Tomato essence

Tomato EssenceI was fair consumed with jealousy at the weekend when I visited my friend Abby and saw her homegrown vines heaving with luscious red fruit, which I couldn’t help comparing infavourably with the massed cordons of shiny green balls dangling from my plants right now. Alas, such is the lot of the exotic tomato grower – these rare or old varieties really do seem to take so much longer to ripen. So much so in fact, that the last two years my crop has been almost a total failure, as by the time they’re due to redden the weather has turned suddenly wintery (what happened to Autumn as a season?!) and I’ve lost half to blight and the rest get too cold and stay stubbornly green. If that happens again this year I think I’ll give up, and go back to good ol’ Gardener’s Delight like normal non-masochistic growers do.

Tomato EssenceAnyhoo, if you’re delighting in plants groaning with ripe fruit, or you’re lucky enough to frequent a market (y’know – one of those places you can get ’10 mange tout’ ) that sells seasonal bounty cheap, and you’ve never tried making Tomato Essence (also known as tomato ‘tea’, or more erroneously ‘consomme’) then now is the time. It is, as the name suggests, the pure clear essence of tomatoness. The soul and heart flavour of Solanum lycopersicum, taste of the Med and balm to the soul. No, really. Stop snorting at the back. This stuff really is worth the hyperbole.

And it’s so simple! In fact, I make it not only when I have a heap of whole fruit, but any time some barmy chef tells me in a recipe to cut out and discard the seeds and pulp – you know, the bit where the flavour is!  The cores from a standard punnet of toms won’t give you heaps of essence, but even a shotglass-full is worth the minimal effort when you realise what a punch this stuff packs.

Taste. Of. Summer.

Tomato EssenceTomato Essence
Serves: Some
So simple in fact, there are no measurements. Take the skins, cores, pulp and seeds from as many tomatoes as you have. Use the tomato flesh for something else – a salad perhaps, or a fresh tomato sauce, or maybe even oven-dried tomato ‘petals’. Chop the cores and pulp roughly with a knife. Don’t be tempted to blitz them in a processor, even with a big batch, otherwise you’ll smash bitterness from the seeds into your lovely essence. Place in a muslin-lined sieve (or a jelly bag, if you have one), shake over a little fine salt and stir briefly.  Set the sieve or jelly bag over a jug into which you’ve placed a few bruised sprigs of basil or fresh oregano, and leave to drain overnight. If you can suspend your muslin from something (a fridge rack for instance) so much the better, to get maximum ‘essence’. At no point squeeze the muslin/bag or attempt to force juice through – that will make the end result cloudy. Taste the clear essence in the jug, and add salt if needed. Serve as it is, chilled or at room temperature, perhaps garnishing with a sprig of fresh herbs, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, or even a few balsamic pearls.

Cheaty cheapy roasted tomato & pepper soup with basil oil

As much as I love tomato soup I’m often horrified by the cost of making it at home. It’s common for recipes to call for a minimum of 1.5kg tomatoes for a few portions, that’s pretty darn expensive to buy, and even when I have a glut in my garden I’ll be hard pressed to provide that more than once a season.

Tomato Pepper Soup

So to satisfy the penny pincher in me (and to acknowledge that for yet another year in a row there’ll be little to no sunshine and my tomato harvest is likely to be nil) I’ve created a tomato soup that delivers all the flavour for a fraction of the cost, the tomatoes being bulked out a little with peppers and carrots, and a shot of concentrated tomato puree gives an extra boost of tomatoeyness. The basil oil isn’t strictly necessary, but I do think a homemade soup deserves that little extra dressing up, and it means you can make this in the winter (or our ‘summer’ equivalent), with hothouse-grown tomatoes, and still feel like you’re in the Provençal sunshine.

Roasted tomato & pepper soup with basil oil
Serves 4

500g cherry tomatoes
2 red peppers, quartered and deseeded
Half a red chilli (in the piece, not chopped)
3 small carrots, peeled
a small knob of butter
1 small red onion, peeled and finely diced
2 garlic cloves, bruised and peeled
pinch of celery salt
3 tbsp concentrated tomato puree
500ml vegetable stock

For the basil oil
15g basil leaves
olive oil

Toss the tomatoes, peppers and chilli in a tiny drop of oil (just enough to stop them sticking), then roast at 200˚C/Gas 6 for 40-45 minutes. Remove the peppers to a bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to cool before skinning. If you can be bothered, pinch the skins from the tomatoes too, but don’t be too fastidious about it.

