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.

Storecupboard smokey chilli sauce

Storecupboard smokey chilli sauce

Admittedly the storecupboard in question is one of a serious chilli fanatic, but the point here was to make a chilli sauce that was totally different from the ones using fresh chillies which abound in my kitchen during the long-distant summer months. All the chillies used are whole and dried, which means you can keep them in your cupboard for a long time and they’ll still be flavour-packed; and are available from loads of retailers online (see below). This sauce has an almost barbecue-y flavour, but without the cloying sweetness of so many purpose-made barbecue chilli sauces, and it goes as wonderfully on fried eggs or chips as it does on a lamb kofte.

Storecupboard smokey chilli sauce
Makes 2-4 smallish bottles 

8g facing heaven chillies
18g pasilla chillies
22g ancho chillies
36g peperoncino chillies
16g mesilla chillies
(or a similar proportion to make up 100g total weight)
625ml distilled malt (white) vinegar
50g caster sugar
30g salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder

Remove the stalks from all the chillies, place in a bowl and cover with a kettle of boiling water. Weigh the chillies down with a small saucer, if necessary, to keep them submerged and leave for around half an hour until they are all tender. Drain the chillies (reserving the soaking liquid) and place in a saucepan with the remaining ingredients. Cover with a lid and simmer for 30 minutes, then puree until completely smooth, adding a little of the soaking liquid until you have a consistency you’re happy with. Decant into sterilised bottles, it should keep for at least a year.

*UK Stockists I particularly like:
Capsicana Chilli Co
South Devon Chilli Farm
Chilli Pepper Pete

Chocolate coffee cupcakes with orange cheesecake icing

Chocolate cupcake with orange cheesecake frostingThese incredibly easy cupcakes use the magical reaction of vinegar and baking powder to create a light and fluffy texture but you’d honestly never know the vinegar was in there I promise. Because of this kitchen alchemy they are completely dairy free, until you smother them in this delicious icing that is, in which the orange and vanilla balance beautifully against the coffee in the cake, but if you wanted to keep them vegan a simple icing of orange juice and icing sugar would still be lovely.

Super-simple chocolate coffee cupcakes with orange cheesecake icing
Makes 12 cupcakes or 20 fairy cakes

225g plain flour
30g cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
225g granulated sugar
½ tsp fine salt (if using flakes – Maldon for preference – powder them in a pestle & mortar first)
1½ tsp good-quality instant coffee (I like Kenco Millicano wholebean instant)
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste (or Madagascan vanilla extract)
6 tbsp olive oil
For the icing:
50g white chocolate
100g full-fat cream cheese
50g soft unsalted butter
½ tsp vanilla bean paste (or extract)
Zest of 1 small orange
250g icing sugar
Edible glitter, to decorate (optional*)

Ready on for the rest of the recipe…

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…

Presto Pasta Nights #248 – The roundup

No sooner had the announcement been made that I was hosting this week’s Presto Pasta Nights then I had received the first entry, this stunning offering from La Caffettiera Rosa, a delicious seafood pasta with cannellini beans and mussels:

lacaffettierarosaNext up was Clarion of Preventing Culinary Amnesia with her classic Arrabbiata, a word which incidentally is Italian for ‘angry’, perfect for a dish of such spicyness:

ArrabbiataRuth, Queen Bee of Presto Pasta Nights and blogger over at Once Upon A Feast, contributed this delicious woodland-inspired ‘taste of the forest’ pasta with mushrooms, pancetta & arugula (that’s ‘rocket’ to you and me!) 🙂

Taste of the Forest Pasta Thus far all the pasta dishes have been pretty darn speedy supper recipes, but then in swept Nupur of UK Rasoi with a lovely step-by-step guide to making one of my favourite weekend meal projects: Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni:

Spinach and Ricotta CannelloniThe meatiest offering of the week came from Jules of Pictures of a princess, a spicy yet creamy Chicken Paprikash served on spätzle – the Germanic equivalent of Italy’s noodle, the name of which means ‘little sparrows’ for goodness-only-knows reason why!

