Diplomatic Immunity

Welcome to the Year of the Rat. Perhaps appropriate this new Chinese year should start with global virus panic. Here in the Middle Kingdom there is a definite sense of unease: facemasks in shops have all but sold out and at the time of writing at least five cities are in lockdown mode with all exit and entry denied. And yet this time of year will see mass transit from most of other Chinese cities to all corners of the world.

What are you going to do? Stay at home all the time fearing the apocalypse, barricading yourself in and hoarding supplies?

I think fortifying yourself is the best prevention. That, and some prudence and common sense. Washing hands, general hygiene, that kind of thing.

People with a weak immune system are most susceptible. Good idea then to make sure your diet includes plenty of ingredients that can boost your system, such as these. You can almost feel the body crying out for it sometimes. I’ve got into the habit in the morning of foregoing my usual tea for a cup of hot water with a pinch of turmeric and lemon juice.

I made a simple lunch which featured a few key immunity boosters: garlic, ginger, citrus and spinach. It was to be a lentil-based stew, something I could do in one pot and stir from time to time, an action that in itself has – at least for me – psychological healing properties. So I was to be toughening parts both physical and mental .

Turned out to be really rather good. The initial zingy trill of thyme, lemon and ginger faded to warmer bass notes of chilli, smoked paprika and cinnamon. Texturally it was kept at least fairly interesting with chunks of carrot and sweet potato.

I used (for one person):

  • good handful of red lentils, picked through and drained
  • squeeze of tomato puree
  • big bunch of thyme
  • thumb-sized knob of ginger, finely chopped
  • one garlic clove, finely sliced
  • hefty handful of spinach, rinsed, drained and chopped roughly
  • quarter of a large red onion, chopped
  • one carrot, cut into biggish dice
  • one sweet potato, ditto
  • half a vegetable stock cube
  • one bay leaf
  • quarter a tsp of chilli powder
  • half a tsp of smoked paprika
  • half a tsp of cinnamon
  • half a lemon, to squeeze
  • salt and pepper

In a pan heat a tablespoon of olive oil and then add the carrot, sweet potato, onion, garlic, ginger and herbs. Dash in a little salt. Cook everything until all the vegetables have softened, about ten minutes on a medium-low heat. Squeeze in the tomato puree and let cook for a minute. Then the spices and keep cooking for another minute. Now stir through the lentils, crumble in the stock cube and pour in about 400ml of boiling water. Let it bubble away, stirring from time to time, until the liquid has reduced, about fifteen minutes. Add more water if the lentils haven’t quite softened. Remove the herbs from the pan. Now fold in the chopped spinach, a spritz of lemon juice and check for seasoning. I found this was substantial enough to eat without anything else.

新年快乐。恭喜发财。

Beans and Greens

Happy New Year to all my readers.

2019 was interesting and challenging in many ways and this year shows every sign of being just as much if not more so. 2020 will be for me a year of fairly significant change and I’m excited about the journey in prospect. Excited, yes, as well as apprehensive. This time next year I have almost no idea where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing. All I have is a kind of idealisation and a desire for change.

A writer, I forget who, describes the revelation of a new idea for a story as something already perfectly formed, a butterfly freshly emerged from its chrysalis. However when it comes to writing the story itself she has to do one thing first: let the butterfly go. She has the wisdom and experience to know that any idea of perfection is an impossible one. What’s more, she has faith in her ability to let the writing journey dictate where the story will go.

I have a little life experience, perhaps even less wisdom; I struggle with faith in my ability. And yet the one thing I am certain about is that to deal with uncertainty one must keep faith alive. We can all only do so much. There is much – too much – beyond our control. Over the past year there have been times when, faced with global disasters especially involving the effects of climate change and the responses of those in power, life has felt overwhelming. What’s the point of trying if nothing improves?

But what if everyone thought it was all useless, a waste of time? We find strength in resilience, by sticking to our beliefs and not letting things get us down. We find friends, and with them, hope. Dark cannot exist without light. Every wave has a trough and a peak.

This year all I’m going to do is my best and see where it takes me.

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Veganuary is a thing. It’s not a bad thing, per se, although I am always uneasy about these periods of purging. It’s like saying well, I’ve done my bit for the year, I am free now to live purely and guiltlessly, to float on a cloud of self-congratulation….until the next time my conscience gets the better of me. Veganism is becoming something of a fad in any case, a luxury only afforded in the west. There is now as much of an argument to remove almonds and avocados from our diets as there is meat.