Finely grate the carrots (use the finest side on a box grater, or a microplane), then sweat in the butter with the onion, bruised garlic, celery salt and tomato puree until meltingly tender. Add the roasted tomatoes, skinned peppers and the chilli, plus the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil, simmer for just a minute or two, then blitz and season to taste.

For the basil puree, whizz the basil leaves with a pinch of salt and just enough olive oil to form a smooth paste (using a stick blender or mini processor). Serve the soup drizzled with the oil.

Black pepper prawns (Firecracker prawns)

You can always tell if you’re truly comfortable with someone when you’re willing to get down and dirty with a plate of sticky finger food in their company – whether it’s wings, ribs or a mound of shellfish, nothing says “he/she’s a good’un” like a willingness to get stuck in, get sauce smeared everywhere and do lots of finger-licking! In this dish that’s all pretty much compulsory, no cutlery is needed or wanted here.

Black pepper prawns

Despite the quantity of hot ingredients – 3 types of pepper, lots of ginger, chilli – this isn’t an insanely hot dish (though it does have a kick!). The Szechuan pepper not only makes your lips tingle, but it had a slight numbing effect too, leaving you hungry for more. It may seem odd to use butter in a clearly Oriental dish, but it creates a gorgeously unctuous sauce and – fusion-sceptics note – really is the best.

Firecracker pepper prawns
Serves 2

300g raw shell-on jumbo king prawns, trimmed of legs & straggly bits
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tsp white peppercorns
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
100g butter
15-20g fresh ginger, finely diced
1 red chilli, finely diced (as hot as you like)
3 fat garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
2-3 spring onions, chopped
a squeeze of lemon juice

In a large wok toast the peppercorns for a minute or two until very aromatic, then tip into a pestle & mortar and crush roughly. Don’t over pound them, you want bits of peppercorn, not dust.

Melt the butter in the wok then fry the ginger, chilli and garlic for a couple of minutes until tender but not browned. Throw in the crushed pepper, the prawns, oyster sauce, soy sauce and most of the spring onions. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the prawns are cooked through (they should be completely opaque, with no trace of grey on their shells), finish with a squeeze of lemon juice, and the reserved spring onions and serve immediately.

To eat, suck the sauce off the prawn shells one at a time, peel off the shell and dunk the prawn back in the sauce. Suck the heads if you’re feeling brave (it’s where a lot of the prawn’s best juice is!). Crusty bread for mopping up the spare sauce is hardly authentically Oriental but works wonderfully, alternatively give each person a little bowl of steamed basmati or jasmine rice.

Continue reading “Black pepper prawns (Firecracker prawns)”

Chicken Cordon Kiev

Chicken Cordon Kiev

Many years ago when I worked as a development chef for the supermarkets, every season some smart-alec sales guy would say “let’s redo the chicken Kiev. Let’s make the best, tastiest, most indulgent chicken Kiev anyone’s ever had – it’ll fly off the shelves!” and no matter how much we grumbled & begged, one of us chefs would be sent into the kitchen to come up with the ‘new Kiev’. Bechamel, bacon, butter, cream, the finest farmhouse Cheddar – we played with variations on them all, in the attempt to make this classic-turned-trash into something smart & fancy the average posher-than-Tesco-but-not-Selfridges-food-hall customer would be thrilled to pop into their overpriced basket. But every time, sure as eggs are eggs, we’d finally get a product the buyers were happy with & then they’d say “Now, about the nutritionals on this…” and that’s where the whole concept would crumble, as we’d always known it would.

Y’see – you can’t make a Chicken Kiev without butter. Or salt. In generous quantities. And a luxury one? Well then you’ll be wanting cream too, and good cheese (whose sodium quotient is almost as alarming as the fat content) and don’t even get me started on the nutritional values on bacon. And so we’d be sent back to make a Kiev that didn’t have a big fat red warning light on all its RDAs, and it’d be, well, okay, but really, it was nothing special anymore. And so the idea would get shelved for another 4 months until someone new joined the sales team….

