The idea of these treats came to me because Mrs WDC is growing strawberries (from a couple of plants). Every few days perhaps one or two very small strawberries along with couple of pea pods are put on a dish and left on the kitchen counter. Okay, not much of a harvest, and to be brutally frank there are not enough strawberries – or peas – to construct anykind of recipe…
But the idea occurred that I could make a feature of the mini harvest, in mini tarts – at least this way Mrs WDC could enjoy the fruits of her labours with dedicated little culinary constructs. Now, I could have made pastry bases, but to be honest, it’s not much of a cheat and the logic says make bigger tarts and use more strawberries. However, I was also aware that tiny tart cases are available at some supermarkets. They would be perfect for the little strawberries – and peas.
On reflection, I realise that I was simply designing singular canapés in the case of the peas and a petit fours in the case of the strawberries. But the ideas felt more engaging, simple and homely than cheffy creations.
For the peas, I made a custard out of quails eggs and cooked litte quiches in the oven – a few peas in the quiche and a few decorating the top. This is not really a simple cheat so I will not elaborate further here – other than to say it was a fantastic way to showcase a select amount of home-grown peas.
For her strawberries (there were two), I filled the bottom with a small dab of strawberry preserve and added a very small spoonful of clotted cream and then popped the strawberries on top. Again, the tarts became a wonderful showcase for the elite fruits, and they only took a few moments to make.
The pea quiches were good – really good. But something else was going on with the strawberry tarts that made me realise I had unwittingly created something special. For a start they tasted amazing. All the flavours of a Cornish cream tea, or strawberries and cream or strawberry shortcake in a perfectly formed bite-size treat. But there is more to them than this – it is perhaps the fact that they are so small, they are a delight to eat. Somehow less becomes more and it intensifies the strawberry experience…
Then it occurred that our grandchildren would like them and I made several for a picnic. They are now officially the best thing they have ever eaten. They are like a good Pixar movie – they can be enjoyed by adults and children alike.
Visually, you need the top to the strawberry, but then it is not practical to try to pinch it off when the strawberry is perched on it creamy mount. So I cut around the tops with a small sharpe knife. In fact I have done this on all the strawberries in the photo here.
The brilliant serendipity of this cheat is that Mrs WDC’s small strawberries ultimately became their virtue. So the size of strawberry is critical for the success of the treat. Although commercial growers have all the wherewithals to produce bountiful harvests of large plump fruits, there are many types of strawberry that are by their nature small and sweet, so seek these out. Or go to the store where I bought my tart cases they also sell small packs of ‘mini’ berries. Perfect.
Corn tortillas (all 15cm) from top left to right: Fresh yellow corn tortillas Mextrade, Guanajuato ‘MexWraps’ Mexgrocer, fresh white corn tortillas by Cool Chile, Komali Tortillas Mexicana, La Reina de las Tortilla, masa harina home-made tortillas
At the heart of Mexican cooking is the tortilla. A proper Mexican tortilla. Therefore, I thought it would be worth checking out what is available here in the UK.
Mexican products have been available in the UK since the 80’s. Old El Paso were the first, but over the years others have joined in such as, Santa Maria, Luchito, Wahaca as well as supermarket own brands. The tortillas are soft and can be anything from a large flour wraps, to thick and puffy smaller flour tortillas, to strange yellow, pasty flour and corn tortillas – none are anything like an authentic Mexican corn tortilla, so I have not tested or compared any of these brands.
In Mexico, a tortilla means one thing: a round unleavened flatbread – either made with fresh ground corn (masa) or dried corn flour (masa harina). It comes any size and can even be blue (made with blue corn). It’s true that some parts of Northern Mexico make large flour tortillas, but otherwise Mexican tortillas are made from corn.
To find proper Mexican corn tortillas, you will have to shop online. But why? Why can’t we buy 100% corn tortillas in our supermarkets (it’s not as though UK consumers do not have a taste for Mexican food)?
I believe the reason is that the corn used in a real Mexican tortilla is simply not to European tastes.
Mexican corn tortillas are made with fully ripened field corn (not sweetcorn). It is then nixtamalized in a process that slakes the corn in lime before grinding, or drying for flour.
The ancient Aztecs soaked their corn in alkali and the methodology has remained largely unchanged in Mexico (though now the alkali will come from calcium hydroxide rather than wood ash). The process is safe (the lime is rinsed away and heating neutralises any remaining alkali) and can be seen in some modern food preparations, such as pretzels and olives.
There are many benefits to the treatment. It makes the corn easier to grind, improves its nutritional value, reduces pathogens, stabilises the corn (for easier storage), allows the corn to be made into a dough, and perhaps the most importantly it gives the corn a distinctive taste.
For Mexicans, and tortilla aficionados, the taste of a tortilla is everything.
However, describing the taste is difficult: it’s not corn in the way we understand sweetcorn. It definitely tastes of a bread-like grain and it tastes very earthy. The texture is good, chewy, and easy to digest. Then there is that je ne sais quoi, something exotically musty, sweet and perfume-like.
