Hearty salads

Lurking in my cookbook shelf is a small unassuming volume called Bowl Food. When I first received this book as a gift, I wasn’t very inspired. There are no witty introductions, no stories about the food, no celebrity chefs, no chefs at all for that matter. The production values are modern, but modest. The layout looks very much like the Australian Woman’s Weekly books on sale at all good Australian newsagents.  Unlike the Woman’s Weekly cookbooks, which are part of the vast Packer empire, Bowl Food is published by Murdoch Books, part of the even vaster Murdoch empire.

The name ‘Murdoch Books’ always makes me think of a sweat-shop for cookery writers. Poor souls with degrees in home economics are chained to demonstration kitchens, churning out dish after dish that would make a CWA member proud, but fail to satisfy my imagined female version of Chairman Kaga who runs the cookery division of the publisher with an iron will (or skillet). Christine (who blogs at Vegemite on Oatcakes) likened these nameless cookery writers to the monkeys on typewriters who are busy working away on the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

However, these cooks – chained to their stoves or not – clearly know their stuff. I find myself turning to this book nearly every week for inspiration. Recently, I’ve been attacking the salad section, and I whole-heartedly recommend these two beauties.

Minced chicken salad

  • 1 tablespoon jasmine rice
  • 2 teaspoons oil
  • 400 g chicken mince
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 stem lemon grass, white only
  • 1/3 cup chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 4 spring onions – sliced on the diagonal
  • 4 red Asian shallots – sliced
  • 1/2 cup fresh coriander – chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh mint – shredded
  • 1 iceberg lettuce – shredded
  • 1/4 cup chopped roasted unsalted peanuts
  • 1 small fresh red chilli sliced

Heat a frying pan and dry-fry the rice on low heat for 3 minutes or until slightly golden. Grind in a mortar and pestle to a powder.

Heat a wok over medium heat. Add the oil and mince. Cook – breaking up any lumps with a spoon – until it changes colour, about 4 minutes. Add the fish sauce, lemon grass and stock. Cook for a further 10 minutes.

Add the lime juice, spring onion, Asian shallows, coriander, mint and ground rice. Mix well. Arrange this mixture on top of the shredded lettuce. Sprinkle with nuts and chilli.

Minced chicken salad

Minced chicken salad in wok with lemongrass

Smoked trout Caesar salad

  • 350 g skinless smoke trout fillets
  • 300 g green beans, halved
  • 6 tinned artichokes – drained, rinsed and quartered
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 small clove garlic – chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 6 slices day-old ciabatta – cut in 2cm cubes
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 1 cos lettuce
  • 1/2 cup freshly shaved Parmesan

Flake the trout into shards. Cook the beans in boiling water for 4 minutes then refresh under cold water. Mix with the trout and artichokes.

Poach the eggs in simmering water until just cooked. I have always been terrified of poaching eggs. And I think the eggs knew it, as they always went stringy and sqwirly. However, through Delia Smith’s online instructions on how to poach an egg and the purchase of a very small enamel saucepan, I have conquered these fears. I am now an efficient egg-poacher.

Place the eggs in a food processor with the garlic, mustard and vinegar and blend until smooth. If, like me, you don’t own a food processor, use a stick blender instead. If your stick blender breaks-down after 20 seconds from overuse on palak paneer, try passing all these ingredients through a sieve with the back of a spoon. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil in a thin stream and whisk or process until  thick and creamy. Season to taste.

Heat the remaining oil in a frying pan. Add the bread and capers and cook over high heat until the bread is golden.  Line four bowls with cos leaves, divide the trout between the bowls, drizzle with dressing and top with croutons, capers and Parmesan.

Trout Ceasar

Trout Ceasar salad

Summer chicken pie

I luurve chicken pie. Proper chicken pie. Proper chicken pie does not include peas. It does not include carrots. It does not include white sludge that some might try to convince you is a form of chicken gravy. It does include leeks and cream and butter (lots of butter if you feel like it). Most importantly, it includes big chunks of chicken.

This evening, Sarah (who blogs at auldfromreekie) was coming to dinner and to babysit while we went to a show. It was too nice a day to spend the afternoon inside cooking, so I made the filling while Ila had a post-lunch snooze and threw it all together just before 7 o’clock. (I’ve done the same before – for a mid-week dinner – keeping the filling in the fridge overnight.) Using frozen filo makes the assembly process very quick, which is great in summer. No laborious hours in the kitchen required.

This is the summer version of the pie. In winter, I don’t use filo. Instead, I put the filling in a pie dish and top it with (yet more) buttery mashed potatoes.  The summer version goes very well with tabbouleh salad.

