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.

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

Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauce

The provenance of this recipe is quite mixed – the leeks are of course quintessentially British, the soy and ginger in the dip are very Chinese (as is my accompaniment of egg fried rice), but I’ve added a touch of Vietnam too with the white peppercorns – a pungent and aromatic spice that is so different from regular black pepper, and which instantly transports me with memories of my honeymoon.  The result is, I think, a very happy fusion and quite unlike anything I’ve had in any restaurant, whether it be Chinese, Vietnamese or any other.

Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauceMaking these gyoza is super-easy if – like me – you keep a packet of gyoza ‘skins’ or wrappers in the freezer. Commercially sold gyoza skins are so much thinner than anything you can make at home and are perfect for quick steamed dumplings like these (though if you want to pan-fry these you could of course make up a batch of your favourite dough – I like Ken Hom’s recipe). The wrappers take half an hour or so to defrost at room temperature (during which time you can be making the filling and the dipping sauce), but be sure to keep them under a damp cloth to stop them drying out.

Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauce
Serves 4-6

550g minced pork (absolutely NOT the kind sold as ‘lean’ – it’s essential to have fat in there or the dumplings will be too dry)
1 large leek, finely diced
2 tbsp finely diced fresh ginger
1 tbsp white peppercorns, freshly ground
2 spring onions, finely diced
1 tbsp sea salt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
35-40 gyoza wrappers (I use Imperial Dragon brand, bought from Wing Yip), defrosted if frozen

For the dipping sauce:
125ml rice vinegar
75g caster sugar
2cm ginger, finely diced or grated
2 spring onions, finely diced
1 hot red chilli, finely diced (a scotch bonnet, though not authentic, is tastiest, use a birdseye chilli – seeds and all – for a more traditional flavour)
2 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp fish sauce
juice of 1 lime

Start the dipping sauce first, as the gyoza are actually very quick to make. Start by dissolving the sugar with the vinegar in a small saucepan over a low heat, then increase the heat and simmer vigorously until it has reduced by about a third and is quite syrupy. Allow this to cool then stir in the remaining ingredients.

For the gyoza, simply mix together all the filling ingredients, then assemble them one at a time (to stop them drying out too much) by placing a heaped spoonful of filling in the centre of each gyoza wrapper, running a wet finger around the edge (this becomes the ‘glue’), then folding over into a semi-circle and pressing together gently to seal, expelling any air as you go. Place them on a baking tray and keep them covered whilst you do the rest. They keep for a day in the fridge, tightly covered with clingfilm, or they freeze well. To cook, line a large steamer basket with a sheet of greaseproof paper and lay the gyoza onto it in a single layer, not touching each other (they stick easily). Steam for 4-5 minutes until the pork is just cooked through – it is important not to overcook them as the filling will become bouncy and tough rather than tender and meltingly soft.

This recipe makes around 35-40 dumplings, a generous 4 portions if accompanied by rice and pickles, or they will obviously serve more if you are having them alone as a starter.  I served them with egg fried rice and some speedy carrot & cucumber pickles, the recipes of which will follow soon…..


Glazed beetroot with honeyed goat’s milk mousse and candied cobnuts

funny gifsI know I haven’t blogged in a while, but let’s skip right over that as one of my pet peeves is people who apologise because they haven’t blogged recently (read: haven’t posted in 3 days), or write long tracts explaining that they’re going to be away on holiday so wont be able to post (for a whole 2 weeks – shock horror!). It just seems so…..egotistical. Like they think their readers will be stunned, bereft, inconsolable that they can’t read about a total strangers latest baking project on a daily basis. There’s a darn good reason I haven’t blogged recently and it’s this…..there’s been nothing noteworthy to blog about. My meals for the last few weeks have been homely, dull or downright nasty. We’ve eaten chicken wings with chilli sauce at least 5 times in a fortnight. When we haven’t been eating our own body weight in hot wings it’s been pasta. Pasta. And more pasta. And there’s been takeaways too, more than I care to admit, and all of them ranging from mediocre to piss-poor. Yes, I confess, I’m a foodie who occasionally, eats like a peasant (and I don’t mean an old rural Italian mamma who makes fresh pasta every day, I mean peasant as in definition no.2 from Google: “An ignorant, rude, or unsophisticated person”, the kind that shoves McDonalds through the school gates for her bratty monsters rather than force them to eat Jamie Oliver’s healthy school meals).