The early European colonists of the Americas didn’t like the taste and although they brought the corn back to Europe they left the nixtamalization process behind.
There is a big difference between types of tortilla. Perhaps the most obvious is that the maize used for tortillas, which can be white, yellow, or blue. I have not commented on these differences because by all accounts there is very little distinction in the taste.
Tortillas come in different sizes. I prefer 15cm, which is a good size for making tacos – neither too big nor too small. The 10cm size is good for making tostadas or small open appetisers. There is also a 12cm size, which is sometimes referred to as a ‘street’ taco. I have never encountered a taco of this size on the street, but the size might be useful for putting in smaller baskets for keeping warm. Cool Chile also make tortillas in 6cm and 20cm.
Mexican corn tortillas are always gluten free, because there is no gluten in corn.
Apart from these obvious differences, there are three other key distinctions. Tortillas can be:
Processed products with preservatives, vacuum-packed with a shelf life of several months out of the fridge.
Fresh, but commercially made (with masa harina) with a shelf life of about a week in the fridge.
Home-made using masa harina (nixtamalized) corn flour. Despite the odd online post describing how to make tortillas with fresh corn, in the UK, this is simply too impractical to consider as a viable option.
In terms of quality, the distinction is easy. For 1-3 above, it’s: 1. Good 2. Better, 3. Best.
All the tortillas have a nixtamalized taste, some a little more or less than others.
(Yellow) Corn tortilla Mextrade (made in the UK)
A relatively new entrant into the market operating in Sutton, Surrey. Mextrade make fresh tortillas and dispatch on Mondays and Tuesdays. They don’t say if they are yellow or white tortillas, but I deduce that they are yellow, as they say their masa harina used to make their tortillas is yellow. Compared to Cool Chile they are quite yellow-ish. The tortillas come with a few burnt flecks, so look appetising and authentic. The tortilla is soft and pliable, easy to eat with a good texture and chewy bite. Good level of nixtamalization taste. I’m sure you can taste the corn.
Guanajuato ‘MexWraps’ from Mexgrocer (made in Mexico)
Guanajuato were one of the first imports of Mexican tortillas, and the brand I would always buy. Guanajuato, have a very wide range of tortillas, including blue tortillas, green cactus flavour tortillas, and a special tortilla for frying. Recently, they introduced a standard tortilla called ‘MexWraps’. When I bought my tortillas for this test, Mexgrocer had sold out of the Guanajuato white tortilla – the type I usually buy. It may be that with this new tortilla, the company is trying to emulate the success of the Komali tortilla which is quite brown. I detect a little more nixtamalization taste in both the tortillas. The ‘MexWraps’ texture is rather crumbly, grainy, and brittle. It tasted of neither corn, nor flour, and I found it a bit too earthy – almost muddy. I would buy the white version of this tortilla instead. (Although the ‘MexWraps’ did make good totopos.)
Cool Chile has been operating for a while in the UK market and trade at Borough Market in London. They make fresh tortillas with white and blue masa harina. They also make an ‘ambient’ tortilla which includes preservatives so has a longer shelf life. Their tortillas are good. They are very pale without spots and they taste perhaps the most bread-like of the tortillas I tested. They are very soft, smooth, and easy to chew and eat (without being pappy). Good level of nixtamalization taste.
Komali are the new kids on the tortilla block. There seems to be a desire to make a product that feels ultra-authentic. But I wonder if this is not fantasy, as I do not believe that any authentic Mexican taco can be so brown. (Corn does not have a ‘wholemeal’ variant). These must be made with yellow corn flour and then tweaked with added colour. That said the tacos are very satisfying to hold, to cook with and to eat. It feels like an artisan bread version of a tortilla. The texture is good, bread-like, and quite thick. It has perhaps the highest nixtamalized taste. Mrs WDC’s favourite.
Yellow corn tortilla La Reina de las Tortillas from Mexgrocer (made in Spain)
I have been buying these for ages. There is something very appealing about the packaging and the colour of the tortilla. The company make yellow and white corn tortillas, I have not tried the white as I have not seen them in this country, though you can have them sent from Spain – they look good enough to pay for the delivery… The yellow tortillas are very yellow – perhaps helped along with some colouring – still, they do have a good corn tortilla taste with not too much nixtamalization. However, I find that they do not survive the long-life processing as well as other brands. They are a little flaky and crumbly, if not a little dry and tough. That said I would not write them off, they are still a good corn tortilla – perhaps increase the amount of moisture before the warming process.
Home-made tortillas using masa harina from Mextrade and Cool Chile
These are simply delicious (even though I say so myself). It’s not me. It’s the flour and the fact that they are as fresh as we can make them in the UK. They are worth the extra time and effort. I’ve used two flours, one from Mextrade and one from Cool Chile – both say their flours are the flour used to make their commercial tortillas. Mextrade is yellow masa harina and Cool Chile white. Both taste great, they are soft, subtle, and easy to chew. You might think you are eating any normal non-leavened flat bread without a crust. Both have a good level of nixtamalized taste. Both are excellent flours and make good tortillas.
