit grey.

This goes well with almost any kind of meat and makes a meal on its own too. Don't drown it in Bisto as it will overpower the sweet potato.

What you need: 
Sweet potato
1 spring onion
1 small clove of garlic
Leftover greens

What to do: 
Make the mash - peel the sweet potato, cut into chunks and boil until tender. Drain well. Slice the spring onion very finely and crush the garlic. Mash the sweet potato with a small knob of butter and then add the spring onion and garlic. Season to taste. Mix the mash and greens together in a bowl so the cabbage is well distributed.

Heat some butter in a frying pan over a high flame until it starts to foam but before it starts to turn brown. Tip in the bubble and squeak mixture, flatten it into a cake and turn the heat down a notch. Let it fry gently for about 10 minutes until it has formed a firm crust underneath. Flip and cook the other side for another 10 minutes.

Cook's tips: 
The pan is important. Use a frying pan with a very heavy base and a non-stick surface, for the best results.

Don't have the heat too high or it'll burn before the inside is thoroughly heated.

To flip the bubble and squeak, slide it cooked side down onto a plate, turn the frying pan upside down over the plate then flick your wrist and turn it all back on itself. The cake should now be cooked side up. It's a tricky technique that requires speed and confidence. Do it over the hob so that if it does go wrong, it won't be all over the floor. Use a pair of oven gloves to protect your hands and arms.

Sweet potato is a lot less starchy than potato so it makes a sloppier mash. Drain it very well, pop the pan back over the heat briefly to dry it out and don't add any milk to the mash - a small knob of butter is plenty.