Archive for ‘Chilli’

January 28, 2012

Last Night’s Dinner: Sweet Potato and Chickpea Soup ‘Berbere’

What a cold winter’s night really needs, of course, is a warming bowl of nutritious soup. This one was made after a rummage through the fridge and kitchen cupboards. We had some sweet potato that wasn’t long for this world, a tin of chickpeas, an onion, spices… and that’s all you need.

Now, we’ve often made a sweet potato and chickpea soup, or a butternut squash and chickpea soup and, usually, we spice it up with a little chilli and some cumin. But I’m bored of it: the cumin so often overpowers if it’s the dominant spice… and this was the thought in my mind as my eyes set upon a tin of ready-mixed ‘Berbere’ spice (widely available, just like this here that we picked up in the supermarket).

Berbere refers to the Berber peoples of North Africa. I’ve always associated Berbere spices with Morocco, having visited that country, but a little research reveals that the mix of spices including chilli, cumin, coriander seed, fenugreek, cloves, allspice, ginger, cardamom, plus varying others, as well as the term Berbere, is recognisable in Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali cuisines. The exact origin, and infinite variations, could no doubt be argued over for longer than it would take the IMF to do the right thing and cancel African debt, so let’s just say that it’s fiery, with some sweeter notes than you might get in Indian spice mixes.

To the soup: it’s one-pot stuff. In a large saucepan or stockpot, saute a finely chopped onion in a little olive oil for 5 minutes. Add a clove of finely chopped garlic and cook for 3 minutes more. While it’s cooking, peel two large-ish sweet potatoes, cut into 2cm chunks and add to the pot. Stir and cook for 5 minutes. Next add one tin of chickpeas. Then add the Berbere spice mix. We added a heavily loaded dessert-spoonful. You might want to add less – it’ll be fine. Chilli addicts could also add one fresh red chilli. Stir in and then add around 500ml of vegetable stock – maybe a little more depending on the size of your potatoes. Bring to the boil then simmer for 20 minutes. Take off the heat, leave to cool until lukewarm then blitz it with a hand blender. Don’t overdo it though, it’s best if the soup is a little coarse. Reheat, season with salt and pepper and serve, perhaps with some crusty bread.

It warms the cockles, this one.

January 23, 2012

Last Night’s Dinner: Bun Xa

Ah, I see you’re looking at the bun xa! Or perhaps that’s bunh xao, ben xao, benh xa or other variations of western spelling I’ve come across.

Bun xa is Ella’s favourite Vietnamese dish. Noodles, basically. Rice noodles. And in our case with a topping of fried tofu and salad, with a chilli dressing. It’s a dish that depends on both ‘mouth-feel’ and your nostrils: by which I mean that it should provide a range of textures in your mouth – not just mush – and both a blast of chilli and some fresh, subtle fragrance up your nose! Yep, it’s all about balance.

We’ve been making this dish for a couple of years, attempting to recreate the delightful version found in a favourite Vietnamese place on Kingsland Road, East London. But we’ve never managed to get it quite right… until now.

The difference this time? Sourcing ingredients from a local Asian food store, rather than trusting our supermarket’s ubiquitous brands. D’oh. Seriously, getting better quality tofu, authentic rice noodles, plus soy and rice wine vinegar – in place of the usual Blue Dragon, Amoy and Cauldron brands – really made a difference. The noodles didn’t turn to slop, the tofu crisped up nicely and the seasoning was deeper and more rounded.

So, how do you make it?

First, chop some firm tofu into bite-sized (finger-sized) pieces and fry in a single layer in a wide pan in a couple of tablespoons of sunflower and sesame oil. Add a little soy sauce to the pan as well, but don’t overdo it. (Or marinate your tofu first, if you give yourself enough time). Cook the tofu gently, turning occasionally, until the tofu is golden on all sides. You can set this aside and reheat later if you need to.