Summer chicken pie

  • 1 leek
  • 500 grams chicken breast or thigh
  • 120 grams butter
  • 1/2 cup crème fraîche
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 handful chopped parsley
  • 1/2 cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper or even something like this
  • frozen ready-made filo pastry
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 1 handful of slivered almonds

Wash the leek and slice it in 3/4 centimetre rounds. Cut the chicken into bite-sized chunks and roll in the seasoned flour. Heat one third of the butter in a heavy-bottomed ban. Sauté the leek until it is soft and remove from the pan. Add another third of the butter to the pan and fry the chicken until it is slightly brown and just cooked through.

Tip the leeks back into the pan with the chicken, along with the parsley, crème fraîche and milk. Stir over the heat until the cream begins to bubble a little. Let bubble for a minute or two. Set aside (or refrigerate until needed).

To assemble the pie, melt the remaining butter in the microwave or in a small saucepan.  Using a pastry brush, coat individual sheets of filo pastry with butter and layer together. Put 3-4 layers of buttered filo into the bottom of a pie dish. Pour the chicken mixture on top. Lay buttered filo on top of the meat, again 3-4 layers. Tuck the edges under the pastry that forms the bottom of the pie. Brush the top with beaten egg and sprinkle with slivered almonds. Bake in a preheated 180°C oven for half an hour or until browned.

We have two leftover pieces of pie and a big bowl of tabbouleh in the fridge. Ila and I will be taking these outside for a picnic lunch if the weather is as nice tomorrow as it was this afternoon.

UPDATE: Ila and I were not able to take the pie for a picnic lunch, because Puneet got there before us. Gasp! I feel like Mother Hubbard or perhaps the Queen of Hearts on a summer’s day.

Tabbouleh salad

I miss Australian food a lot. Over the last few weeks, on the occasional day that it feels like it could nearly be summer, I’ve been missing rotisserie chicken and tabbouleh.   This is standard summer take-away fare in Australia for when it is just too hot to cook.  Well, it certainly isn’t too hot to cook in Edinburgh, so I whipped up a chicken pie and tabbouleh salad for a midweek dinner with Sarah who is a regular Thursday visitor (and blogs at auldfromreekie).

Tabbouleh is always quicker to make than I think it will be. And the bonus of making it yourself is that you can increase the parsley and mint so it’s more green than beige. Unlike many salads, it also keeps amazingly well in the fridge overnight so is great for taking to work/school for lunch.

Tabbouleh

  • 1 cup cracked wheat
  • 2 large ripe tomatoes
  • 1/2 cucumber
  • 4 spring onions
  • bunch of flat-leaf parsley
  • large handful of mint
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • glug of olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Cover the cracked wheat with boiling water, put a lid on the container and leave to sit. Dice the tomatoes and cucumber, and slice the spring onions. Wash the mint and parsley, shake to dry and chop finely. Fluff up the wheat with a fork and mix with the chopped vegetables, lemon juice and olive oil. Season to taste.

Tabbouleh salad

Eggplant parmigiana

The one nice thing about a wet and cold Scottish summer is the tomatoes. No, it doesn’t make them grow better. (They either come from Spain or are grown in poly-tunnels.) Cold weather just makes it much more pleasant to cook luscious tomato sauces and bakes. If I were from a big Italian family, getting ready for the summer tomato-sauce bottling party, I’d pray for a cold day like today.

Craving warm sweaters and wintery food, yet with full access to summer vegetables, I decided that nothing could be better than baked eggplants, mozzarella and tomatoes.

Eggplant parmigiana

  • 3 eggplants/aubergines
  • several tablespoons of olive oil
  • 8 ripe tomatoes (or two400g tins of tomatoes if it really is winter)
  • 1 onion
  • 1/2 carrot – grated
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 2 balls fresh mozzarella
  • handful of grated parmesan

Slice the eggplants into 3/4 cm slices and lay them in a large colander, sprinkling a little salt over each layer. Sit this over another bowl, or the sink, to catch the juices. (You can skip this step if you like. I don’t find that the salting alters the flavour that much, but I do suspect that unsalted eggplants absorb more oil when fried. I’ll have to check this out with my food-technologist mother.)  After an hour or two, rinse the eggplants and pat to dry. Heat a frying pan or griddle, brush each side of the aubergine with olive oil and fry until soft and browned on both sides.

While the eggplant is salting, make the tomato sauce. Cut a small cross in the skin on the bottom of each tomato and place them in a bowl. Pour boiling water over the tomatoes, leave for a minute and then refresh in cold water. Peel off the skins. Chop roughly. Chop the onion and sweat in a tablespoon of olive oil. Crush the garlic and add, along with the carrot, to the onion. Fry for one minute before adding the tomatoes and cinnamon.  Leave to burble and simmer for around half an hour.