WDC rating: 10/10
My conclusion is that any one of the tortillas mentioned here will provide a decent impression of a real Mexican corn tortilla. For a really authentic tortilla, you will need to make it yourself (see below), otherwise, fresh commercial tortillas will generally be better than the long-life versions – store any you can use right away in the freezer. The same applies to the long-life versions once the pack is opened.
NB: How to make home-made tortillas with masa harina
The way to make homemade tortillas is simple but does require some specific kit, namely, a Mexican tortilla press, two cast iron pans (or one non-stick and one cast iron) and ideally a plastic tortilla warmer. You will also need masa harina, Mexgrocer sell a few brands and varieties. I would start with the classic white Maseca for tortillas. However, Maseca only comes in 1kg bags which will make a lot of tortillas, as mentioned above masa harina can also be bought at Mextrade (yellow) or Cool Chile (white) in smaller sizes. The other retailers mentioned above should also stock masa harina brands, such as the Mexican Naturelo brand from Sous Chef. Don’t fuss over the brand, because the differences will be marginal and all will be a big improvenment on non-home-made…
Put an amount of masa harina corn flour into a mixing bowl and keep adding small amounts of water and kneading until the dough is the consistency of Play-Doh.
Heat one pan (non-stick if you only have one cast iron pan) on a low heat and one (cast iron) on a very high heat.
Put a rolled piece of dough about the size of a walnut on a sheet of plastic inside the press and place another sheet of plastic on top. Then press – not all the way down, so the tortillas have some thickness.
Peel the tortilla from the plastic and put on the low-heat pan, cook for a couple of minutes either side. The first side you put down will become the back of the tortilla.
Put the tortilla onto the hot pan with the back down. Gently, stroke the tortilla with a spatula to encourage the tortilla to puff up. Turnover and heat evenly keeping one side without too much burning, i.e. the top. Put on a plate and continue with the others.
Eat right away, or leave to cool, wrap in cling and put in the fridge. When ready to eat, warm the tortillas in a tortilla warmer in the microwave for 20-30sec, or wrap in cling and put in the microwave, or wrap in tinfoil and put in a hot oven for 5-10 minutes, or briefly heat on a hot pan and keep wrapped in parchment/foil/or tea towel.
This is an easy supper to construct. I’m not giving a recipe as it is a technique as much as anything…
The idea starts with your appetite. Don’t feel like doing too much cooking? Want a break from pasta, not keen on eating meat, want something light but can’t be bothered with fish? Haven’t had mushrooms for a while, just had a delivery of home-grown tomatoes from your next door neighbour? Great put it all together and you start to build your dinner.
For two people, I used four portobello mushrooms, half a red and half a yellow pepper, a chilli, one onion, couple cloves of garlic, a small bag of new potatoes, a soup bowl of cherry tomatoes, one tin of butter beans in water, some mozzarella and lots of fresh thyme, bay, rosemary, basil and parsley. I also used four slices of bacon, but these can be omitted to make a tasty and nutritious vegetarian tray bake.
The idea is that it all goes in the oven and cooks, but unfortunately, you can’t throw them in altogether, it has to be done stages. First preheat the oven to high, then peel and boil the potatoes until tender. Meanwhile, fry up chopped onion, garlic, chilli and bacon if using until softened, then add a good glug of white wine (or stock/water), let this boil for a minute then add the beans with the water, add the hard herbs and simmer for 10 minutes, add the tomatoes, turn off the heat and cover the pan. By this time the potatoes should be tender. Drain them and place on a large oven tray, then add the mushrooms, gills facing up. Splash over some olive oil and put in the oven for 5 – 10 minutes or until the mushrooms are soft and wilting and releasing their moisture and the potatoes are starting to brown. Then pour the vegetables over the mushrooms and potatoes. Place slices of mozzarella over the mushrooms sprinkle with the soft herbs and place back in the oven until browned, about 15-20minutes. The grill can be used to speed things up if you want a bubbling browned top sooner.
You could serve with salad and crusty bread if you like. You could also swap mozzarella for goats cheese, if you wanted to jazz it up and serve to a crowd.
Serve just as it is in the tray, it looks perfectly rustic and tastes of the Mediterranean – a very satisfying weekday supper. Any leftovers can be reheated for lunch, perhaps with little bit of tomato puree and a couple poached or baked eggs.
This tip is based on the simple idea of using solar energy to melt chocolate.
The delight of the tip is that it turns what is usually a disaster – chocolate melting in the sun – and turns it into an opportunity: chocolate fondue in a jar! Simply add equal parts dark and milk chocolate to a jar, put on the lid and pack it with the picnic along with lots of strawberries and cherries. Then leave the jar in the sun whilst you’re tucking into the savoury part of your picnic. By the time the sarnies have gone, the barbecue chicken has been noshed, and the last remains of the pasta salad is being sealed in its Tupperware boxe, the chocolate should have melted. Then pour the chocolate into a dish and dip the fruit into the chocolate. I was surprised that melted chocolate at a picnic would be so engaging and entertaining. Indeed, it might be advised to keep the magic substance out of view – and out of mind – at least until the children have had some of their five-a-day.