I am more of a believer in the qualities of constancy and moderation. People who know me might struggle to stifle a chortle of disbelief here, and it’s true I am guilty more frequently than perhaps is prudent of various excesses, but I think these qualities can underpin a very balanced way of living, necessary I think for insecure times.

To that end I want to concentrate in this post on a real kitchen staple of mine, a dish whose key constituents appear on my table on a regular basis, always in slightly different forms. It’s my fall-back meal, the kitchen cupboard scramble on a busy weekday, the weekend lunch for an unexpected guest.

I took as my inspiration this fantastic recipe from Anna Jones, a vegetarian kitchen cook whose ideas are always full of creativity but emphasise flavour above everything. She incidentally also promotes a kind of vegan detox at the beginning of the year, but terms it a ‘reset’; the sensible emphasis is on looking after oneself rather than any grand notions of saving the world. We can’t do anything with an unhealthy body, let alone an unhealthy mind.

I basically followed her instructions and used her ingredients, with a few alterations.  I replaced the black-eyed beans with borlotti and the chard for another type of slightly bitter brassica, akin to cavolo nero, which I found in the local greengrocer’s. Instead of a leek I used a base of red onion and carrot – which I had in the fridge – and the ‘green herb smash’ was more of a pesto (without the cheese) with added pine nuts – lightly toasted – and no honey.

Turned out to be a very vibrant and deliciously warming lunch, just the thing for adding some energy into a fairly dreary Saturday. My version isn’t quite as colourful as hers but I bet it tasted just as good.

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The combination of beans and greens can be a base for many a simple, cheap and satisfying meal. Below is a rough recipe and ingredient guide with some suggestions on how to augment the dish. I do think though that apart from the obvious main ingredients, there should always be tomato to add richness and lemon to lift it.

The brilliant thing about it is you can add many things, adapt it to your own tastes, using whatever you’ve got in the fridge or cupboards.

You’ll need (for one person), at least:

  • 1 400g tin of beans (cannellini, borlotti, kidney, black-eye etc.)
  • Half an onion
  • 2 big handfuls of chopped greens (purple-sprouting broccoli, kale, spinach etc.)
  • 1 tomato
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Might be handy, but not essential, if you also have:

  • Lemon
  • Tomato puree
  • Half a vegetable stock cube/ stock powder

COOKING INSTRUCTIONS:

Dice the onion and roughly chop the greens. Drain and rinse the greens. In a pan with a heavy bottom add one tablespoon of olive oil and heat over a medium-low flame, then put in the onion with a pinch of salt and fry lightly until soft, about ten minutes. Chop the tomato and mix with the onions, squeeze in some tomato puree if using. Let things cook together for a couple of minutes. Then add the beans with their liquid and let everything combine for another minute or two. Pour in half a glass of water and the crumbled stock cube if you have one, stir all together and bring the temperature up so the water is bubbling. Turn the heat down low and cover the pan with a lid. Let everything cook together for about ten minutes. Add in the chopped greens, making sure they have been properly washed and rinsed. Cook for another few minutes until the greens have started to wilt. Most of the water should have evaporated by this time although you don’t want it completely dry. Check if you need any more salt and then grind over the black pepper. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and serve.

For more people, just double the quantities of everything. To store, let it cool before putting into the fridge in sealed container. Should keep for a couple of days. Can also freeze any leftovers.

EXTRAS:

This is good just as it is, but you can add various things and change the quantities easily if you only want a side dish. Here are some suggestions.

  • At the onion frying stage add all or some of the following: pinch of chilli flakes or powder; chopped bacon or ham; palmful of chopped thyme or rosemary leaves; one bay leaf (remember to remove this at the end); sliced clove of garlic; diced stick of celery and/or half a carrot.
  • To finish, instead of (or as well as) the lemon juice, sprinkle over any of these: Worcestershire sauce; sriracha hot sauce (you need a gentle touch with this!); light soy sauce; a little grated nutmeg.
  • At the end stir in a handful of chopped fresh parsley and/or some grated cheese, perhaps cheddar or parmesan, even smallish chunks of blue cheese will do. 
  • Have it as a side dish for grilled meat like sausages or chops.
  • Pile it onto hot toast or muffins for a more substantial meal.
  • Let it cool before stuffing the mixture into a tortilla wrap, perhaps with some chopped avocado and a little yoghurt.