Christmas may seem like an odd time of year to be making virtuous resolutions about food, but actually it’s a (rare) time of year when I eat less – and generally healthier – than everyone else. When you’re in the kitchen all day for three days straight (I have a big family – I like to feed them!) eating sort of looses its appeal, and I tend to pick at the big meal itself, fortifying myself instead with whole orangeries-worth of clementines. So, to regain my kitchen mojo, improve my diet, and remount the blogging horse all in one go before the rest of 2012 slips away,  I would like to share with you the absolute antithesis to my dining of late, a dish with rather more swank than the recipes I usually post:

Glazed beetroot with honeyed goat’s milk mousse and candied cobnuts

Glazed beetroot with honeyed goat’s milk mousse and candied cobnuts
Serves 4

Although the instructions are long and it all looks a bit fiddly and poncy, this is actually a supremely easy dish to make – and creates an instant wow when it’s plated up. If I was the sort of person who served starters as part of the Christmas meal this would be what I’d do – everything can be prepped well in advance, and it’s not so heavy that you can’t manage a full-on main course afterwards. The mousse is deliciously creamy, contrasting fantastically with the earthy beetroot, and then the sweetness of the candied nuts adds an extra dimension.  The apple adds acidity, and extra crunch.  Be sure to be generous with the salt in both the beetroots and the candied nuts, to ensure this stays within the boundary of savoury, rather than becoming dessert-grade sweet.

For the honeyed goat’s milk mousse:
500ml fresh goat’s milk
2 tbsp honey
3 leaves platinum-grade gelatine
125ml double cream

Candied cobnuts:
50g shelled cobnuts (or hazelnuts)*
50g caster sugar

Glazed beets:
6 small cooked, peeled beetroots (if you buy them ready-cooked be sure to get the kind in natural juice, not vinegar!)
30g unsalted butter
1 tbsp caster sugar
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme
1-2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

You will also need: A sharp green apple (Granny Smith has the right level of acidity)

To make the mousse: Heat the goat’s milk in a small saucepan, simmering slowly and gently until reduced by half. This will take around an hour, don’t be tempted to raise the heat too high and boil it, as this will scorch the milk. Once the milk has reduced remove it from the heat and stir in the honey. Soak the gelatine leaves in a little cold water for a few minutes until soft and flabby, then stir into the hot milk reduction until dissolved, then strain through a sieve and set aside to cool. Whip the cream to soft peaks, then fold gently into the cooled milk. Pour into a small tub, cover and chill for 4 hours or overnight, until set. If you want to turn the mousse out and cut it into strips or squares, line the tub with clingfilm first to make it easier to turn out.

To candy the nuts: Line a small baking tray with greaseproof paper. Mix the sugar with 100ml water in a small pan on a low heat, stirring until it dissolves. Increase the heat and heat the mixture to a deep russet caramel colour, swirling the pan occasionally but not stirring. When the caramel looks on the verge of being too dark remove from the heat, and stir in the nuts and a generous pinch of flaky sea salt. Spoon out the caramel-coated nuts individually onto the paper-lined baking tray, and allow to harden. They will keep for a day or two in an airtight container, but if you use cobnuts their moisture will gradually soften the caramel so you’ll lose some of the crunch.

Make the glazed beets: Cut the beetroot into thick slices or small wedges. In a small frying pan melt the butter with the sugar, 1 tbsp water, thyme leaves and a pinch of salt. Cook on a high heat until bubbling, stir in the balsamic vinegar, then add the beetroots and simmer, spooning the mixture over the beetroots constantly, until the liquids have reduced to coat the beetroots in a sticky, shiny glaze.

To serve – arrange either cubes or quenelles of the mousse on plates, then arrange the glazed beetroot and sliced apple around.  Scatter over the candied nuts and serve at once.


