Saturday, 11 May 2013

FORAGING - Spring Pasta and Wild Garlic

Spring is here. FINALLY.  For fucks sake it’s taken long enough. Waking up to blue skies and walking home from work in warm fading light is joyous. Irritable and intolerant most of the time, the rarity of British sunshine makes Londoners throw off the shitty mood and stay outside as long as possible.  Every grass verge is dotted with opportunistic sunbathers and the pavements of Soho are heaving with groups picnicking on blue-bagged off-licence tinnies. Sunny London is the best place in the world.   

I adore the buzz of urban springtime but coming from a semi-rural town in Yorkshire means every so often I crave the peace of countryside.   Fortunately my friends feel the same and yesterday we ran away from concrete and skyscrapers to Hastings, for a long walk along the coast.
I haven’t felt inspired by food for a while.  A combination of busyness, tiredness and being skint have meant a couple of months eating more for sustenance than pleasure but while walking I spotted wild garlic and took some home, eager to cook with something new.  

Foraging for wild food is well trendy right now and wild garlic is perhaps one of the easiest introductions.  It’s in season late February to late May and grows in woodland areas where bluebells are usually found.  It has long flat leaves and small white flowers but you’ll smell it before you see it.

Unlike cultivated garlic where you use the bulb, with wild garlic you eat the leaves.  I cooked it with asparagus, cream and lemon in a pasta dish along the lines of risotto primavera. Despite the cream and butter it was light and fresh with a subtle allium hum from the wild garlic and a crunch from the asparagus.  Really nice. 

Wild Garlic and Asparagus Pasta - Serves 2 generously

·       Enough tagliatelle or tripolini for 2 (around 120-150g per person)

·       A large bunch of wild garlic leaves, rinsed carefully and roughly chopped

·       Large bunch of asparagus, woody ends snapped off, sliced in half lengthways then and chopped into about 5 cm sections.

·       5 round shallots very finely diced

·       2 heaped tablespoons of butter       Olive oil

·       100 ml double cream

·       Zest  ½ lemon

·       Juice from ½ lemon

·       100 ml white wine

·       Salt and pepper

·       Parmesan to serve 

1)      Set a large pan of salted water to boil and add the dried pasta to cook according to instructions or until al dente (or how you like it).

2)      About 3 minutes before the pasta is done, add the chopped asparagus to the same pan.

3)      If the pasta and the asparagus finishes cooking before you finish the sauce, drain and reserve the cooking water. 

4)      In another pan (large enough to hold the cooked pasta and sauce) heat a splash of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter on a low/medium heat and add the finely diced shallots.

5)      Gently fry the shallots for about 7 minutes until translucent and soft, but not browned.

6)      Add the white wine to the shallots and crank up the heat, boiling vigorously until about half the liquid has evaporated before adding the zest and lemon juice. Whisk in the 2nd tablespoon of butter.

7)      Turn the heat down to medium and add the drained pasta and asparagus, the chopped wild garlic and the double cream. 

8)      Stir well.  Add a splash of the pasta cooking water if the sauce needs loosening.  Taste for seasoning and adjust.

9)      Serve straight away with parmesan.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Hurry Up Spring - Asian Noodle Salad

How very British of me of me to discuss the weather but it is fucking freezing and doesn’t show any sign of letting up soon.  Its been getting me down and I have a freezer stocked with fish fingers and chicken nuggets to eat with beans on toast.  Kids’ food for weather sulking: easy and cheap but not particularly healthy or imaginative.

Eating brown and orange food became repetitive after a while and I turned to this Asian noodle salad to liven things up. I make this when I crave something vibrant and fresh:  the colours alone cheer me up and the kick of chili; intense fresh ginger and fragrant herbs make me feel healthier instantly.   

 I don’t make any claim to its authenticity: it’s a mash-up of the eastern flavours I enjoy and uses what’s readily available in an average supermarket.  

I often eat it with quickly sautéed chicken, or thinly sliced beefsteak.   It would be immense with roast pork belly.  This time I ate it with grilled squid but quite frankly, it’s great on its own and you can remove the noodles for a virtuous low carb, low calorie feast tasting of better weather to come.

Asian Noodle Salad – Serves 4 with other things, 3 on its own.

·      Small bunch/handful coriander, torn roughly

·      Small bunch basil/handful, torn roughly

·      Small bunch mint/handful, torn roughly

·      Half a cucumber, de-seeded (scrape out the juicy middle bit with teaspoon or melon baller) and thinly sliced into 5mm batons

·      3 small carrots (or 2 big ones) finely sliced into strips

·      ¼ small red cabbage finely sliced into strips

·      3-4 spring onions finely sliced diagonally

·      2-3 medium red chilis finely sliced.  Leave out the seeds if you can’t hack it.

