September 24, 2012

Last night’s dinner: Vegetable tagine

I wish our photograph did this dinner justice. (My excuse: steam rising into the camera and not being sure whether I was focusing on the plate of food or the mortar of fiery chilli sauce.) Oh well.

But in many ways the half-thought-through snap reflects the nature of this day’s eating. I didn’t get to the shop and didn’t know what we were going to eat until late in the day. Dinner, it seemed, was going to be a ramshackle affair.

And so, indecision produced this, a tagine – made, as it happens, in a big old tagine cooking pot, from which of course the recipe gets its name. We do sometimes cook a ‘tagine’ in a normal saucepan but there’s something rather nice about the way a tagine cooks the food inside it – all that steam rolling around in there to produce a dish that softens up to the point of falling apart in no time at all. Something happens with the flavours. I’m not sure how it happens but I like it.

In any case, this was cobbled together so quickly: a rummage around the kitchen cupboard and fridge produced an onion, a piece of marrow and a courgette, some peppers, a carrot, a potato, a couple of tomatoes, a tin of chickpeas… you get the idea: all the stuff we hadn’t quite made use of but nothing that shouted “use me, base your meal around me”. Hence: a stew. A north African stew, perhaps, but a stew nonetheless.

Special ingredients? Well, I also discovered some dried apricots and some toasted almonds. Perfect. And, literally, everything got chopped and put into the bowl of the tagine with a few teaspoons of ground cumin and cinnamon, plus a little vegetable stock. It was then cooked until the vegetables were soft and served with some cous cous and that fiery chilli sauce (a few chillis, a clove of garlic and a little olive oil bashed up in that there mortar).

As summer turns to autumn, a stew like this, using up the end of the season’s veg, is really rather delightful. Not bad for a ramshackle affair.

September 12, 2012

So September has come and the days are suddenly a little cooler. Summer is gone – what we had of it. But between the rains of June and July and the collective moment of forgetting everyone took through the Olympics and Paralympics, there were some occasional sunny, warm days. Summer did happen. We have the evidence here in the shape of some pictures of a back garden barbecue.

But what do you cook for a vegetarian at a barbecue? Nothing? C’mon! Buy some frozen veggie burgers and heat them through? Ugh. Make them a salad? What, to soak up the beer and wine? Don’t invite them? Jeez.

It’s a shame that more people don’t realise how much can cooked on a barbecue. Grilling vegetables, fruit and even cheese is simple – much easier than cooking meat, from what I gather from watching others – and is pretty much a surefire way of welcoming non carnivores to the party.

My theory is that a barbecue involves two things: smoke and good quality ingredients – ones that you’d enjoy eating if they were cooked in another way. Simple.

For us at ETP Towers, that means grilling skewers of mixed vegetables over charcoal. Try florets of cauliflower, peppers, cherry tomatoes, artichoke and beetroot. Mix the veg with cubes of halloumi and fruit – my favourite, mango, or even a strawberry. We also grill flat mushrooms, strips of aubergine and courgette and, of course, corn on the cob, par-boiled for a few minutes first.

For a marinade we often use a mix of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and a herb – thyme maybe, or rosemary – and chilli maybe, too.

Ella’s fab veggie burgers, here, would also go down a treat.

There are more spectacular things to barbecue – aubergine rolls with all kinds of fillings, chilli polenta slices, for example – but some of the above is so easy, so quick, that the question of what to feed a vegetarian at a barbecue should never need be asked again.

September 9, 2012

Recipe: Paul Gayler’s courgette and fennel bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse on a vegetarian food blog? Is there something fishy going on? Not at all.

Paul Gayler, a man who’s pretty good with vegetables, turns the classic fish soup from Marseille into a late summer stew that is fragrant and filling – especially if a slab of crusty bread is at hand to soak up some of the broth.

The recipe is at the Telegraph website, here.

This will be made, and hastily eaten no doubt, in the next few days.

August 25, 2012

Last Night’s Dinner: Summer vegetable and goat’s cheese bruschetta

Until recently there hasn’t been much summer round these parts, which means we haven’t done what we usually do with our dinners at this time of year.

