28 August 2011

Aubergine and Mushroom Curry

My family are unfortunately fairly anonymous in their dislike of aubergines, but in this curry they have no objections to this lovely summer vegetable whatsoever.
Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients (much of which are spices, which can be substituted with the equivalent amount of a good curry mix). I usually serve basmati rice with this and perhaps a tarka dhal. (Recipes, see below)
As with most cooking, it pays off to have a mise-en-place, i.e. the ingredients ready before you start cooking.  

What you need

2 medium aubergines
3 tblsp of neutral oil (rape seed, sunflower, maize)
1-2 medium spring onions with green, finely chopped
150 g mushrooms (depending on the size) halved or quartered
1 handful of fresh garden peas or green beans cut into 2 cm pieces
1 tsp mustard and/or onion seed
3 garlic cloves crushed
5cm fresh ginger puréed
1 heaped tsp jeera (ground cumin)
1 heaped tsp ground coriander
1 level teaspoon (or less) chilli powder
1 level teaspoon (or more) turmeric
 (the previous four ingredients can also be replaced by a good curry spice mix)
½ tbsp chillies, red or green, finely chopped (without seeds if you don’t want it too spicy)
1 pound tomatoes, skinned (see remarks) and chopped
1 tsp tamarind juice/pure (optional; can be replaced with a lemon juice)
a pinch of sugar (if needed)
salt to taste
1 tblsp freshly chopped coriander/cilantro herbs; for those not too keen on the flavour, lovage or flat-leaved parsley are a good alternative

What you do

  1. Put the aubergines in a baking dish (unless you do them on the barbeque) and rub them with about 1 tblsp of oil. Prick them with a fork and put them in the oven for about 30 to 40 minutes until they look wrinkled and feel mushy.
  2. In the meantime, heat the remaining oil in a frying pan, when it is really hot add the mustard and/or onion seeds and stir until they start spitting. 
  3. Add the spring onions and the other powdered spices. Allow the spices to brown a little (a matter of seconds if the oil is hot).
  4. Add the garlic/ginger mix, the chopped chillies and the mushrooms and continue to fry. The mushrooms should take colour and go soft.
  5. Add the passata (the chopped tomatoes) and the peas or beans and let the mixture simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring.
  6. Add the tamarind or lemon and a bit of sugar if the sour note dominates too much.
  7. Take the aubergines from the oven, cut them lengthwise in half, scoop out the soft flesh and mash it a little with a fork.
  8. Stir it into the mixture, heat everything up and let it bubble to thicken it a little and salt to taste.
  9. Before serving take the pan off the heat and stir in the herbs.  


Basmati Rice

This is so easy, quick, a dish that can be allowed to get on with it by itself
  1. Measure out about 300g rice in a measuring jug, rince the rice in a strainer a couple of times, then place in a pan.
  2. Measure out 1.5 times the volume of the rice in water and add, season with bit of salt so that the water tastes mildly salty. (Optionally you can add any of the following: a tsp turmeric or some saffron for colouring and a few cardamom pods, some cinnamon bark and/or some ginger/garlic mix for flavour).  
  3. Put a lid on the pan and place it on a small flame. When the liquid has been absorbed, fluff the rice up with a fork and put aside covered. If it is still a bit too hard, add a bit of boiling water and return to a low heat. (If you have added pods and other solid inedible flavourers, remove these before serving.)

Dhal (Tarka Dhal)

This too is easy and can be allowed to get on with it by itself. It can also be prepared a little earlier and then warmed up. If too dry, a bit of warm water can make it more liquid again.
  1. Pour 180 g red or yellow lentils, washed, into a pan with 600 ml of water,
  2. Add salt, a tsp (or more if you like it spicier) of chopped (green) chilli peppers, a level tsp of turmeric and a tblsp of ginger/garlic purée.
  3. Allow to simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes, then mash lightly with a cooking spoon.
  4. For those who like this spiced up, they can add a bit of tarka to their dhal: heat up a generous amount of (neutral) oil.
  5. Fry one sliced onion with a tsp of onion and mustard seeds each, as much dried red chillies as you fancy and add a sliced tomato at the end (about 2 minutes).    