·      2 nests of dried fine egg noodles, boiled for 3 minutes then rinsed with cold water under the tap to cool. *Or fine rice vermicelli noodles cooked to packet instructions and left to cool.

For the dressing:

·      3 tablespoons rice vinegar

·      1 tablespoon fish sauce

·      1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

·      2 tablespoons light soy

·      Juice of half a lemon

·      2 inch chunk of ginger peeled and grated with a fine grater

·      2 cloves of crushed garlic

·      1 teaspoon caster sugar

1)   Mix the dressing ingredients in a large bowl

2)   Prepare the noodles.

3)   Chop up all the salad bits or use a mandolin if you're fancy.

4)   Toss the salad bits together with the dressing in the large bowl and taste – it may need a splash more light soy for seasoning.

5)   Eat with protein of your choice or on its tod.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Diet Fail - Pain Au Chocolat French Toast

I’d secretly hoped I’d become ridiculously svelte-like through giving up meat but no such luck: I’m far too creative with cheese and cream.  Veganism might be the next ‘diet’ to try but I’ll probably just end up eating vast amounts of chips.
Pain au chocolate French toast is one of the many reasons why I failed to lose weight in January.  This breakfast is a hybrid of American style French toast and bread and butter pudding.  While it feels like the most decadent thing ever it’s probably still less calorific than a greasy spoon fry-up.  Although it doesn’t take a huge amount of effort I was still smug I’d prepared it the night before, giving the croissants time to soak up the custard mixture so it could just be sprinkled with the crumble topping and flung into the oven for 40 minutes the next morning.  
It is very sweet and very rich.  Slightly wobbly custard and croissants holds little nuggets of chocolate and the crunchy cinnamon topping gives a welcome textural contrast.  This is something to make on a special occasion: throw it together the night before, keep the crumble separate and in the morning when you get up to pee, sprinkle the topping on, put in the oven, get back into bed for a bit, then voila! You’re everyone’s favourite person!  Quite frankly I had some making up to do with everyone who’s been in my vicinity during the last month… with moving house and an exam I haven’t exactly been Pollyanna.

Pain Au Chocolate French Toast With Cinnamon Crumble Topping – Serves 4


·      70 g plain flour

·      110g brown Sugar

·      1 teaspoon Cinnamon

·      1/4 teaspoon Salt

·      Freshly Grated Nutmeg

·      100g cold butter, cut into pieces

French Toast

·      4 stale pain au chocolate (basically any from a supermarket or corner-shop cause they’re never fresh)

·      150 ml whole milk

·      100 g caster sugar

·      4 eggs

·      1 tablespoon vanilla extract (NOT essence)

1)    Lightly butter a 20cm pie dish/cake tin/baking tray and roughly tear up the chocolate croissants into 3 to 4 inch chunks and put in.  They should be loosely packed.

2)    Lightly whisk the eggs and add the caster sugar, milk and vanilla extract. Pour over the croissants, cover with cling-film and refrigerate to soak up overnight, or at a push for an hour.

3)    Using two forks or a pastry cutter mix the butter in with the rest of the topping ingredients until it resembles breadcrumbs, store in an airtight container while the croissants soak up the custard.

4)    The following morning preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

5)    Add the crumble topping to the custard/croissant mixture and bake for around 35-45 minutes until the topping is golden brown and crispy.

6)    Serve with sour cream or Greek yoghurt, coffee and eat in bed. 

Saturday, 19 January 2013

JANUARY DIET: Sunshine Dal and Frugality

Maybe I’m just noticing it more but the trend for January asceticism seems to have increased.  Be it Dryuary, detoxing, or a hardcore diet, it feels like everyone wants balance the excesses of December with an austere start to the year.

I did a crash diet last January and although it helped get rid of a few pounds its main benefit was psychological. Having rampantly consumed everything in sight during the holidays there was a loss of control that sticking to a strict regime for short period recovered. Of course I couldn’t possibly keep it up; come February, along with the majority of the January dieters, I was back on the good stuff. 

This year I took a less intense approach and decided to go veggie for a month.  Still drinking, still eating carbs and fat but going without meat and fish.  Given that the Flintstone-esque hunk of beef eaten on New Year's Eve was just a drop in an ocean of consumed animal product I wanted to redress the balance by laying off flesh.   Aside from the health and environmental benefits of cutting down I was becoming a bit of a lazy cook: sticking bacon in most things or only adding veg and salad as an afterthought.  