But… the sun has started making occasional appearances and thoughts have turned to lighter meals that make the most of delicate summer flavours and fragrances. And bruschetta – we haven’t made bruschetta in, well, ages. Certainly not since we moved from London last year.

Bruschetta. Stuff on toast. Wild mushrooms and thyme; roasted cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and basil; sweet roasted peppers with chilli and parmesan; chargrilled aubergine, ricotta and pesto… all with a good hunk of lightly toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with a good olive oil. Yum.

We had none of the variations above on this occasion. What we had was half a loaf of bread from the Village Deli in Wivenhoe (they do good bread, I try not to look at it as I pass – I’d eat little else), plus a few leftovers from our weekly veg box and recent trips to the supermarket. Which meant we had courgettes, beetroot, broad beans, a green pepper, some grilled globe artichoke hearts, a mild red chilli – and a nice block of crumbly-ish, creamy goat’s cheese (again, from the aforementioned Deli).

The only method with this is to treat each ingredient with respect: so, the peppers and beet are roasted separately, in a little olive oil, and chopped into chunks; the chilli goes with the pepper and is then sliced; courgettes get sliced and cooked on a griddle; broad beans are shelled, blanched for 4 minutes and slipped from their pithy skins; artichokes, already cooked, are ready to go.

When it’s all done, toast the bread, rub it with garlic while it’s still hot, and pile up the veg on top, attractively if possible, interspersed with the broken-up goat’s cheese. And then drizzle with a little olive oil.

Does bruschetta really require a recipe? I don’t know: it’s just toast with stuff on it. Nice stuff though. And nice toast. And a nice, light, summer’s evening meal.

August 2, 2012

Recipe: Mark Hix’s plantain crisps with guacamole and salsa

Weather permitting we’re off to a barbecue this evening. [Turns round, looks at sky: mostly grey, small patch of blue. Crosses fingers.] We’ve been waiting all summer for the opportunity to make some vegetarian barbecue recipes and this from Mark Hix, as featured in the Independent newspaper, would be a dead cert as a plate of al fresco finger food on a warm summer evening. We haven’t cooked any plantain for a while, so this had me instantly licking my lips. Recipe here.

August 1, 2012

Last night’s dinner: a Moroccan chickpea stew

I’ve touched on this story before, but a few years ago Ella and I were in Marseille for my birthday. For lunch we headed to an authentic (read ‘basic’) little Moroccan restaurant near the old port. We’d heard rumours that their chickpea stew was rather excellent and it was prominent on the menu. Ella chose it and wished she hadn’t. Down in the rich depths of spicy sauce was something unpleasant: a large lump of lamb. It wasn’t the most fortuitous of days for Ella: a harbourside gull also gifted her a ‘lucky’ present on her head.

Thankfully, the experience hasn’t scarred her and we’ve not been put off chickpea stews. But then, how could we be? We make variations on them every few months. Indeed, there’s one we tried earlier here. That was my version. This is Ella’s and it bears much closer comparison with the heady, rich, deeply flavoured and rather unctuous bowl served up in Marseille – minus the ropey ruminant. In my book, Ella’s is better than my own version, though some might prefer the lighter one we featured earlier. Try this though, it’s lovely.

So, to the stove:

For a couple of big portions: finely chop one medium onion and fry in a little olive oil on a medium heat in a large stockpot or saucepan. As the onion starts to turn golden, add 2 small or 1 large bell peppers, cut into strips no wider than 1cm.

When the onions and peppers have softened add the dried spices: a dessert spoonful of cinnamon, a teaspoonful of paprika, a little ground chilli, and a dessert spoon of ground cumin. It might sound like a lot of spices, but it’ll take it.

Stir in the spices to coat the veg. As they soak into the softened veg and oil they will create a kind of paste. To this add a good squeeze of tomato puree. Stir again and ‘cook out’ the paste, heating it through in the pan for another five minutes, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t burn.

Next, add a large handful of small waxy potatoes, halved or quartered so that they’re chestnut sized. Then add two tins of chickpeas. Stir in the potatoes and chickpeas and then add around 750ml of vegetable stock – enough that the liquid comes a couple of centimetres or so above the vegetables. Bring the stew to a boil then simmer for around 30 minutes until it has reduced and thickened a little. The longer you cook it the better it will get, so leave it longer if you like but don’t let it get too thick.

