Thursday, 30 June 2011

SIMPLE SUPPER - CHAKCHOUKA

Also known as 'Tunisian Eggs', this is a popular and regular supper dish in my house. I've been making it for years, ever since I discovered those delicious Middle Eastern spicy lamb sausages called mergeuz. I used to buy them at Harvey Nicks food hall, until I discovered my local fishmonger (Sandy's in Twickenham) sold their own, homemade version (along with a great selection of other sausages, including boerwoers, venison and cajun - great for barbecues!). I have also found merguez sausages at the Whole Food Market, Kensington, and in various Middle Eastern delis and supermarkets on Goldborne Road (good for Middle Eastern ingredients generally).

Chakchouka is a popular breakfast dish in north Africa, and there are several variants. For vegetarians, you can of course omit the sausages. I love the eggs which are cooked on top of the ragu of tomatoes and peppers, and I sometimes add slices of Halloumi, that squeaky Middle Eastern sheeps' milk cheese. I serve Chakchouka with fluffy couscous and no Middle Eastern supper would be complete in my house without the obligatory jar of Belazu Rose Harissa.


Chakchouka for 2
6 merguez sausages
1 large red or orange pepper, or 2 small ones
1 400g tin chopped tomatoes
A little Harissa paste or chilli
1 tsp ground cumin
Salt & pepper
Olive oil
2 eggs
Harissa and chopped fresh coriander to serve

Heat the olive oil in a large, deep frying pan and brown the sausages. Deseed the peppers and roughly slice. Add to the sausages, and cook until they soften. Add the cumin powder, chilli/harissa paste and the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer. If the ragu gets too thick, add some water. Check seasoning.

Just before you are ready to eat, break the eggs over the top of the ragu and continue to cook until the eggs are set (I like mine just done). Serve with fluffy couscous, or flat breads, and lots of harissa and fresh coriander, if liked.

Monday, 27 June 2011

MY SUMMER SPECIALS

As London broiled on the hottest day of the year (so far), and those of us who had to use the Tube today cursed the lack of air-conditioning, my foodie thoughts turned to long, cold drinks and light but piquantly-flavoured dishes. In between these foodie musings, I was doing my 'other' job, as a music reviewer for Bachtrack.com, enjoying a lunchtime Schubert recital in the relatively cool Wigmore Hall. When I got home, I had to teach, an extra lesson for a student, not one of mine (though soon to be, officially), who is taking her Grade 2 exam next week. The heat made her sloppy and forgetful, and when I sat at the piano to play through the aural exercises, the keys felt sticky, in all senses of the word. After she left, I downed half a pint of Diet Coke, a drink I normally eschew, but sometimes it's surprisingly refreshing. Then I wrote my review for Bachtrack; by the time I'd tried - and failed - to think of a snappy title for the article, it was 7pm, so I went to the kitchen to prepare supper while listening to 'The Archers'.

Rock Shandy is one of my favourite non-alchoholic drinks. I discovered it some years ago in a trendy cafe in Notting Hill (as you do) and have subsequently ensured its place on the drinks menu of the Wookey Hole Inn in Somerset (the barman remembered me and made it for me - perfectly - the next time I visited). It's simple and refreshing and can be juzzed up with slices of lemon, or the sort of fruit salad you put in Pimms. In fact, its colour is redolent of Pimms, and on the strength of that, I've just decided to serve it as the non-alcoholic alternative to Pimms at my Summer Concert. It's easy to make - half soda water, half lemonade, dash of Angostura bitters, and a slice of lemon (optional). The ingredients should be cold. Add ice if liked (I don't - very cold drinks make my temples ache). Coincidentally, I blogged Rock Shandy exactly a year ago, though I can't remember what the weather was like then!

Another lovely, summery dish I often make at this time of the year, when there is a glut of strawberries, is Strawberry and Lemon Sorbet, which is my adaptation of a River Cafe recipe (I replaced raspberries with strawberries; you could use either, according to your taste). You need a food-processor to whizz the ingredients together, but an ice-cream maker is not essential: be sure to beat the mixture regular to stop ice crystals forming.

Strawberry and Lemon Strawberry
Serves about 6

1/2 unwaxed lemon, roughly chopped (peel, pith and all - just remove the seeds)
approx 200g caster sugar
400g strawberries, hulled

Whizz the lemon and sugar together in the food-processor, then add the strawberries. Check for sweetness and add more sugar if needed. Churn in ice-cream maker or put in a plastic box and freeze. Nice served with amaretti biscuits or cantuccini.

We had a barbecue last night, and sat in our newly-painted 'cabana' (also known as 'the Stable', 'Hugh's hut' and 'the Loggia'). With Buika's soulful, husky voice singing Mi Nina Lola and other songs from her album of the same name, we cooked chicken skewers and lamb shish kebabs, and roasted those long, thin Romano red peppers. It's the first time we've sat in the garden in the evening this year without needing fleeces and blankets. Today, I made the leftover red peppers into a pretty salad with crumbled feta and olives. Nigella Lawson has a very nice version of this - find it here.



