Mostly Unproven

I have a few favourite things in the world. Somerset County Cricket club is one. Indie music from the late 80s/early 90s is another. The landscape of South-West England. Post-war British fiction. Cats.

Pizza is up there. Very close to the top actually. It was what weekends in Italy were all about, whether at the beach in summer, snacking on pizzette on white plastic tables, or else the Sunday night takeaway on the sofa with friends, watching Serie A. It is my takeaway staple, my not-so secret crush and my totally innocent pleasure.

I’m not exactly a purist either. I’ve been known to consume frozen varietes of many brands and drunkenly ordered it from the menus of the most scabrous eating establishments. I’ve eaten it when there were better things on offer, when I couldn’t be bothered to cook; I’ve had it for supper when I already had it for lunch.

I do however generally like to keep it simple and I am consistent in my ordering. Either a plain margherita, perhaps with added anchovies, or, when I was more of a meat eater, al piccante with spicy salame. One can gild the lily too much with those meat feasts and four cheeses. Like a good sandwich I believe a maximum of three key ingredients is all that’s needed.

Having said that I’m going away tomorrow for a couple of weeks so I took the opportunity of using up a few things in my fridge which would otherwise not keep to put on my homemade pizza.

A pizza, moreover, made without yeast. I told you I wasn’t exactly a purist. I didn’t have any yeast anyway, only baking powder. The combination of flour, salt and baking powder doesn’t make a totally authentic pizza dough, but for a home cook – especially one pushed for time – it’s close enough. No need for any proving time as once the dough is made it’s ready to be rolled and topped.

The ingredients I felt would sit better on a ‘white’ pizza rather than a tomato sauce-based one. It ended up as more like cauliflower cheese on bread, but what’s not to like about that?

For the dough-making recipe I followed this link, but adapted the quantities to make one single pizza. So:

  • 200g flour
  • 1 and a half tsp baking powder
  • half a tsp of salt
  • 100ml water
  • 20ml olive oil

For the topping:

  • half a head of cauliflower, florets only (stalks retained for future use, they freeze)
  • one leek, sliced
  • 100g mozzarella
  • 25g blue cheese
  • 25g parmesan
  • a few spinach leaves, torn
  • palmful of fresh thyme leaves, chopped
  • olive oil
  • dried oregano, enough to sprinkle
  • salt and pepper
  • smoked paprika, half a tsp.

 

Method to make the topping:

Blanch the cauliflower and leek in salted boiling water for a minute or two. Remove and leave to drain well and cool. Once the pizza dough is rolled, brush with olive oil and then arrange the vegetable mixture on top, leaving some space at the sides. Add the thyme, oregano, salt, pepper and grated parmesan, then the other cheeses. Sprinkle over the paprika, if using. Drizzle over a little more oil. Bake in a preheated oven at 200 degrees celsius for about 40 minutes. Add the spinach leaves after about 30 minutes.

 

 

 

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!

 

Nuts for you

sdr

No two chestnuts crack the same way. Let that be my motto for the week.

A distinctive winter feature here is the roasting of chestnuts, often accompanied by the (loud) cries of vendors. Most communities have a shop selling fruit and vegetables with one corner devoted to jars and baskets of assorted nuts and seeds. The chestnuts are roasted in a large round steel barrel and sold usually by the half kilo. That’s how much I bought, costing me about two pounds sterling.

According to the EAT-Lancet Commission the recommended intake of nuts per day is 50g, which amounts to a couple of handfuls. I certainly wasn’t going to eat half a kilo of chestnuts in one day (the shelling alone would have tipped me over the edge) but then I suddenly had a thought: what if these are actually not classified as nuts, in the same way as almonds are technically seeds and peanuts legumes?

Yes. They are nuts. As nutty as a Nuthatch hatching nuttin’ but nuts. And they are good for you too, a healthy source of carbohydrates and various essential minerals. In the end I prepared about 250g, along the way developing the aforementioned motto. Why. Don’t. They. Crack. Luckily they did before I did.

Tis the season of pumpkins and squashes so it made sense to me to combine the elements. First thing I made was a soup, the squash roasted with chilli and coriander seeeds and then cooked down with the chopped nuts in bay-infused stock until reduced enough to blend. A palmful of lemon thyme leaves stirred in at the end lifted the dish. It was good enough and warming, the spices and herbs combatting the natural sweetness of the main ingredients.

Somehow it didn’t quite hit the spot though. I wanted something more robust and hearty. I took inspiration from Italian cuisine, especially the famous Ferrarese dish cappellacci di zucca, which uses pumpkin puree as a filling for ravioli.

So I made a puree of my own by roasting squash pieces with salt, pepper, a little chilli powder and sprigs of lemon thyme. Once these were ready, about twelve minutes in a hot oven, I put them in a pan with enough vegetable stock to cover and reduced the mixture until it had conglomerated enough to be able to combine with an electric hand mixer. Result: nice silky smooth puree.

Meanwhile I shelled the nuts – about 50g or so – and then grated them into a bowl. Rooting around in my cupboards I came across some dried porcini mushrooms. Time to turn up late Autumn factor to eleven. These I soaked in warm water for about thirty minutes (note somewhat staggered timing here; I was making it up as I went. Obviously if I had found the mushrooms earlier I would already have put them to soak). I cooked up some conchiglie, not due to any aesthetic reasons but because it was the only pasta I had. Anyway, I figured, the natural cups made by the shell shape would hold the sauce I made quite nicely.

With the pasta almost ready I chopped up the mushrooms and fried them with a little oil, garlic and some of the soaking liquor (again, hindsight allowed me to reckon that the squash stock could have been augmented with the mushroom liquid, if only I’d thought of that. If only). Anyway I heated up the puree and tipped the cooked pasta into it, stirring until thoroughly combined. On went the mushrooms, then the grated chestnuts. I finished with dots of goat’s cheese, which turned out to be a surprising salty necessity.

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Great flavours – at once sweet and earthy, rich and tangy. Texturally not too bad either, although as I was eating it I figured the ingredients might all work better together in a lasagne of sorts. Waiting on a mushroom delivery. Watch this space.

 

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.

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