*Cobnuts are sweeter, juicier and more tender than hazelnuts, but they really can be used interchangeably in just about any recipe. Whilst hazelnuts are easy to procure shelled, cobnuts are usually sold shell-on. You’ll need 200-300g shell-on cobnuts to yield 40g shelled.

Whole baked pumpkin with Comté & cream

Whole baked pumpkin with cheese & creamPumpkins are, of course, most closely associated with Hallowe’en but just as puppies are for life not just for Christmas, so I believe that pumpkins, gourds and squashes should be celebrated for much longer than a single candy-fuelled day of ghosts, ghouls and dressing up like a slutty witch (c’mon – have you seen the sort of costumes marketed at women these days?).  Most of the pumpkin/squash/gourd (for brevity’s sake I’ll just say ‘pumpkin’ from now on) genus Cucurbita is in season from the end of September until mid-December and during those months I wolf down as many as I can – I hated pumpkin as a kid, and as an adult I’m making up for lost time with this gorgeous fruit-cum-vegetable that skates the boundary between sweet and savoury.

Pumpkins are at their very best when baked – a high, prolonged heat makes the flesh meltingly tender and turns its sugary flavour into something more mellow and savoury.  Combine that with a heapload of dairy (in this case both cream and cheese) and you have heaven in a spoonful – sweet, savoury, rich, creamy, tangy – all at once.  This is another of my super-indulgent seasonal dishes (like my unctuous sauce for sprouting broccoli) that I only do once or twice a year, as the calorie count is through the roof, but believe me, it’s worth every gram of fat.  In theory this is a soup, although that hardly does justice to the rib-sticking nature of the feast involved – use your spoon to crape tender pumpkin flesh through a sea of creamy goo for every mouthful, and have some good hearty bread to go with it – wholewheat or spelt are best – you can smear spoonfuls of pumpkin on the bread and then dunk in the centre for the ultimate treat.  It’s easiest (and quickest) to do individual pumpkins for everyone, but you can also do one show-stopping large pumpkin for 4-6 people, in which case it will need to be cooked for much longer and serving is a bit messier.

Whole baked pumpkin with Comté & cream

Per person:
1 x 900g-1kg pumpkin (for a main course; go much smaller for a starter portion)
100g Comté or Gruyère cheese, grated (the nuttiness works well with the sweet pumpkin)
75-100ml double cream
salt, pepper, nutmeg

1. Preheat your oven to 200˚C/fan180˚/Gas 6.
2. Just as if you were making a carved pumpkin/jack-o-lantern, use a very sharp knife to cut a small lid from the pumpkin and use a large spoon to scrape out all the seeds (bake or fry them with chilli & salt for delicious pre-pumpkin nibbles) and any excessively stringy flesh.  Trim the flesh from the lid so it’s no more than 1.5cm deep, finely chop the spare pumpkin flesh and throw it into the cavity.  Add the cream, grated cheese and plenty of salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.  The pumpkin should be around three-quarters full (adjust the quantities to suit your pumpkin – they all vary!).
3. Replace the lid and place your pumpkin(s) on a foil-lined baking sheet in the middle of the oven and bake for around 1 hour.  To test if the pumpkin is cooked, lift the lid and carefully poke the flesh with a small knife – it should sink in as easily as into butter.  Serve whole in shallow bowls, so as to catch any spillage whilst eating.

A right royal feast – Coronation Chicken 3 ways

Coronation Chicken 3 ways As an ardent Republican I must confess myself a little tired of all the Royal Wedding chitchat which is currently enveloping not just the country, but apparently the whole world. Nonetheless, as a newlywed myself I can’t be totally curmudgeonly about it all, and have come up with this twist on a British classic in honour of the special day.

Coronation Chicken was first invented as a dish to commemorate the ascendency of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne in 1953, and although bad versions have put off whole generations from eating it, I think this recipe can convert anyone. It’s super-simple and much healthier than the original – using yoghurt as the base of the sauce rather than the traditional mayonnaise – and because it uses baked chicken thighs it’s much moister and tastier than versions made with breast.

This dish is fantastic as a main course for two people, if you serve the chicken in the piece and accompany it with a rice salad (the classic accompaniment) and some green leaves. Alternatively, shred or dice the meat and use to top bruschetta or fill mini croustades* – no street party should be without it!