January is monetarily speaking always tight.  After the initial excitement at being paid a few days early before Christmas, it’s a long wait till the next paycheck and most of us have spent too much in the name of hedonism.  So, with frugality in mind this lentil dal ticks all boxes for January.  Its dirt cheap, veggie, healthy, and most importantly for these cold, dark days: comforting.  

Dal won’t ever win a beauty contest but the bright orange chunks of roasted carrots and butternut squash add a different texture, a splash of colour and sweetness.  Its really easy to make and the leftovers make a brilliant packed lunch. Now that’s thrifty.

Squash and Carrot Dal (sunshine dal) - Serves 4

·       200g dried red lentils

·       1 litre boiled water/stock

·       1 large onion finely diced

·       4 cloves crushed garlic

·       3 tablespoons your favourite curry paste (I used Patak's tikka masala)

·       1 small butternut squash, de-seeded and diced into 2cm cubes with skin on

·       3 large carrots peeled and diced into 2cm cubes.

·       Vegetable oil

·       Salt and pepper

·       Few sprigs of herbs or chili powder (I had some limp rosemary).

1)     Pre-heat oven to 200 degrees Celcius (I have a fan oven so make it 220 if you don’t)

2)     Add the diced squash and carrot to a baking tray in a single layer, lightly coat in oil and season will with salt and pepper and herbs or chili powder if you fancy.  You may need two baking trays.  The veg takes about 35-45 minutes to soften and develop a light char on the edges so get on with the dal while it’s in the oven.

3)     Add a good glug of oil to a large saucepan or wok over a medium heat and soften the onion and garlic till clear for about 8 minutes then add the curry paste. Stir well and fry lightly for about 3 minutes.

4)     Add the dried lentils and stir to coat evenly.  Add the boiled water and stir. It will look a bit crap and watery but be patient.

5)     Bring to boil then turn to a light simmer and stir occasionally for 30-40 minutes till the lentils suck up the liquid (you might need to add a splash more) and get beautifully soft and mushy. 

6)     Season well to taste and add the roasted veg to your bowl. 

7)     If you want, add hot sauce. 

Thursday, 27 December 2012

HIBERNATION - American Pancakes and Christmas

I always need a few extra days off on top of the obligatory national Christmas holiday. In the weeks leading up to Christmas the steadily worsening weather and rising panic about presents, traveling and quite frankly money, means that once the big day finally arrives and passes in a haze of booze and food, there is a guilty sense of relief. 
Don’t get me wrong I adore Christmas.  The pagans got it right with the Winter Solstice celebrating the shortest day and longest night - it only gets better from here on and we have the extra mince pie padding to deal with the January chills.  I’m not forgetting the baby Jesus. Or Santa Claus.  Everyone has a place in my book, but mainly I worship tinsel. Glorious, glittery, shiny tinsel.  My living room is a shrine. 
One of the main luxuries with time off is the lie-in and the lazy celebration breakfast.  Smoked salmon and the fry-up have their place but my American food obsession makes me choose a stack of pancakes.  Not super-thin crepes with lemon and sugar but thick, fluffy, vanilla monsters dredged in maple syrup.  They make me feel like I’m in a film. 

Whenever I want a classic American recipe I turn to the uber blogger, The Pioneer Woman, a bonafide all-American housewife living on a working cattle ranch in Oklahoma.  I halved her recipe and added an unconventional dollop of Greek yoghurt helped to counter the sweetness. 

Pioneer Woman’s Perfect Pancakes  - serves 2 generously

1 ½ cups plus 1 table spoon of plain flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 table spoon caster sugar
1 ½ table spoon baking powder
1 cup whole milk
1 large egg
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons butter plus extra for frying
Maple syrup or golden syrup to serve
Greek yoghurt or cream

1)   Mix all the dry ingredients (flour, salt, sugar and baking powder) in a large bowl
2)   Mix all the wet ingredients separately (milk, egg, vanilla extract)
3)   Add the wet to the dry, taking care not to over mix – lumps are good!
4)   Melt the 2 tablespoons butter (I defrost in microwave for 30 seconds) then carefully stir into the batter.
5)   You have 2 choices:
a)    Frying pancakes in batches, leaving cooked ones to keep warm in a very low oven (80 degrees Celsius) on a plate.
b)   Using a humongous non-stick pan or 2 non-stick pans and doing all at once.
6)   Either way: heat non-stick pan with a bit of butter on a low to medium plate and spoon a large serving spoon size dollop.  I got about 6 large pancakes from this recipe. 
7)   Wait till a few bubbles form on the surface (I waited slightly too long, which is why the edges are a little dark) then flip and leave for another couple of minutes.
8)   Stack on a plate with a pat of butter between each one, a drizzle of syrup and bit of yoghurt or cream.