The only caveat to this tip is that one must guard against a primal urge to allow chocolate to spread over the face and hands or drip onto tablecloths, picnic blankets or your best picnic outfit. I’ve seen grown-ups holding little ones in their laps and sharing the last remains of the chocolate dish, each using all their fingers to capture last traces. It’s therefore a good idea to pack plenty of wet and dry hand towels to keep tabs on any mobile chocolate. But, don’t take it too seriously, the jeopardy of melted chocolate at a picnic is all part of the fun. It will bring huge amounts of enjoyment and great memories to your picnic.
One young lad, having partaken in several chocolate-coated strawberries and cherries, announced that strawberries and chocolate were an excellent idea. He then declared that actually the strawberries were not a good idea and that the cherries were better idea. Finally, he corrected himself and concluded that both the strawberries and the cherries were not good ideas – he only thought the chocolate was a good idea!
I’ve used equal amounts of plain and milk chocolate. This helps to appeal to both adult’s and children’s taste, it also gives sweetness without the need to add extra sugar. Avoid adding other ingredients that you might use in a chocolate sauce, amalgamating these might be beyond the capabilities of your little solar-powered oven.
There must come a time when all cooks, having indulged in so many good things to eat, must reconcile their gastronomic pleasures with a healthy diet and lifestyle.
My personal aim is to cut down on salt and saturated fat and to eat more of the recommended healthy types of food. This is not a problem as I believe I have enough experience in the kitchen to overcome any barriers to the enjoyment of healthy food.
That is until I stopped eating butter and salt. My father always said that food tastes better with butter and salt. He was right – take a hot potato… what does it need? Butter and salt. Or cooking a steak? Butter and salt. Avocado on toast? Same answer. It seems we may have unwittingly developed a high dependency for both ingredients.
I struggled without salt on my avocado toast. Butter wasn’t the problem – indeed, the avocado is a natural fatty replacement for butter. But I couldn’t find a single salt-free condiment from my store cupboard that would immediately compensate for salt. Happily, just as we can learn to tolerate more salt, so we can learn to tolerate less salt. I got used to eating less salt.
Still, this is the story behind the ’20 things to put on toast’. Each idea stems from my specific challenge: what can I put on my toast if I cannot add butter or salt (or use saturated fat)? The fat conundrum is fully realised when hard cheeses are excluded – no doubt there must be 50 ways to leave your cheesy toastie…
However, in trying to find creative workarounds, as well as rediscover old favourites, I have developed a range of ideas that can be adapted for canapés, crostini or bruschetta. See the end of the post for low-fat and low-salt notes.
I’ve used my ‘Surbiton sourdough’ bread for the toasts. Use any kind of bread or crispbread.
1. Deconstructed Sundried tomato and Kalamata olive tapenade
The sundried tomato is from a supermarket branded jar. Kalamata olives are lower in salt than some processed forms, but still quite high. However, as each toast only has one and a half olives, we can discount the salt levels. Surprisingly, one and a half olives is all that is required to achieve a tapenade taste and texture (check ingredient lists to help work out proportions – one jar of tapenade has 21% olives to 16% tomato – probably the proportions of both ingredients on my toast).
Snacks can be made from proprietary jars of purees and pastes and various pates. Most tapenades are low in saturated fat, as are fish and vegetable pates. Meat pates are very high in saturated fat – so Ardennes pate with a fruity chutney, or any other meat pate is not included in this selection of snacks – sadly…
Method: Spread the sundried tomato puree on toast add olives and basil.
2. Carciofi (artichokes) and broad bean puree with shallots, green pepper and garlic
This has the taste of an Italian vingole or spring vegetable stew.
Method: Drain a jar (280g) of sliced artichoke hearts over a small saucepan. Retain a couple artichokes for a garnish. Heat the oil in the pan to a low temperature and confit 2 cloves of garlic, half a sliced green pepper and two small shallots until tender. Meanwhile, cook a small handful of small frozen broad beans in boiling (lightly salted) water until tender and drain. Put the artichokes into a small blender, drain the confit ingredients and add to the blender along with the beans and a large pinch of oregano. Blend to a rough paste. (I find using a small pan and stick blender easier for this task.) Adjust the seasoning to suit and add a squeeze of lemon and a little fresh virgin olive oil. Garnish with the reserved artichokes. Mint also works well with artichokes and beans.
3. Aubergine and mushroom puree with shallots and garlic and fried rosemary
This is inspired by baba ganoush, a roasted aubergine puree. I’ve retained the smokiness by charring the aubergine slices in a non-stick pan.