As it’s cooking, add a good dessert spoonful of dried mint. Season with salt and pepper and add some more cinnamon, cumin and mint if you think it needs it. Remember, a richly aromatic, deeply spiced stew is the intention.

And that’s it – except for for the vital topping of chilli sauce: with a large mortar and pestle grind up a clove of garlic, a few fresh red chillis and a dash of cinnamon together with a little olive oil until you create a fiery sauce. Serve this at the table alongside the soup and add as much as you dare.

I could eat this every day and the world would be a little bit of a better place.

July 4, 2012

Last night’s dinner: Enchiladas with sweet potato, beans, greens and feta

Prepping the enchilada for the oven…

The finished article…

We’ve never made enchiladas before but Jeannie Macaroni we’ll make them again. Why? Because these were a feast of flavours and really packed a punch. We love stuffing tortillas with chilli infused fillings, so why oh why have we not done this before?

The basics are that you take corn or wheat tortilla flatbreads, stuff them with some lovely, er, stuff, and then bake them in the oven, topped with a little sauce and cheese. The authentic variables often involve meat but of course you’ll find none of that here. So, what to stuff your tortilla with?

Our filling is a fairly tried and tested mixture: sweet potatoes, cubed and lightly roasted in a little olive oil; borlotti beans (or other medium sized beans), cooked at home or from a can, to add protein; wilted greens (we used curly kale) to contrast the sweetness of the potato; and feta cheese to bring a sharpness that cuts through the other flavours.

When cooked, bring all these together in a bowl – add a little freshly squeezed lime juice too if you like, and some chopped coriander leaf.

Next for the sauce and, really, any chilli–tomato sauce will do. For ours, I finely chopped an onion, sweated it in a little olive oil for a few minutes, added some finely chopped red chilli, a heaped teaspoon of ground cumin, a little paprika and a can of chopped tomatoes. Mix well, add a little water and simmer for 20 minutes or so until the tomatoes have cooked down and the flavours have all combined. Set aside.

Now, back to the tortillas. To prep them for the oven, first warm each tortilla you’re using in a dry frying pan on a medium heat, splashed with a tiny sprinkling of water. Warm them for around 30 seconds a side, making sure they don’t stick.

Take a serving-spoonful of the tortilla filling and place it in the middle of each tortilla. Fold over two opposite sides of the tortilla slightly, then roll up the other ones to make a sealed cylinder – or something approximating one. These need to be transferred to a lightly oiled baking dish – so make sure they’re rolled up tightly enough to be able to transfer them. Be careful!

When your tortillas are sat snug in the baking dish, cover them with your chilli–tomato sauce. Bake for 15 minutes, then take them out of the oven, grate some cheese over the top (cheddar or gouda will be fine) and return to the oven for 5 more minutes until it melts.

Serve hot with some salad. Oh and be careful when lifting them out of the baking dish – they’re liable to fall apart.

June 17, 2012

Last Night’s Dinner: Asparagus and Parmesan Frittata

Every year, without fail, the local asparagus season surprises me. I know what it tastes like and I know how I like to eat it, so why should it catch me unawares? I think the answer is that I also end up eating asparagus at other times of the year. Sometimes it’s in restaurants that claim they build their recipes around local, seasonal produce. But asparagus in London in November? I think not. Then it appears in stir fries and risottos: thin, woody, tasteless stalks from Peru or Thailand. Pah! Sometimes, like a fool, I even buy it myself.

So, every year, when the really good stuff comes around in May, I’m taken aback all over again at how fresh, juicy and earthily green, local in-season asparagus can be. The problem is that after a few meals of it I can get bored. I know the season will be over soon, but I’m tired and I don’t want another risotto, or another plate of steamed asparagus with new potatoes, or the stalks chargrilled with a grating of parmesan… etc etc. So, each year I come up with something new. Last year it was asparagus egg and chilli tomato. This year, a quick lunch of an asparagus-based fritatta. (Look carefully and you’ll notice that we kept the winning combination of the veg, eggs and cheese and simply reformulated it). So easy it hardly needs a recipe, we made this as a man from the phone company was fixing our broadband. Amounts, and the size of the pan, will depend on how many you want to feed… I’ll leave it up to you.