Keep on reading, yumminess to follow…

Chive flower tortelloni

Chive flower tortelloniChives grow abundantly in our garden and although the plants, at 3 years old, are a bit tougher and woodier than I’d like they still put forth a beautiful crown of purple flowers at this time of year, which is as attractive to me as it is to the bumble bees that frequent our herb bed in droves.  The flowers are even more delicious than the green chive itself, with a delicate perfumed garlicky-ness I find quite addictive.  If you don’t grow your own and can’t get hold of the flowers by any other means you could of course substitute fresh chopped green chives in this, just use a bit less to avoid them overpowering the other flavours. Half the flavour of the potatoes is in their skins so I leave them on as you want to get maximum flavour from the simple constituents of the filling here, and I like to use Burford Brown eggs for my pasta, as the orange yolks give a great rich colour.

Chive flower tortelloni with new potatoes and raclette cheese
Serves 8-10

500g ’00’ pasta flour, plus extra for dusting
4 medium eggs + 6 egg yolks
For the filling:
1kg new potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
100g butter
300g raclette cheese (or any other good melty cheese)
5 tbsp chive flowers (approx 10 heads)
You will also need a pasta machine

Put the flour and eggs in a food processor and pulse until it forms a dough (or mix by hand on a clean worktop, breaking the eggs into a well in the centre of the flour and working in gradually). Knead the dough on a clean worktop for a few minutes until you have a smooth, pliable dough, then divide into eight portions, wrap well in clingfilm and leave to rest for an hour.

Read on for the rest of the recipe…

Chillies and Mexican Food – the Sweet Heat Chilli Challenge roundup

Fiery Roasted Red Pepper Salsa For anyone who loves chillies proper Mexican food is a real treat – the Mexicans grow and use probably more varieties of chilli than any other country, from the fiery habanero to the smokey chipotle and everything in between.  This month I am delighted to be the host of the Sweet Heat Chilli Challenge, and hope you will find some inspiration in the fabulous flavours of Mexico which our contributors showcased this month. As usual the rules were simply that the dish had to contain chilli in some form, and the style of cuisine – as this month celebrated Cinco de Mayo – was Mexican, natch.  Starting the fiesta is the queen of the Chilli Challenge herself, Lyndsey, who put forward a fiery roasted red pepper salsa of such stunning proportions I defy anyone not to want to grab one of those tortilla chips and dig in.

Tango Like Raindrop was actually the first off the blocks with this colourful mango Pico de Gallo salsa, a fruity twist on a classic recipe:

Mango Pico-de-Gallo SalsaAnother mango offering came from Janet of ‘The Taste Space‘, this time as an accompaniment to a healthy twist on a Mexican favourite – Oyster Mushroom and Black Bean Tacos

Oyster Mushroom and Black Bean Tacos‘Farmer’s Girl’ Janice Pattie went super-meaty with these Lamb Steaks with Adobo Seasoning Lamb Steaks with Adobo SeasoningChris of ‘Cooking Around the World’ took the challenge to a new level (and won the heart of my hubby, who’d tried & failed to persuade me to do the same) by making his own tortillas for these delicious sounding mini Garnachas with tomato-apple salsa:

Garnachas with tomato-apple salsaMy contribution to the month’s round-up had to be the much-maligned (in TexMex restaurants anyway) but genuinely Mexican favourite Faijitas, using a homemade version of a store-bought sauce and a variation on the classic salsa Pico de Gallo

Mexican fajitas with pico de galloAnd finishing the roundup was another contribution from Lyndsey, some delicious Grilled Fish Tacos

Grilled Fish Tacos If you’d like to take part in, or host, a future Sweet Heat Chilli Challenge you can find all the information you need here.

Mexican fajitas with pico de gallo

Mexican fajitas with pico de galloOnce upon a time fajitas made their way onto my dinner table every week and always went down a storm whenever I served them to guests. My secret? A shameful addiction to a store-bought sauce called Knorr’s ‘Stir it up’ Mexican Fajita Paste. When the paste was discontinued I was devastated and almost gave up on fajitas altogether, as no recipe I found could match the depth & spicing of this magic jar of sauce. I had always sworn that one day I’d work out how to make it for myself, and was thrilled to discover someone had in fact done it, and blow me, but it tasted almost exactly like the fajitas of my past, and it was made from 100% storecupboard ingredients! I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit from the original to better suit my tastebuds, try it and I know you wont be disappointed.  The recipe below makes more than you need but it’s tricky to scale down and keeps for months in the fridge if you sterilise the jar first.

Mexican fajitas with pico de gallo
Mexican fajitas with pico de gallo
Serves 2

Traditionally in Mexico fajitas would be made with beef, but with the price of steak as it is I actually usually make these with chicken breasts (and could happily substitute even more economical turkey breasts), and keep the steak for special occasions.