While the tofu cooks, get that dressing done: chop a couple of cloves of fresh garlic, a couple of chillis (ahem, or more, y’know, perhaps) and add them to a small bowl. To the bowl then add a large splash of dark soy sauce and generous glug of rice wine vinegar. Next stir in a teaspoon of castor sugar until it dissolves. Taste. It should be fiery, sharp, fragrant and with a touch of sweetness. Remember, it won’t be this hot when it’s poured over your food. Make it as bold as you dare.

The rest is even easier. Plunge your fine rice noodles into a pan of boiling water, take off the heat and leave for around three minutes. Drain immediately then add a splash of soy sauce and a generous splash of rice wine vinegar to season them. Try and coat them well. Set aside with the lid covering them.

Quickly fry some button mushrooms, halved if they’re on the large side, then add them to the tofu pan. Shred some iceberg lettuce, finely slice two spring onions and coarsely chop some fresh coriander leaves.

Now assemble. In the bottom of your bowl place a portion of the noodles. On top of that comes the tofu and mushrooms. On top of that the ‘salad’ of lettuce, onion and herbs. Then, if you can get them in your Asian grocers, sprinkle some fried shallot flakes over the dish (we really find these add a savoury depth that’s very complementary – and yes, we’ve tried making the flakes at home but they tend to remain slightly greasy and wet whereas these are dry). Serve and let people pour the dressing over the top of the dish.

Some variations could include bean sprouts or shredded carrot in the salad. The main thing is that it is light and fresh. Chopped toasted peanuts could also be sprinkled over, as well as, or in place of, the dried shallot flakes.

Get the balance right and this is as fragrant and moreish a dish as you’ll ever have. If it was music you’d be wowed by it hitting every note on the scale. If it’s greasy, heavy or bland – and if there isn’t enough chilli, then something has gone wrong.

Practise this. It’s a tool for life. Honest.

December 30, 2011

2011 leftovers: Chilli and parmesan polenta recipe

Before we made this, a couple of months ago, I think I had eaten polenta about twice in my life. Each time it was bland and distinctly, well, horrible. I never wanted to go near t again. I’d see it on a menu and think “Ha, well they’re trying to be clever, but it won’t work,” or see it cooked on TV and think “They’re gonna taste it and say it’s nice, but they’ll be lying”.

Polenta. Italian peasant food. But I kept on seeing it and some of my favourite cooks feature a polenta recipe every time they release a new recipe book. So what was my problem?

Well, blandness and texture were the big things and, fortunately, they could be sorted. I wanted a polenta that was rich with flavour and didn’t feel like gritty mush in the mouth. Actually, it’s easy to achieve and, typing this up, I’d like some more of it now.

We cooked 250 grams of ‘coarse maize’ polenta in around a litre of simmering vegetable stock until it was soft, stirring regularly. I think that took about 20 minutes (to remove the granularity) but I could be wrong – so keep checking. We then stirred in some chopped birds eye chillis and a handful of grated parmesan/pecorino cheese, gave it a good mix and spread into an oiled shallow baked tray. After about 20 minutes, the polenta is cool and set firm. We could then cut it into triangles and grill/griddle it. This would work well on a barbecue, though it’s too chilly to be thinking about that at the moment.

We served our polenta wedges with greens and peppers – thinking of it as the carb on the plate in place of potato, pasta or rice. And it was really tasty. Honest. Consider me converted.

December 15, 2011

Last Night’s Dinner: Yotam Ottolenghi’s roasted aubergine with fried onion and chopped lemon

About half way through the afternoon Ella and I discussed ideas for dinner and realised we didn’t havethe faintest notion what to cook. Then I remembered this Ottolenghi recipe from the weekend’s paper. It doesn’t look ‘all that’ in the accompanying photo, but a look at the ingredients told me it would be warming and smoky, but also light and fresh with a real citrus kick. It proved, indeed, to be all of those things. With bells on.

I do have to get round to discussing Ottolenghi in more depth at some point, as we ate at his restaurant this autumn and, while it was enjoyable, we left somewhat underwhelmed. We’ve made (and loved – and I mean really loved) so much of his food at home that our expectations were high. But that’s for another time.