If you do the aubergines on a barbeque they acquire a lovely smokey flavour, difficult to duplicate in the oven.
Skinning tomatoes sounds like more work than it is: just immerse them for a short time in a pan with boiling water, take them out and run them under cold water. The skin will split and can easily be taken off with a sharp knife. Then you chop the flesh coarsely. Some say one should discard the seeds but apart from the fact that they don’t look very nice in the resulting passata, I really don’t have a problem with them.
Curries don’t need to be hellishly hot. You can easily steer this by adding more or less chilli powder.
The basic technique of frying the spices at the beginning and not to chuck in “raw” spices makes it a bit more difficult to get the seasoning right. If cooking for non-Indians, it is perhaps wiser to err on the side of caution and not to make the curry too hot.
The mixture of fresh ginger and garlic can be made in slightly larger quantities, always mix equal amounts of the two, for instance in a blender (add a bit of water if blending proves difficult). It can be stored in the fridge in an airtight jar for several days. It works well in all kinds of dishes.

23 August 2011

Risotto Ticinese with Ceps in Marsala and Cream

There are a few English terms for this fungus (what an unappetising word), boletus, cèpe, porcini mushroom,  apparently even “penny bun”. Whatever it is called, the term “Lord of mushrooms”, is probably the most befitting – and is not a million miles from the German “Herrenpilz”.
When I first mentioned that I was going to write about what I do in my kitchen, a friend emailed to ask if this recipe would be part of the project. So here goes.

What you need


  • 3-4 tblsp olive oil
  • ½ onion, finely chopped
  • 350 g rice (Carnaroli, Arborio, Vialone; my favourite is Ticinesi Riso Nostrano)
  • 50 ml white wine or Marsala mixed with
  • 2 sachets of high quality saffron
  • 250 ml good quality dryish white wine (See remarks.)
  • 1 litre of hot water (depending on the rice)
  • sea salt or a veggie stock cube and pepper
  • optionally: 2 handfuls of fresh garden peas (which makes this seasonal, sort of…)
  • 2 cloves of garlic from the garlic press
Remark: A non-vegetarian option is to include the marrow from two marrow bones.

Ceps in Marsala and Cream

  • 25 g dried ceps (making this with fresh ceps is an almost entirely different dish)
  • boiling water to cover the ceps
  • 1-2 tblsp olive
  • ½ onion, finely chopped
  • 100 ml good quality marsala
  • 1 stock cube or equivalent (I use, non-vegetarian but tasty, venison stock)
  • 200 ml fresh cream
  • 2 cloves of garlic from the garlic press
  • fresh herbs chopped (lovage or flat-leaved parsley)

What you do

  1. In a heavy pan, heat up the olive oil and add the onions, stirring until glassy (if you use marrow bone, add it at this stage, chopped but use less olive oil).
  2. Add the rice and stir until it too looks glassy.
  3. Pour in the white wine and allow to simmer briefly.
  4. Add the saffron and the stock cube, then top up with hot water (this speeds things up).
  5. Keep topping up with hot water until the rice is done. (See remarks.)
  6. Shortly before this press in the garlic and add the peas if you use the optional ingredients.
  7. Covered with a heavy lid, this can sit for a while if you didn’t get the cep done at the same time…

  1. Soak the ceps in boiling water for about 15 to 20 minutes, then squeeze them out and strain the water if the ceps were sandy, keeping it!
  2. In a frying pan, heat up the olive oil. Add the onions and stir until they are on the point of turning golden.
  3. Add the ceps and fry for about 1 to 2 minutes, seasoning with a bit of pepper. (If using instant stock, add it now too.)
  4. Add the marsala and reduce to about half, then add the strained ceps water and reduce again to about half.
  5. Pour in the cream and allow to bubble vigorously, reducing the sauce and thickening it at the same time. (See remarks.)
  6. Add the garlic and the finely chopped herbs. 


About cooking wines: I make it a point never to use a wine or a fortified wine like Madeira, Marsala or Port that I wouldn’t have my family or my guests drink. It needn’t be the stuff that costs an average salary of an ambitious investment banker, but it should be of good quality. In my experience the difference between something to keep the ribs apart and a good meal is that all the ingredients are of as good quality as can be got hold of (and paid for).