2 small skinless & boneless chicken breasts or sirloin steaks
1 bell pepper (any colour)
1 small red onion
3-4 tbsp fajita spice paste*

Pico de gallo:
Handful of cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 large shallots, finely diced
1 jalapeno, deseeded and finely diced
Juice of ½ a lime
Handful of coriander leaves

Accompaniments:
Flour or corn tortillas
Sour cream
Guacamole
Grated cheese

Fajita spice paste:
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
1½ tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp oregano
1-2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion granules
5 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp smoked paprika (hot or sweet)
1 x 390g carton chopped tomatoes
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp tomato puree


To make the spice paste: Using a spice grinder or pestle and mortar crush the coriander, cumin and mustard seeds along with the oregano to a fine powder. Put the oil into a medium saucepan and add all the spices, then place over a medium heat and cook for several minutes, stirring almost constantly until it smells aromatic and has turned a shade darker. Watch it like a hawk, as the spices can go from delicious to scorched very suddenly. As soon as the spice paste is as intense as it can be without getting burnt, tip in the tomatoes – watch out, it may spit a bit! Stir in the remaining paste ingredients, stir well then leave to simmer for 20-25 minutes until it has formed a thick smooth-ish sauce, use a splatter guard if you have one as it can splutter furiously. Decant into a sterilised 400ml jar and once cool store in the fridge until needed.

When you come to make your fajitas, get your accompaniments ready first, as once you start the fajitas are as quick to make as any other stir-fry. Assemble the pico de gallo by simply stirring everything together and seasoning to taste, and get your cheese grated and your tortillas warmed. When you are ready to start cooking, slice the chicken or steak and the pepper into slim strips, and finely slice the onion. In a large frying pan or wok gently heat the fajita spice paste with a teaspoon of vegetable oil, just until it starts to smell aromatic, then add the sliced meat and toss to coat. As soon as the meat starts to lose its raw appearance turn the heat up high and throw in the peppers and onion. Cook, stirring regularly, until the meat is cooked through and the vegetables have softened just slightly (you want them to retain their crunch). Serve immediately with the tortillas, pico de gallo and any other accompaniments that take your fancy.

Sweet Heat Chilli Challenge

Vietnamese banana flower salad (Nộm hoa chuối)

Vietnamese banana flower salad (Nộm hoa chuối)In my worklife my recipe writing revolves around straightforward meals anyone can make, using ingredients that are easily available to everyone, no matter where they live.  So it is such joy to come home and write about something that – hah! – if you want to make it you’re going to have to do some searching.  Banana flowers do not grow at your local co-op (unless you actually live in Vietnam or Thailand) and you can’t get them in Sainsbury’s, not now, not ever.  But I beseech you to seek them out anyway, and make this salad, as it is utterly sublime and so worth it, and if it means making a special trip to a town somewhere a bit far away that has a Vietnamese supermarket* then you can have a little adventure on the way.  Who said food always has to be about churning out dinner as quickly as possible from the contents of your cupboards? Let’s live a little!

Vietnamese banana flower
Banana flowers growing in situ in a Vietnamese garden

Tackling something as unfamiliar as a banana flower can be a little daunting if you don’t have an expert on hand to talk you through it, but there’s an excellent photographic guide here over on the blog ‘Cannundrums’ which explains it far better than I could!

Vietnamese banana flower salad (Nộm hoa chuối)
Serves 2 as a main course

1 banana flower
2 small chicken breasts
4 small sour green star fruit (again from the Vietnamese store) or 2 large yellow ones
1 tbsp caster sugar
Handful toasted peanuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
juice of 4 limes
2-3 red chillies, finely sliced
2-3 tbsp fish sauce
A few shakes of sesame oil
Couple of pinches ground white pepper
a small bunch each of Vietnamese mint and coriander

Place the chicken breasts in a small pan and cover with water (or chicken stock), bring to the boil then turn down the heat and simmer very gently for 10 minutes. Pop a lid on, turn off the heat and leave the chicken to cook in the residual heat for a further 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool before shredding roughly.

Remove any loose or soft outer leaves from the banana flower, then cut into half lengthways and shred into fine strips with a large sharp knife. About 1/3 – 1/2 of the flower closest to the root will be made up of fluffy coiled buds – discard this section and use only the tightly coiled petals. Leave to soak in a bowl of water with half the lime juice whilst you get on with the rest of the salad.

