Doing runners

 

 

Recently returned from a trip back to the UK where there was only one concern for serious-minded people: what to do with the glut of garden runner beans?

My mother’s vegetable garden has been in runner terms the gift that keeps on giving. However many times my father goes down to water the plants he returns with an armful of long, green, rough-skinned beans. My parents have had them as a side dish for pretty much everything they’ve eaten for the last month. And they work very well, with just a minimum of additions: a little salt and pepper, a glug of olive oil perhaps or knob of butter. There’s something deliciously moreish about them, something to do with the slightly yielding bite in the mouth and slippery finish.

I smuggled a bundle in my luggage back to China. Not that they don’t have them here, or at least a variety. Unfortunately the selections in the greengrocer’s always tend to be on the pale and dry side, and unappealing for that. While on the plane, between sleep, dreams and the films on the small screen, I concocted recipes, imagined cooking in the kitchen.

What goes better with beans than other beans? Italian soups like minestrone are good examples of bean pairings and the idea of different genera together in varying shapes and sizes tickled my tastebuds as I tried in vain to get some sleep in the darkened cabin. In this case it would be Phaseolus coccineus paired with Phaseolus vulgaris, that’s runners and cannellini. A kind of warm slightly stewed salad-y dish.

Cannellini bean stew with runner beans. 

  • big handful of runner beans, prepared (rinsed, topped and tailed, sides trimmed and sliced thinly on the diagonal).
  • 1 x 400g tin cannellini beans (or any kidney bean variety).
  • half an onion, sliced.
  • palmful of lemon thyme, chopped.
  • generous pinch of paprika.
  • half a big tomato, or one medium, chopped roughly.
  • vegetable stock, about half a coffee cup
  • couple of bay leaves
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • one clove of garlic, sliced thinly

 

First cook the runners by placing them in a largeish pan of salted boiling water. They’ll take about five minutes, maybe less, until tender. You want them slightly floppy but gently al dente. Meanwhile lightly fry the onions and garlic in oil in a flat-bottomed pan until softened then stir in the cannellini, drained and rinsed from the tin, and the herbs. Pour in the stock and let everything bubble and stew away on a low heat for about three to five minutes. Add the tomatoes and paprika, stir in well and let cook for another minute or so. Finally jumble in the runners and season, making sure everything is amalgamated. Remove the bay leaves. I let this sit for ten minutes or so before serving and you could even chill it in the fridge or eat it while hot. Some bread might be a good idea to, as the Italians say, fare la scarpetta. Basically to mop things up.

Allow me a whimsical digression. The above Italianism, and its translation, I think hold perhaps the key to the origin of a literary character’s name: Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta , protagonist of a series of crime novels. Fare la scarpetta, as already suggested, translates at least in culinary terms to a mopping up, bread used to wipe around the pan or plate containing the meal just eaten as a way of soaking up the delectable juices and flavours left behind. Furthermore the word che in Italian is often used in exclamations, such as che palle! (what a drag!) or che casino! (what a mess!). The forename Kay and che are homophones. So that, and this is just a theory, the name given by Patricia Cornwell to her US-born sleuth could translate as: What a Clean-Up! Suitable name for a crime-solver, methinks…case closed?

For the remaining runners the next day I made a simple ratatouille. The prepared beans went into a lidded saucepan with half an aubergine, chunkily chopped, a tomato similarly dissected, half a quartered onion, dash of tomato puree, bay leaves, garlic clove sliced, good scattering of dried oregano, generous glug of olive oil, salt and pepper. Lid on, low heat and everythig just left to cook gently for about forty minutes. Bread was the only other thing needed. And that cleans this one up.

 

 

 

Goo

I know a secret or two about goo. It won’t mind if I tell you.

Last post I said I was planning on a potato salad, Asian-style, which would include at least miso and soy. Well that came to fruition sooner than I had imagined, basically because on Sunday I was once again in the vicinity of the basement market and once again I bought a little rustling bag of potatoes.

I’d been thinking of pairing the spuds with some kind of thick-stemmed Chinese leafy green, carrots and spring onions. What I found on an adjacent stall to the potatoes was the bonus of some purple-sprouting broccoli – a rare thing here, especially given the season – so into another bag that went. The other ingredients followed.