Another simple salad, ripped off from The Eagle (London's first gastropub) is sliced tomatoes with rocket and fresh coriander. It's exactly what it sounds and is really tasty. A splash of olive oil and red wine vinegar is the only dressing it requires. When I ate it at The Eagle, it was as an accompaniment to bruschetta made with chargrilled squid. Utterly delicious!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

CRISPY AROMATIC DUCK - FRAN-STYLIE

Forgive the Jamie-esque title of this post: but I couldn't stop myself.....

Last week, I went to the new oriental supermarket in Kingston (near John Lewis) and purchased a shed-load of exotic ingredients which I will probably only use once before consigning to the back of the larder where they will moulder away with all those other curious condiments I bought thinking "that looks interesting" - such as lavender cordial from the south of France (never tried) and Italian fruits in mustard (also never tried). The herbs were so cheap at the Asian supermarket, that I made two vats of green Thai curry sauce, and then chucked the rest of the kaffir lime leaves away because they were turning brown. Of course, I should have dried them for future use, but there was Liszt to be practised and Schubert to be refined: sometimes it ain't easy being a cook AND a pianist....


I love crispy aromatic duck, that staple of your local Chinese restaurant. I don't actually eat it at my local Chinese restaurant very often because a) I don't go out to eat that often, preferring to cook at home; and b) I'm not that keen on oriental food. So I buy my crispy duck from M&S: it's definitely the best supermarket version, being both generous and tasty.

One of the things I purchased at the oriental supermarket was those little pancakes which go round the  crispy duck. At dinner at a friend's house a couple of weeks ago, she served her own take on Chinese pancakes as a canape: instead of crispy duck, she filled them with Parma ham, a slice of roasted red pepper, a couple of rocket leaves and a smear of Hoisin sauce, as a nod to the oriental original. The whole thing was beautifully tied with a chive stem. I copied the combo at home, replacing the rocket with basil, and nearly fainted with excitement at having created something so simple and so tasty. The pancakes come in handy 6-packs, so you can freeze them and defrost small quantities as you need them.

The method for cooking the duck comes from Nigella Lawson's 'Kafkaesque Duck' from her first book How to Eat. Basically, you steam the duck in a bath of water, scrape as much of the fat off the skin as you can, and then roast it in a hot oven. It results in deliciously succulent meat with perfectly crispy skin, though the steaming process does fill the kitchen with a rather pungent 'ducky fug' (do not try saying that quickly when drunk!). For my crispy duck, I steamed leg joints, rubbed them with plenty of salt and Chinese five-spice powder and then roasted them. The duck is still cooking as I write, so it remains to be seen what the end result will be like, but I have high hopes: it certainly smells right. The spring onions and cucumber, the obligatory accompaniments to the traditional crispy duck, are already prepared, and there's a nice bottle of Chilean red wine just begging to be opened......

You can find a more comprehensive recipe from Nigella Lawon here.

Friday, 17 June 2011

A HANDFUL OF THIS, A DOLLOP OF THAT....

I'm not very good at following recipes, except for things like cakes and pastry where the right quantities of ingredients are required for the special chemistry to work to achieve the desired end result, and often the best meals are the ones which are the result of chucking in a bit of this or a handful of that, and seeing what happens.

This is how my 'Asian-inspired seared beef salad' came about, and the subject of this post. I ate a rather delicious seared beef salad at Wagamama a few weeks ago. Usually, when I eat at Wagamama I have No. 40 ('Yaki Soba') or No. 42 ('Yaki Udon'), or, if I need something warming, No. 35 ('Kare Lomen' - prawns and noodles in a curried coconut sauce). But I'm on a low-carb regime at the moment (boring, I know, but necessarily), and it was a hot day, and I'd just walked along the river from Twickenham, so I opted for No. 67 Ginger Beef and Coriander Salad, marked "new" on the menu.

I'm a big fan of Wagamama, and have been frequenting its various branches since the very first one opened in a little twitchell off Great Russell Street, where I used to work for publisher Laurence King. For less than a fiver (this was way back when..... c1993), you could get a bowl of noodles and a cup of green tea, and on Fridays, Wagamama became the office canteen, as we all piled in there, boss included, queueing down the stairs until a table and benches became available. The decor of Wagamama in minimalist and the service is snappy: it's not the sort of place to linger with your lover as there are no intimate corners, nor muted lighting. But friends who have visited Japan say it is pretty close to an authentic Japanese noodle bar - and the food is great: cooked to order, flavoursome and interesting.