Chicken paprikashShellfish got a rather glamorous makeover with this impressive entry from Tandy of Lavender & Lime – it’s time to apply for your fishing permit and do battle with the invading red signals so you can make this:  Crayfish ravioli with a bisque sauce

CRAYFISH RAVIOLI WITH A BISQUE SAUCEI’m not normally a big fan of vegan food (I do so love my cheese!) but Deb of Kahakai Kitchen might just have converted me with this scrumptious Super quick tomato basil ‘cream’ bucatini in which blitzed cashews take the place of dairy to make the sauce rich and creamy:

Super Quick Vegan Tomato Basil "Cream" BucatiniShelby, aka ‘HoneyB’ over at The Life and Loves of Grumpy’s Honeybunch broke with the so-far distinctly European vibe to produce this fabulous east-meets-west fusion of Beef & Broccoli with Black Bean Mushroom Sauce on linguine:

Beef & Broccoli with Black Bean Mushroom Sauce More globe trotting on the pasta front was going on over at Cook.Craft.Enjoy where the order of the day was a Paprika chicken stew with Pierogies – the delicious Polish dumplings that are halfway between ravioli and potato gnocchi:

Chicken Stew with PierogiesJoanne of Eats Well With Others joined in with an inspired healthy-meets-comfort food offering of Broccoli-Basil Mac and Cheese:

Broccoli-Basil Mac and CheeseWith a twist on a classic in a similar vein to Joanne, Ruth of Once Upon A Feast deserves super-praise for contributing not just one, but TWO entries for this week’s round up – her second one being her Insanely Delicious Mac ‘n Cheese with Kale:

Insanely Delicious Mac 'n Cheese with Kale And lastly, but hopefully not least, is my own contribution – an Asian cousin of ravioli – Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauce:

← Chili-con-Carne for even the most hardened chilli-phobe (and chilli-lover!) Presto Pasta Nights needs YOU! → Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauceThat’s it!  I’ve loved hosting this week’s Presto Pasta Nights and hope you’ve enjoyed my roundup.  Next week the roundup returns to Ruth over at Once Upon a Feast.

Presto pasta nights

Brownie Bake-Off

Another interlude from the layman.

I, perhaps somewhat rashly, promised everyone at work brownies if I got a good response rate to a questionnaire that I sent out. Which is why I spent a Sunday afternoon with the oven on, and the scent of chocolate slowly driving my partner crazy.

As I work for an environmental charity, we have a higher than normal proportion of vegetarians and vegans in the office, so some of the brownies were going to have to be vegan friendly. Emma had also passed me a rather gorgeous sounding brownie and cherry recipe to try out and the idea of the brownie bake-off tool hold. Then to make it more interesting: how do shop bought mixes compare to making brownies completely from scratch? Enter into the ring the brownie mix that I often keep in the cupboard for chocolate emergencies, and a supermarket own brand version and we have a four-way taste test.

The first thing that I noticed is that the supermarket mix and the brand name mix require you to add the same ingredients to the packet mix and in the same quantities, leading me to wonder if there is actually any difference between the two at all! A closer inspection of the ingredients lists for both showed that the brand name mix seemed to have fewer ingredients (and more pronounceable ingredients) than the supermarket equivalent.

The plus side of both the packet mixes was how quick they were to make: mix in water, oil and egg and shove in the oven. Easily done.

I had some problems with the cooking time of the brand packet mix, and it took me a lot longer to cook than instructed, hence why there aren’t as many on the plate…the rest was all stuck to the inside of the tin. But I suspect this is mostly due to me trying to cook the brownies in a loaf tin as they have previously always come out quite well. But hey, in a very small kitchen there will always be limitations.

The vegan brownies were also extremely easy to make. As they don’t use butter or eggs, and use oil instead, it was again quite an easy case of chucking everything in a bowl and giving it a really good stir.

The cherry brownies were always going to be the most complicated, but although definitely more time-consuming than the other three, they were still quite easy. And they’ve left me with a jug of cherry syrup to do something with. I think that might be a great accompaniment to some plain vanilla ice-cream, but I’m open to suggestions.

From the taste perspective, I think one of the most important things with brownies is not to eat them too quickly. No matter how tempting it may be, there’s no point in eating them straight out of the oven, as they won’t have developed that lovely gooeyness until they’ve cooled down and can taste quite spongy before then.

The most noticeable taste difference between all of the brownies is that the packet ones are much sweeter than the home-made ones. This initially gave the impression that they were more chocolatey, but are actually more sickly.