For now, and as an antidote to all the stodgy British midwinter we’re bound to get stuck into over the coming weeks, here‘s the recipe. We served it with a big old leafy salad, dressed heartily.

November 2, 2011

Last Night’s Dinner: Roast aubergine with tomato and pine nuts, Puy lentils and a yoghurt dressing

We’ve been mentioning chef Denis Cotter rather a lot recently, partly because we’re working our way through some of his recipes in his latest book. In it, at one point, he eulogises the aubergine and sets a challenge: take an aubergine or two, find some other ingredients lying around the fridge and store cupboard, and make a meal of them. That’s right, like an aubergine-based Ready Steady Cook from TV.

This was our first attempt. We had two aubergines, some cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, some herbs, lentils, a little yoghurt, a few other ingredients too… so, what to do? To make a hearty supper we decided to base the meal around Puy lentils, with a contrasting topping.

First get the lentils going, enough for each person in some vegetable stock. Simmer until tender but still slightly nutty (around 30 minutes?), drain and then add 2tbsp of red wine vinegar, stir through and set aside.

While the lentils are cooking, top and tail the aubergine (you’ll need one per person) and slice it from top to bottom to get four lengths of equal thickness. Place them in a single layer on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and roast for around 20 minutes until golden and softened. Alternatively, brush them with olive oil and griddle them for a nice charred effect.

Next, half a couple of handfulls of cherry tomatoes. Half them again lengthways to make little segments. Then scrape out the seeds and excess juice. Place in a bowl and add a pinch of salt and pepper and a chopped red chilli (to your taste). Stir in and set aside.

Then toast a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts in a dry frying pan for a couple of minutes until slightly browned – take care not to burn them. Finally, in a small bowl, take 150ml of Greek yoghurt and add a little olive oil, the juice of a lemon, a clove of crushed garlic and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir. If it isn’t the consistency of double cream, add a little milk or a little extra olive oil, or both.

When the aubergine is cooked and cooled slightly they can be stuffed. Add the pine nuts to the tomatoes and mix through. Now take a dessert spoonful of the mixture and place it on one end of an aubergine slice and roll up. Do the same for the rest. Place the lentil rolls into a medium oven to warm through.

Chop some fresh parsley, or a little coriander or mint, and stir it into the lentils and place back on a low heat.

When the lentils and aubergine are warmed, plate up: lentils on the bottom, aubergine rolls on top and a drizzle of yoghurt sauce all over. Smashing, smoky, tangy and wholesome, warming fresh and good. With a tiny chilli kick.

October 6, 2011

Last Night’s Dinner: Pinto beans with slow-roast tomatoes and goats cheese

Thursday 15 September

Before the recipe, a quick word about trust and cooking, as it brings some influence to bear on our pinto beans with slow-roast tomatoes and goats cheese.

Trust in the food we eat is one of the most natural, early, primal, comforting, rewarding, continuing experiences we have in life. Hopefully. It’s learned, hopefully, as a baby, with the first food coming straight from our mothers themselves. Then we learn to trust again, as the foods we are provided with begin to vary and as we begin to choose from different options ourselves. Our palates, hopefully, develop in a comforting, safe environment – little wonder many people have a strong emotional attachment to the notion that their mum, grannie, dad, auntie, next door neighbour… whoever… could make food more comforting than anyone else. That’s not always true, of course, but it’s a widely held experience. Even if your childhood carers were useless cooks you will have found some way of trusting that the food you ate could do its job of nourishing you. It’s probably one of the reasons McDonalds et al like to get to kids early and give gifts with the meal – that equation of food plus treat plus fun plus comfort is a powerful one that will hold into adulthood.

We carry this into later life. A favourite restaurant? Probably a new variant of that McDonalds equation – a place you can go back to, where you can trust that the food will provide what you’re looking for, where you don’t have to worry, where you can relax. A favourite recipe book? It’ll be one you can turn to that has instructions you trust, where, miraculously, you can follow it step by step and what goes onto the plate bears comparison with the picture on the page and brings a smile to your friends or family.