Method: Makes a small tub (about 300 ml). Skin the aubergine without cutting away too much of the flesh and cut into thick slices. Fry in a dry non-stick pan on a medium high heat until browned and slightly charred on both sides. Reduce the heat and cook until the aubergine is soft and cooked through. In light olive oil, confit (cook gently) 2 cloves of garlic, 2 small sliced shallots and 4 or 5 thinly sliced button mushrooms and drain well. Whizz the confit and aubergine in a small blender. Add seasoning and thinning agents to suit. I used fresh virgin olive oil and lemon. Alternatively, try tahini, or yoghurt and lemon. Herbs can be added to taste – try dried oregano, fresh basil, thyme or parsley. Decorate with fresh red pepper and raw sliced mushrooms and a fried sprig of rosemary (fry the sprig in a little oil and drain).
4. Romesco sauce with hazelnuts and parsley
This was inspired by Italian roasted peppers, an easy and delicious antipasto. But blending the peppers made me think of a Romesco sauce and Spanish flavours. Romesco is also full of cholesterol-friendly nuts.
Method: Makes a large tub (about 500 ml). In hot water, soak either two large cascabel dried chillies, one large ancho chilli or two small nora peppers. Before soaking take off the stem and remove the seeds. After 5 minutes drain the peppers and reserve the liquid. In light olive oil, confit (cook gently) 4 cloves of garlic, two small shallots. Drain a small jar of roasted peppers (175 drained), retain the liquid and put the peppers into a blender with the soaked chilli/pepper. Add 3 tablespoons sundried tomato puree, 1 tablespoon of ground almonds, 2 tablespoons white bread crumbs, 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar, half a teaspoon hot smoked paprika and pepper. Blend, adding either the liquid from the peppers or chilli, or fresh virgin olive oil. Adjust seasoning to suit. Garnish with chopped hazelnuts and parsley. This sauce is a brilliant condiment to have in the fridge. Put it on a warm Spanish tortilla omelette, or add to a tomato sauce with tinned salmon or tuna for a Mediterranean pasta sauce.
5. Avocado toast
This is a standard go-to idea. Avocado is not low in fat, but it is low in saturated fats. Don’t mess with the basic recipe – it’s avocado and toast. Season with pepper -and salt if you are allowed – and a good squeeze of lemon. Add olive oil for extra indulgence.
6. Cottage cheese and chives
Cottage cheese is unfortunately associated with dieting and crispbread. But the good news is that cottage cheese tastes brilliant. It’s fresh tang and satisfying texture more than make up for the loss of butter or salt. The only additional seasoning necessary is pepper and chives.
7. Lox and cream cheese
Lox (smoked salmon) and cream cheese is a classic Jewish combination, most often seen in a bagel. We should not fight a tried and tested combination – this works because it tastes so good. Use a low-fat cream cheese for less fat. Smoked salmon comes with 3% salt. But like the olives above, the salmon is more of a seasoning than main ingredient. It’s a yin and yang thing – let the bread and cream cheese be the main conduit and use the salmon as a flavouring.
8. De-constructed guacamole
Everybody likes a good guac. But it’s a fuss to make. This simple version is made by adding bits of tomato, chilli and cilantro. You could add some finely chopped spring onion. A squeeze of lime (or lemon) is essential.
The classics and more
9. Homemade houmous
This is a no-brainer. The additional effort of making houmous at home turns this everyday puree into something special.
Method: in olive oil, confit (cook gently) 3 cloves of garlic until tender, drain well. Drain a tin of chick peas, retain the liquid and put the pulses into a small blender. Add a couple tablespoons of tahini, the juice of half a lemon a good glug of virgin olive oil and the confit garlic. Add (a little) salt and (loads of) pepper.
10. Cottage cheese, sardines and chilli
Don’t scoff. This is really good – and it’s good for you! (Think of all that omega-3…) I found a tin of ‘picante’ sardines (sardines canned with chillies). The chilli makes a great garnish and believe me, you will not miss the butter or salt after this. But do add a large squeeze of lemon. If you cannot find picante sardines, use normal and add shichimi Japanese chilli seasoning, schirarchi chilli sauce, cholula chilli sauce, hot smoked paprika (you get the idea…) NB: chilli sauces are very good for dieters – they help you to forget all those lovely salty, buttery things you could be eating!
11. Salmon, cucumber and dill
Another classic combo. Imagine a banquet table – centre stage, a whole poached salmon immaculately decorated with mayonnaise, cucumber and dill. Well, this is the same – just on a smaller scale. Poach your own salmon, or used tinned, spread on low-fat cream cheese (or lite mayo), garnish with cucumber and dill.
12. Japanese avocado on toast
This elevates simple avocado on toast to a whole new level. But you will need to go to the Japanese store. In particular you will need yuzu koshu, a pepper and citrus paste. If they’re out of stock, use sansho pepper or shichimi and yuzu juice. You also need some shiso leaves and kewpie (optional) mayonnaise. Spread the mayo on the toast, mash the avocado on top and mix with small dabs of yuzu koshu. Garnish with chopped shiso leaves and white sesame seeds.