Coronation Chicken

4 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
2½-3 tbsp korma curry paste (I like Patak’s)
half a lemon
100g natural yoghurt
1 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tsp mango chutney
Tabasco, a few drops

To serve:
Croustade cases
Small thick slices of quality toast (e.g. Sourdough)
Rice salad and mixed leaves

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 8/230˚C.

Mix 1 heaped tablespoon of the korma paste with a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Spread the mixture all over the chicken and place skin-side up in a snug-fitting roasting dish.  Sprinkle with a little extra salt and a generous grinding of black pepper, then bake for 25-30 minutes until the skin is lightly charred and the meat is cooked through.

Meanwhile, make the sauce by mixing together the yoghurt, mayonnaise, mango chutney and remaining korma paste. Add a squeeze of lemon, pinch of salt and shake of Tabasco (to taste).

To serve, either serve the chicken in the piece with some rice salad and fresh green leaves; or shred and pile on top of the toasts with a generous drizzle of sauce; or cut into chunks, toss with the sauce to coat and pile into croustade cases. Whichever you choose, serve extra sauce on the side and mango chutney for those who wish it.

*You can buy gorgeous little croustades like the ones I used from major supermarkets, ‘Rahms’ is the brand to look for!

Coronation Chicken

Topless Tart: Roasted baby tomato and pesto tart with a Parmesan crust

Roasted tomato & pesto tart with Parmesan crustIt’s been a long time since I took part in a food blogger event, but I couldn’t resist joining in with this month’s cheekily titled ‘Topless Tarts’ Monthly Mingle, hosted by one of my favouritest bloggers, Jeanne of Cook Sister!

For me, a homemade tart is all about the pastry. There’s no end of clever and tasty fillings for a tart, and shops have sold most of them at some time or another, but where a homemade tart can beat shop-bought hands down is with carefully made, fresh from the oven, tender, crumbly pastry – there’s just nothing to beat it! The key to good pastry is twofold: keep everything cold, and work fast. For the serious cook with time on their hands, I would advise a one-to-one session with an expert, exploring all the nuances of the words ‘chopping in’, ‘pecking’ and ‘frasiering’ – pâtissiere terms for the three delicate manoeuvres used to create top quality pastry in restaurants. For the more everyday, I would recommend a Magimix. The food processor will work far faster than you ever can, and by not touching the pastry yourself you avoid the pastry getting hot and greasy. You can even chill the blade in advance (if you’re that organised!) for even better results.

With most types of pastry, chilling it before rolling, and again after lining the tart tin, protects against shrinking during cooking. The hefty amount of Parmesan in this crust means some shrinking is unavoidable as the cheese melts, so make sure you use a deep tart tin and line it all the way to the top, so when it is cooked it will still be several centimetres deep.

Read on for the recipe…

Asparagus and super-easy Hollandaise sauce

Asparagus & Hollandaise sauceNothing signifies the return of summer cooking to me more than the first of the new season’s asparagus. That first plate of green delights from our British fields tells me it is time to put the cassoulets and hotpots away, and bring in light pasta dishes and salads.

Although a touch early (the British asparagus season is usually from the end of April-early July), I did indeed have that first dish of new season asparagus this weekend, the first cutting of the year, taken that morning. There is only one approach to take with asparagus at the beginning of the season and that is ‘keep it simple’ –  either drizzle it with molten butter, or dip it in luscious hollandaise. Later in the month I might start getting creative with tarts and pasta, but for now I want my asparagus whole, and mostly unadorned.

Lightly boil or steam your asparagus, and the freshest spears will need mere minutes. Then whip up a batch of my insanely easy hollandaise sauce, based on a recipe given to my father more than fifty years ago and still a family favourite, then devour – preferably with one’s fingers rather than knife and fork.

Easy Hollandaise Sauce
Serves 4 as an accompaniment

3 egg yolks
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp sea salt
Pinch cayenne pepper
110g melted butter

Put all the ingredients except the butter into a blender or liquidiser and process briefly until mixed. Keeping the motor running, very slowly pour in the melted butter and continue to blend until foamy. Serve immediately.