It’s when you start going off piste, turning to a new recipe book, visiting a new restaurant with unfamiliar dishes and, specifically for us, making a recipe up for yourself, that trust often disappears and food becomes a little more fraught. Just as someone with a limited diet and palate might get nervous when presented with a plate of unusual ingredients, so a decent cook can lose the plot completely when asked to deviate from their usual repertoire.

So why all this preamble? Well, it’s to explain how a rather tasty and comforting dish like pinto beans with slow-roast tomatoes and goats cheese can come about, off the top of your head, without being scary. Let’s trace the genesis:

We wanted a dish of some savoury beans, because we like that kind of thing from time to time. A quick flick through some favourite recipe books brought no inspiration, for some reason. There were recipes for borlotti beans, butter beans, recipes we’d already tried… but nothing new or for pinto beans. No matter. Pinto beans are pretty much like borlotti beans and one recipe suggested (I think we’ve done it before) cooking the beans then grating the zest of a lemon into them to pep them up. So, okay let’s do that. Beans, cooked and drained, kept warm, plus lemon zest, hmm, a clove of crushed garlic and a tablespoon of olive oil? Well, oil plus garlic plus lemon is pretty much a vinaigrette, so that should work. Season. Add some parsley for a little freshness? Okay. And what about a chopped red chilli? Beans and chilli? That’s common. Okay. Done.

But what about the topping? Well, baked beans come in a tomato sauce, so what about tomato? Okay, but how do you make it a bit posher? Hmm, slow roast halved tomatoes on a very low heat for a couple of hours until they’re semi-dried. We’ve seen this done in another recipe somewhere, so okay, yes. And what about that third constituent ingredient that brings things all together? Well, who hasn’t sprinkled grated cheese on their baked beans? And goats cheese is great with tomatoes – and, since they’re in the oven we could put the goats cheese on top of the tomatoes…

And so… there’s nothing in this recipe that is strange, out of the ordinary or particularly unexpected. All of it is variants of other things we know and trust. And yet it was completely made up, from the top of our little hungry heads. And it tasted delicious.

Trust: bring it into the kitchen now. It’s a vital ingredient.

October 3, 2011

Last Night’s Dinner: Spiced halloumi with a warm Puy lentil, spinach and beetroot salad

Warm salads are the perfect choice for months when the seasons are changing. Maybe it’s the ability to take some veg from one season and lighten it up, or load it down, with some from the next.

This salad – I say salad, though it’s almost a stew, is a Denis Cotter recipe from For the Love of Food – a book we’ve used a few times in this blog. See it here, it’s great. Oh, and go and visit Denis’s restaurant in Cork – it won’t let you down. Have a look, here.

So, I won’t give the recipe in full but, basically… the slices of halloumi are marinated briefly in chillis, cumin and lime zest; the beetroot roasted, with a sprinkle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar; the lentils cooked with sprigs of thyme and garlic; serve with lentils on a bed of spinach with the halloumi on top.

And can you spot our variation? Yep, we had no spinach so we steamed some greens and ran them through the lentils. Twas fine indeed.

September 15, 2011

Last Night’s Dinner: Italian bean soup with basil

Wednesday 24 August

A rather delicious bowlful of soup from Ella, who will often pep up a tomato-based Italianate recipe with the addition of some basil leaves, garlic, and olive oil, pounded with a mortar and pestle. It’s a good trick and produces something akin to pesto, but with a bit more tang and a little less gloop – great to have a spoonful with some soup.

Essentially, this is hearty one-pot stuff, taking an onion, garlic, chilli, pepper, courgette, tomatoes, a tin of butter/borlotti/pinto beans, and some stock and bringing them all together.