Spread a thin layer of the sauce on the base of baking dish. Layer fresh basil leaves, slices of the fried eggplant and then slices of fresh mozzarella over the top. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Finish with a layer of sauce followed by a sprinkling of parmesan. Bake in a 180C pre-heated oven for 35 minutes or until the top is golden.

This dish is another of what is fast becoming a new sub-category of food for me: the mid-week-two-parter. These are meals that can be cooked in two sessions – the second being relatively short and uncomplicated, in order that a tired husband can assemble and feed it to a hungry toddler within half an hour.

This one didn’t even require assembly. On Monday, I fried the eggplant, made the tomato sauce, and layered everything together. All my heroic pair had to do on Tuesday was get it into a preheated oven and make a salad.

Nectarine tart

The Marchmont green grocers had huge boxes of Spanish white nectarines for £2 this week. ‘How is £2 possible?’ I asked. They didn’t know. After months of ‘ripen-in-the-bowl’ stone fruit – that slowly soften, but are never actually ripe – these were a real treat. We ate a whole box, just as they were – sticky and tart, with sweetness running down our wrists.

I scoured my books for nectarine and peach recipes and found an excuse to buy a second box inside Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion in a recipe that she borrowed from Marieke Brugman. Ila was asleep when I started baking so I couldn’t run out for the macadamias and Cointreau that I lacked. Below is my adaptation:

  • 1 quantity short crust pastry (makes 2 tarts)
  • 6-8 nectarines
  • 150 g butter
  • 200 g castor sugar
  • 150 g ground almonds
  • 50 g chopped almonds
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup gin mixed with lemon syrup

Take the pastry from the fridge, roll out, press into tart tins and return them to the fridge for an hour. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Line the tart cases with foil, followed by baking beans or lentils, and bake blind for 20 minutes. Leave to cool.

Slice the nectarines and arrange, skin-side-up, in the cooled tart cases. Cream butter and sugar until white and fluffy. Mix in the ground almonds. Beat in the eggs one at a time, followed by the gin and sugar syrup. (I boiled sugar, water, lemon juice and lemon rind into a syrup and used about 2 tablespoons of it with the gin.) Fold in the chopped nuts and pour the batter over the fruit. Bake in a preheated 160° oven for 50 minutes – 1 hour. Allow tart to cool in oven.

I’ve never cooked with gin before, but I think nectarines and juniper berries are a combination worth revisiting.

5am pancakes

Ila – who is now 17 months old – woke up at 5am this morning. She was perky, chatty, run-around-a-mouse-wheel awake.

I couldn’t think with the lack of sleep and need for breakfast, so following my oldest recipe seemed like a good idea. Hot cakes are pancakes made with buttermilk and whipped egg-whites. I started making them with my mother before I could walk. I don’t remember, but I wonder if it was also in the very early morning.

Hot cakes

  • 2 eggs – separated
  • 2 cups buttermilk (or 1 cup milk plus 1 cup yogurt)
  • 1 & 1/2 cups plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • butter for frying

Mix together the dry ingredients. Stir together the egg yolks and buttermilk. Add the egg/milk mix to the dry and stir well until lumps are gone. Beat the egg whites to peaks in a separate bowl and fold into the mix.

Ila, sat in her high chair in front of a giant caneware mixing bowl, helped with the measuring and pouring, the mixing and the folding.

Melt a nob of butter in the pan and drop in large spoonfuls of batter. Cook on one side until the edges are slightly dry and any bubbles that form in the surface pop and stay open. Flip and cook until slightly brown.

Serve with butter, maple syrup and fresh blueberries.

Rhubarb blether

My guilty evening treat in early summer isn’t cake or ice-cream or biscuits. It’s a bowl of home-poached forced rhubarb, kept on the top shelf of the fridge. Poached rhubarb is completely different to stewed rhubarb. Stewed rhubarb is perfectly good in its place – which is in winter and covered in crumble. Poached rhubarb is soft, yet keeps its shape, and produces a delicate pink syrup that promises summer (or at least some sophisticated summer cocktails).

Most recipe books and food blogs (like this) make poaching rhubarb unnecessarily complicated. You don’t need to do it in batches or time the poaching exactly.

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Instead, bring to boil 150 grams of sugar and 180 millilitres of water to make a simple sugar syrup. Turn off the heat and straight-away pop in 2-3 stems of raw rhubarb, cut to about 1 inch lengths.  Pop the lid back on the saucepan and leave to cool. I don’t like vanilla with poached fruit, although I know many would add an old scraped out vanilla pod to the syrup.

If you’re lucky, like me, you’ll be the only one in your house with a palate for this amazing vegetable. And because it’s a vegetable, you can even pretend that your evening treat isn’t guilty at all.