With the two home made ones, I was sensible enough to use baking parchment in the tins, rather than just greasing the tins as I did with the first two. This made it a lot easier to keep the shape of the brownie afterwards, and reduce the losses (although my partner did enjoy getting to eat the bits that got stuck to the tins).

At work, they all seemed to go down well, and I think I’ll be in my colleagues’ good books for a few days. Although I do now feel guilty about not catering for the wheat intolerant in the office. Next time I’ll do something special for them.

Updated to add: the vegan brownies improve with age! Can’t comment on the others, they’ve all gone!

Continue reading “Brownie Bake-Off”

Gin and Tonic Granita

Gin & Tonic GranitaMy mother-in-law is utterly addicted to G&Ts, as indeed are most members of my husband’s family (must be something genetic?), so when a friend told me that delicious. magazine had run a recipe for a gin & tonic granita recently I took it as fate, as the whole horde of in-laws were due to visit the very next weekend.

Being a cautious soul, I decided to make the recipe well in advance so that I could remake or replan as necessary, so the day before I whipped it up and tested it on my good friend Merialc and her lovely partner. It was, to say the least, a triumph. So delicious that we all scoffed it down, and so alcoholic that we promptly forgot it was meant to be saved for the next day and ate the lot! Oh well…..

Be sure to use both gin and tonic water that are of good quality – it really will make a difference to the final result.  Normally I’m a Sainsbury’s basics tonic water gal, but for this I used the Fevertree brand, which has a lovely complex flavour that survives the freezing process. I’d resist the urge to use a low-cal or diet tonic water too, as the artificial sweeteners will affect the way the granita freezes.  For the gin, I used Juniper Green dry organic, but something like Bombay Sapphire would also work well.
Read on for the recipe…

Peperonata con Rigatoni

Update 10/12/10: If you have a little extra time and want to make the peperonata extra silky you might like to take the time to char the skins of the peppers and peel them before slicing. Pop your peppers under a grill or on a gas-burning hob until blackened, then place in a bowl and cover with clingfilm until cool. The skins should just rub off under your fingers – don’t peel them under running water as you’ll lose the lovely charred flavour you’ve imparted in them. This is by no means an essential step, and if you were serving the peperonata as a side dish, or as a topping for crostini (two of its many alternative uses), I wouldn’t bother as the firmer texture you get from the skins is good, but for serving with pasta it makes a real difference.

Peperonata con Rigatoni

A rare one for me – a dish that is not just vegetarian but also vegan-friendly! You could bulk this dish out a little with some tangy salty feta*, but actually it’s one of those rare pasta dishes that really doesn’t need cheese on top. The key is to be bold with the flavours – garlic, chilli and peppers, and to not stint on the olive oil: it adds a luscious taste and texture you just won’t get if you use it miserly.

3 tbsp olive oil
1½ medium onions, sliced
6 garlic cloves, finely sliced
200g passata
4 peppers (red, orange or yellow), sliced into strips
1/4 tsp chilli flakes
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1½ tsp. capers
Basil leaves, a small handful
300-400g rigatoni (depending on how hungry you all are!)

On a medium heat, soften the onions with the olive oil in a large high-sided frying pan. Add the sliced garlic and sweat gently for a minute or two. Add the passata and season generously with salt and pepper. Stir well. Add the peppers and chilli flakes and turn gently to mix without breaking up the pepper strips. Pop a lid on and cook on a medium heat for 20mins, stirring once or twice (again do so gently – you don’t want pepper-mush).

Meanwhile, get a large pot of water on to the boil and salt it generously. Cook the rigatoni in the salted water, according to the packet instructions.

After the peperonata has had its 20mins covered simmer, add the red wine vinegar, taste it for seasoning, and allow it to cook for a further 10minutes with the lid off. Turn off the heat and add the capers (well drained if in brine, rinsed if in oil), and the basil. Drain the pasta and toss with the pepper sauce. Serves 4.

*If you choose this option, I’d recommend the ‘unearthed’ brand of barrel-aged Greek feta, or your nearest cheese shop’s own traditional feta – this recipe won’t benefit from the cheap polystyrene sold as feta in your local one-stop shop or all-night grocers.