So, in a large, deep saucepan or stockpot, fry a sliced onion for 5 minutes until soft, then add two cloves of chopped garlic and some fresh chilli (as much as you like). After 2 minutes add a sliced bell pepper, seeds and pithy bits removed. Cook for 5 more minutes then add a roughly diced courgette. Stir. Then add either a tin of chopped tomatoes or 4-5 medium tomatoes, skins removed and chopped. Stir again then add a litre of vegetable stock or water. Simmer for as long as it takes for the liquid to reduce and the soup become, well, soupy. The longer the better really as the flavours increase with time on the hob. Serve with the basil ‘sauce’.

I think that’s how Ella made it, in any case.

And one final thing, we did already allude to this soup in an earlier post, here. Which leads me to say that yes, this is our weekday variation.

August 31, 2011

Recipe: Bill Granger’s flatbread with red onion and chard

We have got some chard in the kitchen at the moment so will probably be tempted to make this light supper. The prospect of making your own flatbread is always rather exciting and, given that it doesn’t need to rise very much (although it does use yeast and need to prove), it’s rather more fail-safe than proper, full-on, up-to-the-elbows-in-flour bread making.

I haven’t kept up to date with the style of food Australian chef and restaurateur Bill Granger makes. I interviewed him once, by email, and he sent back a well-written, considered and quite passionate response to the questions, so he’s remained in ETP’s ‘good books’ since. But back then his big thing was luscious Aussie-American breakfasts at his waterfront cafe – this recipe is distinctly more European.

The recipe is from the Independent, here.

August 10, 2011

Last Night’s Dinner: Sweetcorn ‘brunch’ fritters

Sunday 7 August

Sunday brunch is a fine thing. Think of it as a good old-fashioned weekend breakfast that’s been off and travelled the world a bit, tasted different cultures and arrived back with tales of how life could be, if only everyone lived ‘there’, not ‘here’.

Sunday brunch at ETP Towers sometimes nods to New York or or even Asia. I’m not sure where these fritters lie on the map (Mexico?), but they’re easy (if you have a few leisurely minutes to spare) and damn tasty. Corn at breakfast? Hell yeah! Ours came from the lovely huge pile of corn on the cob found at Cansdale Ross & Co, around the corner from us (and as previously mentioned in this blog).

Our serving for each person consists of two fritters. For each serving you’ll need one corn on the cob, two spring onions, a small amount of fresh chopped green chilli, a couple of sprigs of coriander, an egg and around two level dessert spoons of flour (plain white or wholemeal is fine, but I like to use gram flour – the chickpea flour used to make bhajis – and also gluten free).

The recipe below is for one serving, but it will be easier to mix when you double or treble, or quadruple it up, depending on how many people are eating.

First, bring a pan of water to the boil, add the whole corn on the cob (any leaves and stringy bits removed), return to the boil and then simmer for ten minutes. Remove the cob from the water, let it cool slightly and then, standing the corn on its end, slice off the kernels with a sharp, sturdy knife.

Chop the spring onion and add it to a mixing bowl with the chilli, flour and the egg (lightly beaten), season with salt and pepper. Mix for 30 seconds, then add the sweetcorn kernels. Chop and add the coriander and mix all the ingredients well until the kernels are coated with the batter.

Heat some olive oil in a large frying pan. When hot, drop a large serving spoon-sized scoop of the sweetcorn and batter mixture into the oil. It should sizzle slightly. With a spatula, gently prompt, push and pull the mixture into a vaguely rounded disc shape. After 4 minutes the bottom of the fritter should be set and golden. Turn it over and cook the other side for another 4 minutes. Done.

We served the fritters with a tomato salsa that Ella made: chopped tomato, a tiny bit of finely sliced red onion, chopped fresh chilli, a dash of wine vinegar and a splash of olive oil.

The fritters are light, moreish and, somehow, a perfect start to the day.

A wholely different kind of sweetcorn fritter recipe was published in the Guardian newspaper the day after we made this. You can see it here.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s sweetcorn fritters recipe is here.

But try ours first, and try it for brunch.