A few eggy ideas
13. Egg mayonnaise
Our fondness for mashed soft or hard-boiled eggs starts in the nursery and continues with egg mayonnaise and cress sarnies for a working lunch – or a picnic in the park – and continues with the guilty pleasure of the ubiquitous ‘deviled’ eggs at the buffet table or barbecue. Here I’ve simply mixed chopped egg with low-fat cream cheese (and/or lite mayonnaise) topped with cress. Simply perfect.
14. Avocado and egg
This is a sop to fast moving Instagram food trends. The combination of poached eggs and avocado seems counter-intuitive and just as odd as cooking an avocado or making a soup from avocado (either hot or cold). I suppose people imagine that with such a marvelous raw ingredient, there must be more that can be done with it. (Resist – less is more…) However, in the interest of not wanting to be seen as an avocado killjoy, I offer semi-hard boiled eggs on avocado – not an unhappy pairing. To add some spice and crunch, I’ve sprinkled dukkah and nigella seeds over the eggs.
15. Poached egg
There is a misconception that since eggs contain cholesterol, we should not eat them if we want to lower our cholesterol. Apparently, the logic does not hold out and moderate consumption of eggs is encouraged. The important thing is not to cook eggs in saturated fat i.e. butter. Poaching is clearly a healthier way to cook an egg. The trick to eating a poached egg on non-buttered toast is to imagine the yolk as fatty butter and to make do with the salt from the bread. This simple idea was a revelation – we often use eggs as a means to some other end, but eggs are delicious in themselves. Poach your egg to perfection, put it on some tasty toast, season with pepper and enjoy!
16. Asian omelette
This is an Asian way of cooking egg to add to a stir fry. Butter is not needed because oil works better. Slice 2 or 3 button mushrooms very thinly, chop a spring onion into thin slices and fry in a little ground nut oil in a large non-stick pan for a couple of minutes. Spread out the mushrooms and onion evenly. Whisk the egg and add to the pan, turning and tilting the pan so the egg covers the base in an even layer. Wait for the top to dry out then pull up with a spatula and carefully turn over. Cook for a few moments more and remove from the heat. Tip the omelette onto a surface, when cool, roll it up and slice. Add to the toast, sprinkle over sesame seeds, add a little (low-salt) soy and toasted sesame oil.
Not necessarily advisable as part of a calorie-controlled diet, but at least the sugar content is natural. Just eat in moderation.
17. Cream cheese, date and almond
This is canapé idea came from my sister. She put the cream cheese in the date and then the almond. Dates are very high in sugar (mainly fructose), so we should eat dates responsibly (perhaps this toast would be better with one and a half dates rather than three!) In any event it is a combo worth knowing.
18. Pear, walnut, cream cheese and honey
This is inspired by the Spanish way of serving cheese with honey (orange blossom) and nuts. It’s also a great combination. The recipe is in the name.
19. Peanut butter and cacao nibs
Peanut butter is used in two of the world’s great taste combinations: peanut butter and jelly; and peanut butter and chocolate (especially in the form of a Reese’s peanut butter cup). Raw natural cacao nibs are high in fibre and deemed healthier than processed chocolate. Of course, there is fat in all chocolate, but it is reported to be neutral as far as cholesterol is concerned. Even so, we should eat in moderation. On the other hand, we should never deny ourselves something as good as this toast. The texture of the nibs and peanut butter is particularly satisfying, and we are rewarded with a sweet and pleasant aftertaste which lingers on the palate…
20. Peanut butter, banana and honey
Peanut butter aficionados will know of the desiccating effect the paste can have on the palate. Eat a rounded spoonful and it is likely to be cemented in the mouth for several minutes. That’s why it needs extra lubrication – hence peanut butter and jelly or even chocolate, as in the above toast. Here we are spared our puckerings through the addition of banana and honey.
Notes:For low-saturated fat and low-salt snacks check all labels for fat content and salt – aim to keep lower than 10% total fat and much less saturated. Aim for 1.5% salt or lower – this is surprisingly difficult when you start to look. On salt, my advice is to simply watch your intake and limit consumption of high-salt items (i.e. anything preserved in brine or salted – such as olives, capers and anchovies) don’t avoid ‘cooking’ with salt (i.e. do add salt in home-baked bread, it’s inedible otherwise). In some cases I have seasoned the deli-purees below with very small amounts of salt as they were made (i.e. houmous requires some salt, but not as much as we would like to add). But otherwise do not add salt if it does not need it (i.e. the Romesco sauce is zinging with flavour and does not need added salt.) Olive oil is used in many of the snacks, it’s a fat, but a mono-saturated fat, so generally regarded as a beneficial (i.e better than saturated).
Commercial tortilla chips are good, but they are nothing like real tortilla chips (and they’re very salty). Real tortilla chips from real Mexican tortillas are notoriously tricky to make and almost always disappointing to our tastes. Recently, it is possible to buy tortillas specially made for frying online (but this is a hassle). If you want a quick fix for a more authentic tortilla chip then try this trick using widely available Mexican wraps from (UK) supermarkets.
If you’ve ever tried to deep fry soft wraps to make tortilla chips (and I have), you will know that it does not work. Same with light frying.