Slice the star fruit and cover with the sugar and a little water to soak for 5 minutes to take the edge off the sourness (you wont need to do this if you’re using ripe yellow fruits – in fact you might want to add a little extra lime juice to get a good level of acidity in the final dish).

Mix the cooled and shredded chicken together the remaining lime juice, fish sauce, white pepper, chopped chilli and a little sesame oil.  Drain the banana flower and star fruit and toss together with the chicken and dressing.  Taste and adjust the seasoning with fish sauce, lime or sesame.  Roughly shred the herbs and toss through the salad, then top with the chopped peanuts and sesame seeds. Serving on a spare banana flower petal is totally optional.

Vietnamese banana flower salad (Nộm hoa chuối)——————————————————————————————————-

*For me the best place to find these is Mare Street in North London which has several great South-East Asian stores or one of the Bangledeshi stores (of all places) in the Southern part of Brick Lane, but a quick Google search should sort you out if you’re further afield.

My ultimate hot ‘Buffalo’ wings and blue cheese dip

Ultimate hot Buffalo wings and blue cheese dipLook good don’t they?  Juicy, saucy, yet crispy….I love hot wings but so often find that you can either have them crispy, or saucy, not both; and unless you’re deep-frying them saucy usually means the skin is all soft and flabby which frankly, doesn’t appeal.  This recipe uses that top American trick with poultry – brining – to impart flavour into the meat and also, crucially, to keep the meat juicy when baked at the high temperatures needed to create a lovely crisp, dry skin which is normally impossible without deep-frying them.  To further encourage a crisp exterior I toss the wings in gram flour, which crisps beautifully when the wings are introduced to the hot fat in the baking dish, and also tastes much nicer than regular wheat flour.

‘Buffalo’ hot wings with creamy blue cheese dip
Serves 2 greedily

900g-1kg chicken wings
1/2 x 148ml bottle Frank’s red hot sauce
25g gram flour
1 tsp cayenne
15g butter

For the brine:
1 litre water
3 tbsp sea salt
3 tbsp chilli flakes

For the creamy blue cheese dip:
100g soft blue cheese (e.g. creamy gorgonzola)
100g sour cream
1 small garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 rounded tbsp mayonnaise
pinch salt

First make the brine by dissolving the salt in the water (this is easiest if you dissolve the salt first in a splash of boiling water, then top up with cold water), then stir in the chilli flakes.  Immerse your chicken wings in the brine, ensuring they are completely covered – weigh them down with a small plate if necessary – and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.

Meanwhile, make your blue cheese dip: simply place all the ingredients in a mini food  processor or in a tall jug with a stick blender, and process until smooth.  Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas 6 and place a large roasting dish in the oven to heat at the same time – the dish must be large enough to take the wings in a single layer.

When the oven is hot and the wings are brined,  add a large spoonful of fat – schmaltz, lard or ghee are best, to maximise flavour, but vegetable oil will do – to the hot roasting dish, and return to the oven to get piping hot. Drain, rinse & pat dry your brined wings. In a large bowl toss them in 2 tbsp of the hot sauce then in the flour and cayenne. Carefully place the wings in the hot fat, skin-side down and bake for 50mins-1hour until tender and crisp, turning once (carefully – the skin is fragile!).

In a small saucepan or in a microwave very briefly heat the butter with the remaining  hot sauce until the butter is just melted, then pour over the crispy baked wings and toss well to coat.  Serve with the blue cheese dip and lots of napkins. Go Nicks!

This is my entry for round 5 of the Sweet Heat Chilli Challenge – Game food.

Sweet heat chilli challenge

Chinese accompaniments: Umami-rich Egg fried rice and easy carrot pickle

Egg fried rice and easy carrot pickleTo my mind no oriental meal is complete without some rice and some pickles, and one of my favourite parts of any Chinese takeaway is the egg fried rice – for something so apparently simple it is something that has consistently gotten the better of me in the kitchen, never managing to recreate that wonderful simply savoury depth of flavour, so much so that I’d all but given up trying.

When I was planning some accompaniments to go with my Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauce which I posted last week, I turned for advice to Kylie Kwong’s Simple Chinese Cooking and although I can never resist making a few tweaks to any recipe I follow, it turned out perfectly.  The pickles are a variation on hers too, and go wonderfully both with rice and dumplings, plus they keep for several days in the fridge so you can nibble them with anything else you have lying around – cheese or ham for instance.

Keep reading for my versions of both recipes…