Remember the idea is to get creative and have a bit of fun messing around, seeing what works and what you like most. The best thing about cooking is the journey!

 

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.

Caldeirada

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I bought this little book in the gift shop of the São Jorge castle in Lisbon. From there I wandered down the hill, through the maze of streets making up the old Alfama district, drinking in the atmosphere and stopping to taste the delicacies. I had different types of pastéis:  the famous custard tarts, pastéis de nata,  as well as savoury salt cod ones, pastéis de bacalhau – excellent with a cold Sagres beer. There was a delicious cake too, toucinho do céu – literally translating as ‘bacon from heaven’ –  although it is made of almonds and has nothing to do with bacon.

IMG_1593.jpg  On the walls were printed photos of former residents, together with little descriptions of who they were and how they were known in the neighbourhood. Everyone had a nickname and, it seems, a definite place in the district. Hence their memorials near the houses where they lived. Alfama was being gently haunted, an old city of ghosts. The dead return to repair what has been broken.

IMG_1594.jpg  It seemed to me that Lisbon didn’t need much repairing. Perhaps a little touching up here and there, perhaps a little more polish to the azulejos or finesse to some of the food. You got salad with your meal whether you liked it or not. I returned home with all my senses heightened and stimulated: there was flavour to everything I wanted to taste again.

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As always a recreation has to be an approximation. A packet of frozen pollock fillets substituted for the salt cod, in any case pretty handy things to have in the freezer. They can be defrosted in a pan of boiling water – in their packaging – and used in all sorts of ways, from kedgeree (which I must make one day) to curry, to a simple pan-fry to roasting to poaching.

Everything else was easy to find, and I was excited about putting green peppers to good use. An unfashionable vegetable due probably to its lack of sweetness, but I could see it working really well here as a slightly bitter note offsetting the flavours of the reduced wine and tomatoes. Once I’d cycled down to Twin’s to buy bay leaves I was ready to go.

Super easy supper. Everything put in the pan and layered, with the potatoes, onions and peppers all of similar thicknesses and the fish fillets – I used three, I think – nestling in. I brought the wine to the boil then it simmer on a low heat, lid on, while I got on with other things. After about 30 minutes I checked and found everything had melted, the ingredients all collapsing into one another but not dissolving completely. Just a bit of bread to soak up the pan juices and it was ready to go.

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Very satisfying, very simple, very tasty. Saúde!

 

 

 

There is a way.

In China when they ask me what I like to cook, and I don’t respond with ‘Chinese food’, I receive a kind of incredulous stare and barely suppressed snort of laughter. ‘You cook English food then?’ Because there cannot be an alternative. Describing that cooking is not totally about culturally- accepted and well-known dishes and more about putting together ingredients that have a natural affinity with each other, is, it seems, conceptually too difficult to grasp. If it doesn’t have a name, it isn’t worth bothering with. I could say, ‘Italian food’ and then there are the sighs of approval, the knowing looks: ‘Ah yes, pizza and pasta.’ It’s really not that simple….

Yet in Italy too there exists a similar culinary snobbery. There is a way of making things. There is a way, and there is no argument. On my recent trip I stayed in Arezzo with some friends and, on the first night, Gloria, a feisty Florentine, made us caponata. A Sicilian dish, yes, but the way I was invited to watch the procedure left me in no doubt this was the correct cooking method.

‘You should always blanch the celery first. Shouldn’t you.’ She was not asking for my approval.

Over the nine days I spent in the Beautiful Country I ate cappellacci di zucca in Ferrara, cacio e pepe in Rome and many delicious seafood antipasti in Pescara but that caponata, the mingling of the sweet and sour, was the one that tingled my tastebuds the most. Even better when we had it cold as part of a picnic lunch high in the Tuscan hills the following day.

So it was the first meal I made when I came back. Sourcing the ingredients was not difficult, a cycle down to Twin’s was sufficient and pop to the greengrocer’s. And what I wanted most of all, was craving actually, was to have celery as the star. Controversial, perhaps, as the vegetable gets a poor press, relegated to a support act in various sauce bases and derided usually for its lack of flavour. However I noticed that, on the Adriatic coast, as a motif through many of the fish dishes, from insalata di mare to the stock for the mussels, little ridged pieces of celery came to prominence.

In my recreation of the Sicilian speciality I stuck as close as I could to how I remembered Gloria go about it. The tedious woman in the newspaper put chocolate in hers, and I wasn’t going to do that. There is a way, after all.