Once home same process of par-boiling the spuds, with mint (just for the smell of it), and then dividing them up. This time I quartered them into smaller sizes because I felt the flavours I had in mind would lend themselves better to a lighter forkful.

Said flavours being a marinade of olive oil, sesame seeds, miso paste and dark soy sauce, all whipped up together into a kind of liquidy pulp and then smothered over the steaming potatoes. Into the oven on about 200 although I probably tinkered with the temperature a couple of times and left to cook until crispy, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile in a lidded flat-bottomed pan I had the carrots – four smallish ones – and broccoli (a fistful) cut into rough strips with about half a glass of water. Brought that to the boil the covered it and left it to kind of steam/boil on a lowish heat until tender. Removed the veg and chopped up into chunks commensurate with the potato sizes. Finely chopped the spring onions, I used three or four.

Now, the goo. I hadn’t anticipated the miso-based marinade to form such a mouthwatering smear of crispy but chewy goo. Sure, I burnt it a little, as the picture demonstrates, but there was a delicious sweet saltiness to it, something almost indescribable, something….umami.

Bundled all together in a bowl with a dressing of oil, teaspoon of soy, good squeeze of orange and generous grating of ginger. Surprisingly hefty for a salad, and not really a summer dish, but I’ll be making those potatoes again.

Pass it on

I’ve developed a penchant for potato salads. Warm ones. The kind where the freshly-cooked spuds, still steaming from the pan or crisp from the oven, are immediately mingled with a selection of other ingredients, tossed with a dressing, then devoured.

The principal reason for this relatively sudden tuber-titillation is I’ve at last discovered a good source of them. Every Sunday in the basement of one of the large shopping centres near my workplace a market is held selling all variety of organic produce, from soaps to shoes. In one corner there’s a little – but bountiful – farmer’s market and one stall in particular always has a good tub of spuds. They’re the waxy variety and as such perfect for jumbling into a salad.

Back home, laden with brown paper bags (aside from the environmental benefits, the crinkle of these carriers is aesthetically superior to the slippery shuffle of plastic), I begin preparing the potatoes. Scrubbed and washed I then cut each along the diagonal, quartering those of slightly bigger size so all the pieces are of similar proportions.

Into a pan of cold salted water they go, with a sprig of mint, and brought up to the boil. The smell of mint and boiling spuds is evocative of summer days in Somerset and I think I add the herb for that reason alone. I either par-boil or fully cook the potatoes, depending what I’m going to do with them afterwards.

The first salad I made was a combination of the freshly-boiled potatoes, delicious peppery rocket and a kind of camembert (both these bought from the same market), all tossed together with quite a robust dressing of olive oil, salt and cider vinegar. The cheese melted superbly and the rocket had a snap to it that only the freshest variety has. Didn’t neeed anything else apart from a glass of white wine to wash it down.

After that I began to experiment more, with dressings – I’ve used combinations of all or some of: lemon juice, grain mustard, different flavoured vinegars and oils,  capers, olives, different herbs, sun-dried tomatoes. I’m planning an Asian twist soon, using miso and soy, among other flavours.

For my most recent confection I par-boiled the spuds, drained them, then returned them to the pan with a lid on. Here I shook them around, to rough up the edges. I was going to put them in the oven and I wanted that kind of crispiness this sort of treatment gives. While the potatoes were roasting in oil I made a basic pesto of basil, pine nuts, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and grated parmesan, all the ingredients whizzed up until I got a smooth paste.

When the potatoes were verging on being ready I added some small tomatoes, halved, to the oven. I have a thing about crisp potatoes and softening tomatoes cooking together. At the end I sprinkled over some dukkah – a spice and nut mix used in Egyptian cookery – just to lift the whole thing. I’d had a jar in my cupboard for a while and was looking for a good opportunity to use it; this was it.

Spuds and tomatoes on the plate, rinsed baby spinach ripped over  pesto drizzled on with a little more oil just to loosen things up. Once again, nothing more needed except a glass of chilled white wine.

IMG_1704.JPG

The force of habit

In his famous treatise on Habit, written in 1887, psychologist and philosopher William James wrote:

‘….we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall re-enforce the right motives: put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.’