According to the menu, the Ginger Beef and Coriander Salad comprises caramelised red onions, red peppers, cucumber, carrot, mooli (white radish), beansprouts, ginger and fresh coriander, all tossed with the Wagamama "house dressing" (ingredients a closely-guarded secret, no doubt) and garnished with sesame seeds. The beef had clearly been marinaded in something gingery before being seared and then thinly sliced. It was rare in the middle, just how I like it. I photographed my meal, much to the amusement of my companion, so that I could remember how the salad was constructed.

Wagamama Ginger Beef and Coriander Salad
My Asian-inspired seared beef salad contained most of the same ingredients: I managed to find a mooli on Kingston market, and the other ingredients were readily available in Waitrose. I marinaded a nice piece of steak in Wagamama's teriyaki marinade (also available in Waitrose) and made assembled the salad, dressing it with sesame oil and togarishi seasoning (Waitrose). I seared the beef in my ridged cast-iron griddle pan and then sliced it and arranged it on the salad, finishing the dish off with lots of fresh coriander. It was delicious - if rather large.....

I would suggest any or all of the following ingredients for that "Asian inspired flavour":

Grated carrot and radish/mooli
Thinly sliced red peppers
Beansprouts
Finely sliced spring onions
Japanese pickled ginger 
Caramelised onions - easy to make yourself, or even buy ready made in a jar
Plenty of fresh coriander
Sesame oil
Lime juice
Nigella (black onion) seeds & sesame seeds to garnish

You could omit the beef, or use salmon, or teriyaki chicken. Experiment - as I did - and see what you like best.

My Asian-inspired seared beef salad

Monday, 13 June 2011

FRIDAY NIGHT SUPPER WITH FRIENDS

The clouds looked very threatening when we set off for supper in Hampton Hill, and Other Half had a bad back, so a stroll which usually takes about 15 minutes was likely to be far longer. We'd only got to the end of our road when the lowering dark grey clouds decided to dump their load of rain on us. Sheltering under a tree for 10 mins with a broken umbrella, we debated whether to walk home to get the car: in the end, we caught the R68 bus....

Arriving at our friends' house, we were greeted with glasses of chilled wine and cold beer, intriguing and delicious canapes (a twist on those Chinese pancakes more usually wrapped around crispy aromatic duck), and lots of cheerful "thank God it's Friday" conversation in the kitchen. The theme of the food was most definitely oriental, more specifically, Thai - a cuisine which I've struggled to master, so much so that I have given up trying, preferring to make green or red curry out of a bought paste. The food was wonderful, bursting with interesting, fresh, zingy flavours: perfectly formed crab cakes, followed by a frgrant green chicken curry, with a pistachio and saffron kulfi (Indian icecream) for pudding. But the highlight of highlights, for me, was the green papaya salad.

I've eaten this fresh, zingy salad at the restaurant at Petersham Nurseries, but owing to the difficulty of procuring the ingredients, have only attempted to make it once. It was truly delicious, the perfect compliment to the curry. I had seconds - I had to. All day on Saturday, I couldn't stop thinking about the delicious, fresh flavours and texture of that salad.

Between the main course and the pudding, I was prevailed upon to play the piano (it didn't take much prevailing, it has to be said!). I'm piano teacher to the hostess's two children, and also to one of the other guests, Sarah, who is about to take her Grade 2 exam. I played some Liszt, and, apparently inspired by teacher, the children then did a turn each, rattling through their exam pieces. Then Sarah stepped up and played the opening of the beautiful G minor Minuet by Bach she is playing in her exam.

It was a really lovely evening - fine food, good conversation, good friends - and a drop of music too.

The recipe comes from Caroline, my hostess. You will need to visit a specialist Asian supermarket or deli for some of the ingredients, though others (palm sugar, fish sauce) are available in Waitrose and the like. I discovered a whole array of Thai ingredients in the new oriental supermarket that has opened in Kingston - which saved a trip to Richmond, where apparently green papaya may be bought for ready money......



Green Papaya Salad
Serves 4

400g green papaya, peeled weight, deseeded and cut into julienne strips or grated
2 cloves of garlic
25g dried shrimps
1 bird's eye or large red chilli (depending on your heat preference!) coarsely chopped
50g roasted, unsalted peanuts
250g tomatoes, deseeded and cubed
150g snake beans or large green beans, sliced
4-5 tbsps fish sauce (nam pla)
4-5 tbsps lime juice
1 small bunch Thai basil (if you can get it), cut into small pieces

Traditionally, this salad is made in a large pestle and mortar, but if you only have a small one, make in batches and place in a bowl, mixing at the last moment before serving.

Peel and grate the papaya and place in a large bowl

Place the garlic, shrimps and chilli in a pestle and mortar and pound well. Add the peanuts, and lightly smash, breaking into large chunks. Lightly crush the beans and tomatoes. Add everything to the bowl with the papaya, and season with fish sauce, lime juice and basil.

This can be served as an accompaniment to a curry, or grilled meat or fish. Or can be eaten as a starter - which is how I had it at Petersham Nurseries.

Longdan Asian supermarket 
Petersham Nurseries Cafe