First job was to cook the aubergine. I could only find one of the large round varieties, but I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as the veg is cut up into bite-sized chunks and salted for at least half an hour then patted dry.  Did it in batches, frying the pieces until brown in very hot oil – I used a shallow pan – before removing. At the same time the celery, chopped up into similar-sized briquettes, was blanched in boiling water for about thirty seconds.

I think the original recipe calls for shallots, and now I remember Gloria used a leek, but I had an onion and so that’s what I used. Diced and gently sautéed in the same oil with the celery. Then I basically jumbled most of the other ingredients in, the olives – green, which I hate on their own, but seem to enjoy in things these days – capers (Gloria said to only use the ones in salt as the vinegar-soaked variety have little flavour – but, again, I didn’t have/couldn’t find any of those), raisins and finally the passata which I made myself by combining a tin of chopped tomatoes with some olive oil, salt and pepper and reducing for about fifteen minutes. I was salivating. Then the aubergines got their welcome return, the lid was closed and I walked away to watch an episode of this, leaving the – what would you call it – the stew, I suppose, on a low heat to combine in a heavenly way.

My friend from Firenze bemoaned slightly the lack of a vinegary finish to her dish, and perhaps she was right. I had something on hand to add if necessary. But first, the caponata was ready and I toasted some pine nuts and tore up basil leaves as a garnish. Tasting, I realised that a little acidity was needed to offset the agrodolce. Splash of apple cider vinegar and the dish was ready.

And I have some left. Those Tuscan hills are only memories now though.

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Prove it

Twin hobs, toaster and an un-proven cupboard. Ever since I moved in to this apartment I’ve been intrigued by a certain fitting in the kitchen. The cupboard beneath the principal chopping area, usually used to house saucepans and most of my crockery, has behind it a radiator. Now I should say that I have no input in the heating situation in my apartment, as it is centrally controlled throughout the entire building. It is turned on in mid-November and switched off mid-March, virtually regardless of the outside temperatures. Beginning of the third month and the weather is getting milder, yet the heating pulses on.

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Said cupboard, in its usual state

Well. The idea occurred to me relatively early in my tenancy this cupboard, as well as an invaluable storage space, could at times double as a kind of proving drawer for bread products, such as one finds in some ovens. The temperature within is consistently warm, about that of a disappointing bath. Never mind it’s taken me over two years to try this out (lack of oven a key factor), my enthusiasm for this blogging project has given me the oomph – aided by the dull weather on a day off – necessary for the experiment.

Waking up I was initially sceptical of being able to easily locate yeast within the environs  of my apartment. I live in a quiet and unfashionable district, well away from the expat communities who might have better access to better-stocked western-style supermarkets, and I didn’t fancy my chances of finding said raising agent in the local shops – although, thinking about it, that was shortsighted given its presence in various bread products, including these.

Never mind. I got to cycle down to my favourite local, run by a woman I will call Twin, and found a sachet. Bonus exercise. Recipes I read for bread call for, variously, strong, or hard flour. I bought a packet of something called all-purpose flour and, obviously, the proof will be in the eating….

Actually I had no idea what kind of bread I was going to make. My preoccupations lay virtually solely with the aforementioned experiment meaning, typically, I was more concerned with the process than the result. And yet. As I went about the morning, doing laundry, tidying up, ideas began to formulate, as they will. I thought about what I had in my other cupboards, and in the freezer, and eventually I had a picture in my mind. A picture of beef stew and flatbreads. Slow Saturday cooking.

The scene was set. Not only did I have the ingredients, the time and the methodology, I also had things to listen to. One of these days I will publish a post about the things I have on in the background while I am cooking. At the stove and the train window are my favourite places to listen, to music or other. Today I had albums by these old favourites and this marvellous new discovery as a soundtrack but, best of all, piping in from sunny climes over eleven thousand kilometres to the south-east, this. If there’s anything better than cricket commentary on the radio I don’t want to know about it.

Baking calls for some precise measuring. That’s what the baking people will have you think. I found a basic recipe and adjusted the quantities to fit a smaller amount because as much as I wanted to try this out I didn’t want to be eating flatbreads for the next seven days. Not having any scales I wasn’t sure of the flour-yeast-water ratios so improvised by using measuring spoons my mother had thoughtfully given me at Christmas – figuring out that 1 millilitre equals 1 gram.