In short, when embarking on a new way of living, surround yourself with things that will help you embrace it fully. Gather up arms and defences. Keep reading about the subject in hand.

That’s why I spent time at home building a kind of digital library of recipes to refer to. It’s also why I’ve done things like download Anna Jones’ 7 Day Reset and peruse almost exclusively cookbooks like the excellent Bosh! for my culinary inspirations. It’s why I continue to experiment and write about recipes with very low or nil animal protein content. On my wall is a very handy (and very colourful) wall chart designed by Liz Cook detailing the essential sources of vitamins, minerals and other nutrition for those following a plant-based diet and, most importantly, where they can be found. On my bedside table, and in my electronic reading tools, are books and literature all about sustainable eating, the pros and cons of vegan living and myriad related subjects. I download podcasts. I talk about the topic to anyone who will listen.

Wall chart by Liz Cook. Part of a map of the Blackdown Hills. Artwork by Michael Tarr and Allan Jones, among others

Such is the case that, even in this relatively short time, the prospect of going back to my former dietary habit is inconceivable. Yet if you had told me a year ago that I would be pursuing such a change in lifestyle with so much relish I would have had you up as a fool and laughed you out of the room.

I feel as though I should detail some of the main things I’ve noticed since changing dietary tack:

  • That, as opposed to being limited in choice of what to eat, there is now a new world of abundance. My kitchen storage is full of all kinds of things I would never have entertained having before. Miso, all kinds of nuts and seeds, a plethora of different fruit and vegetables, various grains and pulses, the list goes on.
  • I am no longer concerned with sourcing decent quality meat. This used to be a problem. The chicken and pork here, especially, tend to be full of water. You end up paying a premium for something imported.
  • On a similar note as above, my choices of what to have for lunch or supper no longer revolve around the usual meat or fish with something else. I am much more prepared to be creative.
  • I’m cooking a lot more and taking more care when I do. As if the change in habit has led me to pay more attention to not only the preparation of the ingredients but also the best way to cook them.
  • I’ve lost weight. Or, at least, I’m not gaining any. A shirt I haven’t worn for almost two years suddenly, effortlessly, fits me. No, I’ve definitely lost weight.
  • Even though I set my parameters to fit a significant reduction in animal protein intake, rather than complete abstinence, a part of me feels guilty whenever I shave a little cheese onto a bowl of pasta.
  • Cooking is even more enjoyable than it was before, if that’s possible, and I spend a lot more time thinking about it and doing it.

 

Agonda

When you walk down the narrow strip of road dividing the beach in Agonda, Goa from the inland, there are various signs crudely affixed to posts and sides of shops advertising cooking classes. Sometimes there are detailed directions, email addresses and telephone numbers. Others, however, merely have an arrow. This was the one I followed, down an alley beside a wine shop. It led me to a simple house where a couple of Indian ladies were sitting outside. Seeing me one of them shouted something and shortly a sari-clad lady appeared who would turn out to be my teacher for the following evening; her name was Shami.

It was what I’d been looking for. Home-style Indian cookery with no frills. Something I could replicate at home, but also a different type of culinary challenge. The big takeaway I’ve got so far from my mostly plant-based diet has, not, as I’d perhaps feared, been its limitations but rather a horizon as wide and glorious as the one I could see from my beach hut. My cupboards and fridge are filled with a lot of new – to me – and exciting ingredients that a year ago I would never dreamed of having at home. I plan a separate post on that in the near future.

Meanwhile I showed up at 5 o’clock (‘any later the mosquitoes come’ she’d warned me) and met my cooking companions, a young Swiss couple who were travelling around Asia. Shami was assisted by her brother, Rafiq. We were to make several dishes: masala chai, aubergine masala, an okra side, cheese and garlic naan breads, coconut chutney, aloo gobi and of course Goan fish curry. It panned out that chef Shami did most of the cooking while we helped with the preparation,  the chopping and dicing, the rolling and some stirring. At the same time I made scribbled notes and took photos.

Labour-intensive yes, but very satisfying in that respect. I’m very fond of cooking that requires a lot of prior prep so that when the cooking is underway everything is ready to be added. I was fascinated by the cooking implements: the flat-iron tawa used to cook the naans, the rolling pin and raised board, the little contraption Shami sat on – a wooden block with a projecting serrated blade – which doubled as a fish slicer and coconut flesh extractor. I liked the way everything was designed especially for this type of cookery. It was a real slice of Goan home life, the kitchen half inside half outside.