The trick is to dry them and then fry them – but fry them in the microwave. This provides two drying stages and an effective light frying in the microwave without drowning the tortillas in oil. If you can get the corn variety of tortilla, so much the better. Old El Paso do them and I have bought some from Tescos in the past. But even if you can only get flour tortillas it should still work – the texture is rather like a cracker – crisp and crunchy and but still quite like a tortilla chip. Ideally you need a bacon crisper for the microwave. (See my similar technique for making quesadillas.)
Makes 36 chips
Cut the tortillas into chips. Start by stacking 3 tortilla chips and cut in half. Then stack together and cut in half again.
Then stack together again and cut into 3.
Toss them all into a large dry frying pan (no oil) and cook on medium-high heat. Wait a couple minutes before start tossing the pan.
Then toss continuously until as evenly browned as possible.
Add two teaspoons of groundnut oil – or similar – and toss until all the chips are lightly coated.
Put onto a bacon crisper or rack and allow to cool for about 3-5 minutes. Put the crisper and chips in the microwave for 1 and a half to 2 minutes on full power. If you don’t have a bacon crisper you need to avoid direct contact with the chips and a flat plate – try scrunching up greaseproof paper as shown in the photo below, or if you do use a plate turn the chip over after 45 seconds.
Immediately put the chips onto scrunched up greaseproof paper or a rack to air and cool.
Dad’s cooking secret: Top left salt (soy) – top right, sweet (palm sugar), bottom left, Sour (lime), bottom right, hot (la-yu oil) –
Salt, sweet, sour and hot – that’s it, my best cooking secret
Tom Kime’s cookbook, Exploring taste and flavour, demonstrates how the tastes of salt, sweet, sour and hot are so important in cooking.
We associate these four tastes most commonly in Oriental food. A Thai curry for example, will be flavoured with a balance of salty fish sauce, sweet palm sugar, sour lime and hot chillies. But Kime also suggests that the everyday BLT is a combination of these four essential flavours: bacon is salty; white bread is sweet; tomatoes are sour; and leaves such as rocket are hot and peppery.
We can imagine other foods working to the same principles. An American BBQ sauce is a taste sensation bigger than the sum of its parts, but those parts comprise salt, sweet, sour and hot.
Thinking about food through these four prisms of taste can open up new possibilities for seasoning and adding flavour to our food.
Not just salt and pepper
The four tastes can come in many forms – salt can come from cured meats, anchovies or hard and aged cheeses such as Parmesan, cooked onions are sweet, as are carrots, beetroot and other root vegetables, sour can come from citrus fruits but also vinegar, tamarind, yoghurt and creme fraiche and heat can come from pepper, but also chillies, ginger and mustard. So an apparently mild and nondescript cauliflower and cheese can be flavoured by a saute of sweet onions and a sauce of salty cheese and hot mustard, finished with a little creme fraiche or a squeeze of lemon – all four tastes again…
Surely, not all four flavours all the time?
True, not all food is balanced in this way. Pairs of flavours can work well. ‘Sweet and sour’ come together famously in the classic Chinese sauce – but also when sweet pork is paired with sour apples. ‘Salt and sour’ are an effective duo as in ‘salt & vinegar’ flavoured crisps.
Surprisingly, food rarely comes in the form of a single flavour. Even a bag of sweets can be a complex melange of flavours – usually including fruity or sour flavours. Bite into an apple and it will seem a perfect mouthful of sweet flavour. But in fact the fruit is both sweet and sharp. We may crave sweetness, but we also need a little sour to offset the cloying effect of sugars.
It appears our palate is designed to always seek other taste dimensions. If we add a piece of cheese to our apple we are pleased with the extra taste of salt. So we also add a pinch of salt or salty nuts to an apple crumple (or add salt to caramel or chocolate). And there are many fruit recipes which push the numbers of flaovurs, such as grilled plums or strawberries doused with acidic balsamic vinegar and a grating of pepper.
Separating the flavours…
Often the flavours are all present – but not in the same place. Chinese ‘salt and pepper’ prawns sound very happy with their two flavourings – but they are served with a ‘sweet and sour’ dipping sauce. In France they might serve a simple salad of sweet lettuce with a separate salty, sour and hot dressing. It is interesting to note that Mexican food is not ‘hot’ per se, dishes can be quite mild but are served with an assortment of hot salsas and relishes.
In Indian cuisine the flavours take on philosophical meanings and are considered essential to balancing the humours of the human metabolism. It is traditional therefore to provide meals with the flavours separated into different bowls or dishes, such as a spicy, salty curry, a sour yogurt dish, a hot and bitter pickle and a sweet chutney. It is also evident in fine dining kitchens that chefs will construct highly complex dishes with the flavours concentrated into individual elements. This is articulated in televised cookery competitions where the judges make their assessments: ‘The meat is well seasoned and is nicely balanced with the sweetness of the puree, acidity of the fruit and spiciness from the crisp vegetables…’
And don’t forget bitter and umami
And it does not stop with these four tastes. We can add bitter to the equation. Salty peanuts are perfectly balanced by bitter beer. Even chocolate has subtle bitter notes. However, bitter is the odd one out, when it comes to taste and flavour our palates are naturally suspicious of bitter tastes – a primordial indicator of toxins.