There are two very different approaches cooking a risotto depending on whether you want an almost liquid, creamy risotto or a relatively dry, lighter one. For this dish I prefer the latter, which you can achieve with the Riso Nostrano from Ticino, the variety I use when I can get it because there is a creamy sauce that complements the relatively dry risotto rather nicely. However, there are also times when I really prefer a very creamy risotto. This is easily achieved but a little bit more work: keep stirring the rice and add the liquid bit by bit. This type works wonderfulyl with fresh ceps, which I very simply cut into to risotto relatively early on. Adding a lump of mild blue cheese and/or some cream in the last 10 minutes is another way of getting this creamy type of risotto just right!

Next, thickening sauces is a topic I have already covered. Briefly and quoting the passage: cream added at the end of the cooking process, bit by bit while the sauce bubbles vigorously, results in a nicely creamy sauce without the flour flavour. In addition you can very easily check how liquid or how thick the sauce is going to be. 

One last remark: If the sauce is put through the food processor, a very creamy, rich crostini topping results, one that needs eating relatively quickly and usually is...

18 August 2011

Marinaded Strawberries

What you need

  • 1 to 2 punnets of strawberries
  • 2 tablespoons of Grand Marnier or Cointreau
  • 2-3 drops of balsamico vinegar (at least 4 star, not the industrial stuff)
  • a breath of cayenne pepper or very finely ground dried chillies

What you do

  1. Put the Grand Manier into a small dish.
  2. Add the drops of balsamico (which adds an acerbic note to the sweetness of the liqueur).
  3. Sprinkle in the cayenne or ground chillies.
  4. Half the strawberries and put them into a flat dish.
  5. Add the marinade and leave for about 20 to 30 minutes, turning the strawberries once or twice.

Two remarks

Strawberries are mostly no longer in season in August, so this is more of a June/July dish. But there is a type of strawberry called mara des bois that grows all through the summer. The berries are relatively small and simply packed with a flavour very similar to wild varieties, hence the name. And I have been able to get them in the shops for the last few weeks!
About the marinade: when I was in Laos in January 2011, what intrigued me about fruit sold as snack in the market was that the mango slices, the papaya strips, the pineapple chunks and that type of fruit I’ve not seen anywhere else, a tiny apple-shaped, almost seedless delicacy with a lovely tart taste came with a small bag of sugar mixed with finely ground, dried chilli or chilli power. You dipped the fruit in there before eating it. This created a wonderful mix of tastes, the acidity of the fruit, the sweetness of the sugar and the head of the chillies.
As for strawberries, I had heard of adding a twist of freshly ground pepper to them before serving and when I tried it out I was amazed how much this enhanced their natural flavour, so I was curious about how the Lao idea of  seasoning, to combine as many of the flavours as the tongue is capable of detecting in one dish (incidentally, also a concept in molecular food, I am told), would work out. The added punch is the result of that curiosity.

17 August 2011

Salmon and Cream Sauce for Pasta

 This is, obviously, not a vegetarian dish, it is not terribly seasonal, in fact it is lovely as a warming dinner on a coolish day, it isn’t even terribly Italian as there are no salmon in Italian rivers, but it is a great option if you are pressed for time.
Put on the pasta water and while you are doing this, start preparing the sauce and a salad. By the time the pasta are done, the meal will be ready. Any form of pasta will do for this but I prefer tagliatelle, homemade if I have the time…

What you need

  • 1 medium onion or spring onion, finely chopped
  • 150 -200 g smoked salmon cut into strips or squares, edges finely chopped (see picture)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • Butter or oil for frying
  • 1- 2 teaspoons of instant fish fond (or vegetable broth)
  • 50 ml good white wine
  • 300 ml cream
  • saffron (2 sachets or a generous pinch saffron strands)
  • salt and pepper, possibly a touch of Cajun spice (recipe will follow)
  • optionally some fresh herbs

What you do

  1. Melt a nob of butter (or the same amount of oil) in a frying pan.
  2. Add the chopped onions and the chopped salmon (for flavour, the strips/squares will be added later) and sauté briefly until the onions are soft and slightly golden.
  3. Add the instant fish or vegetable fond and then the wine and reduce.
  4. Using a garlic press, squeeze in the garlic. One can do this at the last minute too if the flavour of garlic is to be stronger.
  5. Pour in the cream and allow to bubble vigorously, reducing the sauce and thickening it at the same time.
  6. Sprinkle in the saffron and stir to ensure an even colouring.
  7. Season with salt (usually not necessary), pepper and, if you fancy it, Cajun spice.
  8. Before serving, add the salmon strips/squares but make sure they are only warmed up, not boiled.