First, finely slice a red onion and begin to fry it gently in a little olive oil in a frying pan. Cook until it has softened – around 8 minutes. While it’s cooking, roughly chop the asparagus stalks. If they’re thick, halve them lengthways too so that they don’t take too long to cook through. Add them to the pan and cook for a further 8-10 minutes. Beat some eggs and season with a black pepper. Next, grate a handful or so of parmesan and mix it into the eggs. Add to the pan. Stir a little, coating the asparagus and onion – try to distribute the veg evenly through the egg mixture. Leave to cook on a low heat. Turn on your grill to high. When the edges of the frittata begin to crisp and turn gold but the top is still not quite set, take the pan off the heat and hold under the grill to set the top. When it’s gold, you’re done.

Serve hot, warm or cold.

June 6, 2012

Last night’s dinner: Egg curry

I suppose it doesn’t sound particularly wonderful. A simple egg; that generic, catch-all term ‘curry’. Hmm.

My desire to make an egg curry, however, goes back to the mid ’90s when I received a ‘curry’ recipe book that featured one. I have no idea why I never got round to making it. And the book? I’ve no idea where it is.

Which means I had to make up a recipe for this protein rich, filling dish. The ‘curry’ is in fact a basic dhal that we then perked up with some extra ingredients on top. For our basic dhal recipe, see here.

I think dhal plus a boiled egg could be a little cloying on its own, so to balance the flavours we added some tangy sweetness in the shape of some cherry tomatoes, and some savouriness in the form of crispy fried onions. The eggs were boiled, straightforwardly, and have of them added to the dhal, half reserved for the top. The dish is finished with a little chopped coriander.

It’s the balance of those added extras that makes this work. And, after 17 years of waiting, I really rather enjoyed it.

May 13, 2012

Last night’s dinner: Chilli-marinated tofu with coconut greens and rice

What a tasty Saturday night treat! And it was made after an afternoon at a local festival fundraiser at which ‘drink was taken’. Which is a way of saying it wasn’t that difficult to make. Think of it as a perked-up veggie Thai green curry, in fact an easier one, with the ingredients mostly coming together at the end rather than all being cooked sloppily together in a big bowl. Caring for ingredients individually, as ever, can really pay dividends.

Serves 2.

First, the tofu. Take a block of firm tofu (ours was Cauldron brand on this occasion), drain it and place it in a shallow bowl. Splash some dark soy sauce over it. Chop some fresh chilli (as much as you like) and a clove of garlic and sprinkle over the top of the tofu as well, before massaging the mixture into the tofu a little, gentling turning the tofu over to ensure it gets fully coated in the marinade. Leave for 20 minutes.

After marinating, cut the tofu across its width into ‘steaks’ 1cm thick. Try and coat each steak in the marinade without breaking them – careful now! Then heat a little sesame oil in a large frying pan and add the tofu steaks, reserving as much marinade as possible for later. On a high-ish heat the tofu will begin to colour and crisp up on the outside after around 7 minutes or so. When slightly crisped and golden on one side, turn the steaks over. Don’t worry if they look a little blackened, but don’t let the edges turn to charcoal. When golden on both sides they steaks can continue to sit happily on the heat at the lowest setting while the rest of the dish is made. Just keep a check of them though. Ours, pictured above, are black from the soy sauce, not from burning.

Now for the greens. In a large wok or frying pan, add a tin of coconut milk. Heat through on a medium heat. Add a teaspoon of turmeric, a stalk of lemongrass, snapped in the middle to help release the flavour and a 2.5cm piece of grated fresh ginger. Stir and bring to a soft simmer.

Chop one large or two small heads of pak choi, top and tail some French beans and add to the sauce. Alternatively you could add some sprouting broccoli or even asparagus – but the contrast between soft leaves and crunchy beans is rather nice. Cook through for 5 minutes, until the veg has softened ever so slightly and the sauce has reduced a little. Fish out the lemongrass.

Now, back to the tofu: pour the remainder of the marinade over the tofu and cook for 2 more minutes.

Serve with the tofu on top, the coconut veg underneath, and a bed of nutty brown rice at the bottom. Oh, and a squeeze of lime will work a treat as well.

We really liked this and hope you do too.