 

52945530_2204294299824234_687612560303718400_n.jpg

Back in Beijing I tried to recreate some of that southern Indian flavour in my own kitchen. The sun came out although the view across the road was not Agonda beach with the Arabian sea rolling in and cows lolling about the sand but rather a grubby and grey six-floor building used in part as a delivery depot. What I did have that was authentic were the correct ingredients. I’d spent time in a Mumbai market being gently ripped off by several storekeepers but what I brought back – garam masala, black mustard seeds, cardamom pods and, most excitingly, fresh tamarind – was still cheaper than anything I could have bought here, even if I had found it.

In all truthfulness my efforts were not so successful largely because, like a child with a new toy, I was rather over-eager with the tamarind and put in more than I should have to both dishes. It is a delicious ingredient but has a tendency to overpower. Lesson learnt. Still, I can testify to the tastiness of the food as I was there and will always remember how it was, there, in Shami’s inside-outside kitchen next to the beach in Agonda, Goa.

I took the fish out of the curry and used cooked squash instead.

To make Goan curry, Shami style:

  • flesh of half a coconut (I used 200ml of coconut milk and about a tablespoon of desiccated coconut)
  • two dry red chillies (I substituted fresh ones, deseeded)
  • 1 tbsp coriander powder
  • 1 tbsp tamarind
  • ten (yes!) cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • fresh coriander
  • sunflower oil
  • half a medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 tsp salt

Blend the first eight ingredients with a cup of water until you get a smooth paste. Stick blender worked best for me. In a pan heat the oil then add the onion. Interestingly, I was taught to put the salt in next as it both takes the moisture from the onion and cooks it quicker. It works. When the onion is softened add the tomato, cook for a minute or so then dole in the spice paste, using water to make sure all the sauce is recovered. Bring to the boil then add your protein or vegetables and cook away on a medium heat for ten minutes until ready. This is a mellow, soothing curry although up the chilli ratio if you want a spicier hit.

Aubergine masala:

  • 1 large aubergine
  • 2 dry red chillies (again, I used fresh ones and kept most of the seeds this time)
  • six black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • thumb of ginger, chopped
  • half a medium onion
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp tamarind
  • espresso cupful of white wine vinegar (I substituted cider vinegar)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tomato, sliced
  • half a medium onion, chopped

Blend everything apart from the aubergine, tomato, salt and onion until you get a smooth paste. Chop the aubergine into large chunks and soak in water. Heat sunflower oil in a pan then add onion, salt and tomato as per the recipe above. After softening put in the aubergine, drained, then half a cup of water and cover. Cook until everything has amalgamated and the aubergine has lost its toughness. Spoon in the spice blend and a bit more water if necessary. Bring everything to a bubble. The result should be tangy, sweet and sour, deep with different flavours.

Cheese and garlic naan breads (recipe makes about ten naan breads):

  • 200g wheat flour
  • half tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 100g cheese (if using, a crumbly one is a good option here)
  • finely chopped garlic, as much as you like

In a large bowl and with floury hands mix the flour, salt and oil together with cold water until a dough forms. Then add the cheese and garlic. Rest the dough in the bowl for at least ten minutes, or even longer. Divide the dough into balls about the size of large marbles.

When ready to eat, heat a flat-bottomed pan on a high heat. I bought my own tawa but anything like your favourite pancake pan will do here. On a clean and dry dough-dusted surface roll out each marble into a flat circle, not too thinly. Fold each circle in half and then again so you get a pocket shape. Re-flour then roll out into a flat triangle. Dot the hot pan with melted butter or ghee (no point messing around here) and gently lower in the raw naan. Press down on it while cooking and brush the other side with more butter. Flip over and add more butter. Whole cooking time should not be more than about thirty seconds and both sides of the bread should be slightly puffed and golden brown.

 

Crispy spiced cauliflower and chick peas

I think this dish might become my fall-back failsafe lunch or supper. I adapted it from a Waitrose magazine recipe – one of my Christmas cuttings – which I’ve included in this post further down. As the whole thing is cooked on a single oven tray there is scope for additions, different textures and tastes.