Onion-skin Easter eggs

Last Easter, Ila was a tiny baby and I was barely able to leave the sofa. This Easter is very different. Ila is walking and talking and interested in everything. I want her to join in the egg hunt in our shared back garden, but I’m not very excited at the prospect of her eating lots of chocolate eggs. Traditional vegetable-dyed eggs seem like a better option and, unlike me, Ila is partial to a boiled egg in the morning.

Onion-skin-dyed boiled eggs

  • 6 eggs (using slightly old eggs will make them easier to peel)
  • red and brown onion skins, with pieces as large as possible
  • an old pair of stockings

Wrap an egg in onion skins, covering any gaps. Holding around the skins, gently insert the egg into the foot of a stocking. (You might need to rearrange the onion skins a little once the egg is inside.) Cut the stocking a couple of inches above the egg and tie a knot in the stocking so that it can’t move about. Repeat with the remaining eggs and knotted pieces of stocking.

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil and gentle lower the eggs-in-stockings into a single layer on the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat so the water continues at a slow burble. Leave to simmer for 7 minutes. (The eggs will be slightly over-cooked, but the colours will be great.) Leave the eggs to cool in the stockings.

Once the onion skins have been removed, rub a little olive oil on the egg-shells to enhance the colour and make the shells shine. The onion colour sometimes seeps through to the egg-white making it very slightly tan. I like to imagine that the eggs have an oniony flavour as well. Keep the eggs in the fridge when they aren’t being hidden in the garden.

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Christmas gingerbread

I’ve been feeling decidedly un-Christmassy this week.  We’re not going home for the holidays and I haven’t managed to persuade anyone to come up here. We haven’t quite decided what we’re doing on Christmas Day, but the turkey, brussel-sprout menu that has been offered by some friends doesn’t really inspire.  I can understand turkeys for Thanksgiving, but how is it that such an American fowl can be considered traditional British Christmas fare anyway? As for the brussel sprout – don’t the locals know that it isn’t really a holiday vegetable?  It’s clearly the only plant that continues to grow in this weather.

To remedy the situation, or at least to instil some festive spirit into our third floor apartment, I decided to get baking.  Spiced biscuits, cakes and breads smell homely and festive at the same time, which is just what I needed. On Saturday, I made the dough for my mother’s Christmas cookie recipe. It’s always so sticky from all the honey that I prefer to leave it in the fridge overnight. On  Sunday, I baked the cookies.

  • 1 lb honey
  • 3/4 lb brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons bicarb soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 6 cups plain flour

Beat the eggs and sugar. Warm the honey and add to the eggs. Mix remaining ingredients together and to the eggs, sugar and honey. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge until needed.

I didn’t have the required jar of mixed-spice, so made my own according to the ingredients in my store cupboard, along the following lines:

  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon cloves

Roll the cookies out to 8mm thick or thereabouts. Bake until light brown.

My cookie cutters were mittens, woolly hats, stars and stocking – excellent for piped royal-icing knitting. See my easter cookie recipe for the icing.

Dhal and Hilsha

I’ve been living in Bangladesh for six months now, and since my arrival haven’t written a single word about food. It’s not that I’ve stopped thinking about it. Indeed, I’m just as greedy as ever and I’d say that about thirty percent of my thoughts still centre on dinner, and another thirty goes for lunch and breakfast. It’s just that it’s hard to fully appreciate a national cuisine when every other meal seems determined to produce a serious bout of food poisoning.

Indeed, I’ve experienced just about every possible stomach upset imaginable since coming here. My colleagues at work are convinced that I’m not used to chilli or spices. They don’t seem to realise that Bangladesh does not have a world-wide spice monopoly. (Besides, on my second day in Bangladesh, a fellow AYAD dared me to pop a green chilli in one go – local style – and crunch it down as an after-dinner snack. It made me cry, but my stomach did not seem to be bothered.)

Instead, I think that I’m just not used to the bacteria levels of much Bengali food. Perhaps that’s because I try to forgo the protective layer of oil that seems to coat many dishes. You think I’m joking – but really one sometimes needs a whole role of paper towel to sop up the grease that sits on top of a bowl of dhal.

Even so, it’s not like I haven’t discovered some amazing food since I’ve been here. I’m a little addicted to shingara, the vegetable-filled fried pastries that we get most mornings for elevenses. I’ve also come to appreciate the art of “smashed” cuisine. There’s often nothing better than a hot paratha and fresh omelette for breakfast. The sweet ginger tea, that I sometimes get in the office of a DPHE official (instead of the usual condensed milk chai) is always a treat and has never made me sick.

So, I’ve resolved that for my last six months I will resume writing Nutmeg and Anchovies (although those two ingredients will be on a hiatus for a while). Until September, I’ll rename my blog: dhal and hilsha.