A remark about thickening sauces

I am aware that flour can be used to thicken sauces as well as starch from potatoes, maize or arrow root. The trouble with most thickening agents is that they don’t really improve the flavour of a sauce at best and, at worst, make it a bit gluey. If one uses flour, mixed with a bit of butter, one should take great care not to let it boil for longer than about a minute and use it sparingly to avoid imparting the taste to the sauce - or let it boil for one to two hours as this ensures a full and harmonious blending of the flour into the sauce. I once did a sauce béchamel like this and the result was wonderful, a far cry from the usual wallpaper paste one often gets. However, who has that amount of time.
My point is that cream added at the end of the cooking process, bit by bit while the sauce bubbles vigorously, results in a nicely creamy sauce without the flour flavour. In addition you can very easily check how liquid or how thick the sauce is going to be.
Clearly, this trick only works for sauces with cream (whole cream, it needn’t be double cream). For other sauces, there are other ways of avoiding the flour problem, but more of that later.  

06 August 2011

A Greek(ish) Quick Dinner: Spanakopita and Tsatsiki

Summer is also a great time for cucumbers in a variety of forms, and of course for fresh herbs. Here are two quick recipes that can be done in neat succession, the spanakopita, a type of Greek pasty with spinach and feta,  first, and, while the pasties are baking, you do the Tsatsiki. I am, of course, aware that this is my take on these dishes and that real Greeks will have their own recipes and possibly consider my approach barbaric. But then in the original (Greek) sense of the word, that's what I am...

Spinach Pasties (Spanakopita)

What you need

  • 500 g cooked  leafy spinach (if pressed for time use the frozen stuff), well drained
  • 3-5 cloves of garlic
  • 2 smallish spring onions
  • 1 chilli pepper
  • olive oil for frying the filling
  • 1 tablespoon of herbs, ideally dried rigani (Greek oregano)
  • salt and pepper

  • Puff pastry (filo pastry, if you can get it)
  • 150-200 gr feta cheese
  • a bit of egg or milk to glaze the pasties



What you do

  1. Chop the string onions with at least some of the green, the onion part a bit more finely.
  2. Cut the chilli into small pieces (into thin lengthwise strips, then dice those finely); discard the seeds if you want to avoid making the things too spicy.
  3. Heat olive oil in the pan (about a tablespoon) and add the onions and the chilli.
  4. Mash the garlic and add it, making sure none of the ingredients take colour.
  5. Add the spinach and mix the ingredients, then add the rigani.
  6. Season to taste with salt and pepper and simmer for a few minutes. Make sure the stuff is reasonably dry (for the next step), otherwise pour off excess liquid.
  7. Roll out the puff pastry to about 2mm and cut it into 4 rectangles. (If you place them on baking paper, the next step is easier.)
  8. Place the filling on one half of the rectangle, leaving about a centimetre around the edges.
    Add the feta cut into small cubes or rectangles and distribute over the filling.
  9. Then fold the other half over and press the dough together with the tines of a fork.
  10. Brush with a bit of egg and bake for about 20 minutes or until golden in the oven at 175-200°.





Cucumber and Yoghurt Salad (Tsatsiki)

What you need

  • 1 cucumber, roughly peeled and grated
  • Salt
  • 300 ml Greek yoghurt drained (substitute a portion of this for crème fraîche if you can’t get the really creamy yoghurt)
  • 1 sprig peppermint and flat-leaved parsley
  • 1 pinch or rigani (Greek oregano)
  • 1 tblsp lemon juice or apple vinegar (balsamico if you can get it)
  • 2 tblsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, mashed (I use more as I prefer it punchier)
  • sea or herb salt to drain the juice of the cucumber


What you do

  1. Peel the cucumber (I peel it lengthwise but usually leave narrow strips of peel on for colour and a bit of substance).
  2. Grate it into a sieve and salt.
  3. Leave for about 5 to 10 minutes for the juice to drain.
  4. In the meantime, pour the yoghurt (and the crème fraîche if you want a bit of extra creaminess) into a bowl.
  5. Squeeze the juice out of the cucumber (to prevent the tsatsiki from getting too watery and the cucumber from being too salty).
  6. Add the chopped herbs.
  7. Add the lemon juice (traditional) or the apple vinegat (tastier in my opinion) and the olive oil. 
  8. Mix well and leave to sit until the cucumber is dejuiced.