To the original basic cauliflower and chickpea foundation I decided to include a few chunky croutons – to help soak up any last drops of the delicious spiced oil in the tray – as well as some halved cherry tomatoes for an extra burst of moisture and flavour. I didn’t have any ground coriander although I realise I could have thrown in some seeds for a last minute citrus hit

. I used a squeeze of lemon instead. The following serving is for one person.

  • about half a medium cauliflower, stalks roughly sliced
  • three-quarters of a tin of chick peas (I’ll use the rest for something else, hummous perhaps)
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • two ends of a baguette, cut into chunks (any bread going stale will be perfect too)
  • handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil, a generous drizzle

Gather together the cauliflower and chick peas in a bowl, sprinkle the spices and pour over the oil. Massage everything together. Jumble the cauliflower and pulses on a roasting tray so you create a kind of vegetable forest with the odd small clearing. Put in a preheated oven on 200ºC and roast away for a good thirty minutes. There should be wonderful smells in the kitchen.

The chick peas and cauliflower should have crisped up nicely by now, should maybe even be catching slightly and show signs of charring. Now’s the time to add the bread and tomatoes, grind in some salt and pepper, once more mixing everything up, and cook for another five minutes. Add a little more oil if it looks too dry. The tomatoes will have softened slightly and the bread have a slight crunch to it.

As I said I just finished this with a squeeze of lemon although a coriander yoghurt, as per the original recipe, would also go down a treat.

Other things to potentially do:

  • carrots or parsnips (or both) cut on the diagonal and roasted together with the cauliflower (or instead of it)
  • sliced onions, added about halfway through the cooking
  • broccoli florets instead of the cauliflower, briefly blanched in boiling water before putting in the oven then finished with toasted sesame seeds

 

Chickpea and carrot tagine with homemade harissa

 

Some recipes for harissa call for peppers, others do not. I used one for mine simply because I had one. Other ingredients were:

  • coriander seeds
  • cumin seeds
  • tomato puree (I used Hunt’s paste)
  • two small red chillies
  • bunch of coriander
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • two cloves of garlic

First I got the skin off the pepper by blackening it on the hob flame then flaking off the burnt bits and getting rid of the seeds and pith so that only the flesh remained. I dry-roasted the seeds over a short flame before pounding them up in a pestle and mortar. To a container I added the chillies, garlic and coriander, all chopped, as well as a good dollop of tomato puree, the pepper, seasoning and seed powder, before glugging in some olive oil. Then it was a simple matter of whizzing it all up with a stick blender until smooth, I had an empty and sterilised jam jar ready and after I had spooned in the harissa I topped it up with olive oil. This should be done after each use to exclude the air and will ensure the paste lasts at least a month in the fridge.

In many dishes meat is just a texture that can easily be replaced. Here I used carrot and sweet potato, keeping the slices large. Here’s the list:

  • harissa paste (see above)
  • two large carrots
  • one sweet potato
  • one can of chick peas, drained
  • half an onion
  • one small bunch of both coriander and parsley, chopped roughly
  • two cloves of garlic
  • one tsp of turmeric
  • one tsp of smoked paprika
  • honey
  • bunch of greens – I used a type of Chinese spinach
  • quarters of lemon to serve

Slice the onion and garlic and gently fry in olive oil until soft. Meanwhile chop the carrots and sweet potato on the diagonal so that you end up with thick wedges. Add the turmeric to the onions and let it amalgamate for ten seconds. Do the same with the smoked paprika. Pour in a tablespoonful of honey. Then stir in a generous spoonful of the harissa and stand back to appreciate the wonderful spiced aroma in the kitchen. Next add the carrots and sweet potato, making sure they are caked in the sauce, then pour in enough water to half cover everything. Cook with a lid on a gentle heat for about 15 minutes. Add the chick peas, a pinch of salt and a little more water if necessary, put the lid back on and cook for a further 10 minutes or so. Chop up the rinsed greens and stir into the stew. When they have softened put in the herbs, turn off the heat and let it sit for a minute. The result should be colourful and inviting.

Bread can be used to soak up the delicious liquor and a squeeze of lemon will lift the whole dish. Keep the harissa handy in case you want an extra heat hit.