To make the flatbreads a bit more funky I augmented the dough mixture with a good couple of teaspoonfuls of za’atar, and once everything was combined I placed it, covered, in the un-proven drawer….

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….approximately an hour later, or could have been less, or more (I fell asleep), the dough looked like this….

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A proven success!

Buoyed by my small triumph I set about the stew with zeal. The beef was cubed and sprinkled with smoked paprika, salt and pepper, before being quickly browned then removed so that the carrots, red onions, garlic, star anise, thyme and rosemary could jostle for flavour favour in the pan. Once these had softened I added a tin of tomatoes, some stock (a cube) and the beef again. Lid on, heat to a simmer. I rinsed and chopped some kale in preparation as obligatory green addition.

I still had to cook the bread. After a bit more kneading – I don’t mind that – I oiled up the baking tray and set the oven dials for fifteen minutes on the highest heat. Rolling the bread out proved (ha!) to be interesting. I used, first, a bicycle pump and then a hand mixer to achieve the desired stretched flatness. The pump gave a more even roll but was basically inadequate because of its appendages which didn’t permit a direct contact with the bread surface after the initial roll. The mixer did not roll evenly but was more generally efficacious.

While the bread puffed up in the oven I cooked the kale in salted boiling water and threw in with the stew, now ready. The flatbread turned out to resemble a piece of driftwood but, fortunately, tasted pretty good – crisp exterior and soft inside, with the za’atar taste nice and mellow throughout. A grating of clementine peel over the stew was a perky afterthought.

Nice and mellow sums up the day.

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Becoming

The most interesting part of cooking is the way abstraction becomes concrete. One starts with a jumble of ingredients and perhaps half an idea, the idea based on one’s instincts born from experience. That experience may be first, second, or even third-hand; it may have come from one’s own previous cooking attempts, whether successful or less so, or it might have derived from a witnessing of a dish being created, or the discovery of a recipe in a forgotten magazine. The experience may have been passed down from another in the form of tips, or other half-formed ideas and inspirations. Whatever, experience comes as the instillation of eye-drops: blink and you’ll miss it.

So, with eyes opened, the process begins. And it begins with uncertainty. The what to do and maybe the how too. We have the raw materials and yet there is the lingering feeling that, despite whatever experience we bring to the chopping board, we have little idea how the dish will turn out. It is at this point a good idea to do one crucial thing: abandon all expectations. The glossy pictures in cookbooks are an ideal, but only that. Written recipes, too, are not infallible. There are many variables in the kitchen and one will do well to become familiar with the immediate environment and the tools therein. Whatever we end up producing will only be an approximation of that image or that set of instructions. Moreover that projection of an idea that became that picture is someone else’s ideal.

The uncertainty, the ‘not-knowing,’ is the game. When the lid goes on top of a pan filled with various textures and flavours and the flame adjusted to simmer mode one is left in the dark to some extent. What is happening under there? And the temptation of course is to tinker, to remove the lid and stir, stir relentlessly, disturbing the alchemy. A wiser man than me once said that trying to fight insecurity was like taking a flat-iron to the waves to smooth them down; doing that, you’re only going to rough them up some more. I’m learning to let the magic happen.

 

Today I took two apples. I mostly knew what I wanted to make, a kind of spicy apple sauce to go with a bowl of morning porridge. Cooking apples work best for this, because the flesh has that mealy quality which gives the final result a granita-like texture. However I didn’t have any, only two eaters I purloined from a hotel breakfast buffet, for this purpose. I chopped both finely and added to the pan: the juice and zest of a small orange; sprinkle of five-spice; two sticks of cinnamon; the grating of a toe-sized knob of ginger; star anise; a glass of water; sliver of butter; trickle of Chinese vinegar. Even when I make sweet things I want notes of sharpness, sourness or bitterness. On other occasions I have included rum, whisky, apple and/or cider vinegar, a lump of sugar and lemon peel. This is a recipe which changes constantly, depending what I have to hand and what comes to mind.

With a lid on I left it for about half an hour to reduce down and didn’t interfere at all. I decided it was ready once the entire apartment was suffused in a warm spicy fug. A  delicious spicy toffee-like sauce had pooled at the pan bottom beneath the fruit, which  had softened to the texture of mush yet still retained its form. I put it in a bowl and covered, to put it in the fridge for when I might need it, which, in the cold winter here, is often.