Most chefs now assume that there is a fifth taste: umami. Why is tomato ketchup so compellingly good? Apart from the distinct notes of all four tastes, there is also a satisfying savouriness and unctuousness that comes from the tomatoes – that’s umami. Chefs keen to enhance their food will work with foods rich in umami such as tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, soy and even seaweed.
So when it comes to tasting our food and seasoning – there’s a lot more we can do than reaching for the salt and pepper…
Eating your way through a globe artichoke is like a magical quest for hidden treasure…
Your task is to eat the flesh of the leaves until you reach the heart (the hidden treasure deep inside the artichoke). Your only tools are your teeth, a knife and a spoon. To assist your quest carry with you at all times a lubricating elixir of vinaigrette or melted butter and lemon. To extract the flesh gnash your teeth at each leaf until it surrenders its goodness. You are now ready to begin the quest…
First, you must break through the tough and weathered outer ring of leaves. The flesh is stringy and hard but will whet your appetite for more.
Proceed inward, foraging through more compliant and tasty middle-layer leaves. Stay here a while, there are rich pickings…
Then venture onward, gnashing your teeth as you go, past the inner ring of delicate, purple-tinged leaves.
Continue your passage until you reach a gossamer veil of petals covering the precious central core of the artichoke.
To complete your quest you must lift the veil and remove the notorious and fearsome ‘choke’ – a spiky barrier protecting the tender heart below. Your challenge is to coerce the choke’s fibrous tendrils into releasing their tenacious hold on your prize. Using skillful manipulations of knife and spoon, you will soon discover where the weaknesses lie.
Once the choke has been removed and conquered, your treasure will be revealed – the heart of the artichoke. The quest is complete.
All that remains is to revel in the sensuous pleasure of devouring – piece by piece – the delicious heart…
So you’re sitting in a posh restaurant and the Côte de Agneau aux Morilles has been served – but wait, where are the greens?
It seems vegetables in restaurants are either non-existent or used as sparse scatterings to decorate a dish. This style of eating throws me – the staggered multiple courses together with a light hand on the vegetable box leaves me feeling bloated. What we need is a yin and yang approach – a little richness offset with loads of veg! Most restaurants will serve veg as a side dish – but ordering a side of vegetables invariably draws raised eyebrows from fellow diners – and certainly patronising smirks from the waiter – as if thinking, you silly man, you are eating in a fine dining room not a canteen…
Meat and seven veg
At home, I try to provide a balanced diet. That means two or three vegetables with each meal. In fact for a Sunday roast, the number of vegetables can rise exponentially: potatoes, parsnips, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, beans, peas, etc.
Most people think vegetables are bland, boring or pointless. This is not the case. Vegetables, can be full of flavour and texture – delicious even. They just need to be prepared and cooked carefully. Grey, mushy overcooked broccoli is spoiled as best used for soup.
I consider one of my best qualities as a home cook is to cook vegetables – it requires just as much attention and skill as any other aspect of cooking. The following is a quick guide to how I cook normal side-dish style vegetables:
Broccoli and beans: Like all green vegetables the most important thing is appearance. They should be bright green and attractive. The easiest way to ensure they look their best is not to overcook – err on the side of very slightly under-cooked. Boil in plenty of salted water, keep the heat on full-blast so that it quickly boils again and cook until just tender and still a bit firm – no more than 4 minutes or so. Then drain and keep warm uncovered and serve soon.
If you cannot cook your greens just before serving, try cooking as above but immediately plunge the drained greens in ice-cold water, then drain. Just before serving – reheat in a large frying pan with lid and a small amount of water or stock – butter is optional, but often finds its way into my green veg. This is a hangover from my childhood – but go easy on butter – it’s not to everyone’s taste.
My final method of cooking broccoli or beans is to steam in a wok or covered large sauce pan. Use a small amount of liquid – stock preferably and season with salt and pepper. I add might also add that small knob of ‘optional’ butter. This method keeps the nutrients in the veg, but they need to be served right away.
Carrots: More butter! But there is a scientific reason here… Vitamins and taste molecules are water soluble, so boiling carrots in water will drain the carrots of taste and goodness. Use a half & half method. Put carrots in a heavy-based sauce pan (Le Creuset is ideal), then add a good knob of butter and about 80ml of water or bone stock, season with salt and pepper. You can also add ground cumin or coriander or both. Some recipes will include sugar as in ‘Vichy’ or American ‘glazed’ carrots. But the carrots are really sweet enough as they are.
NB: Chopping carrots: I ring the changes: thin or thick discs, thick or thin or julienne, big or small chunks. A favourite cut is a 3D random rhomboid shape created by rotating the carrot and chopping at an angle.
Peas: It doesn’t matter how you cook frozen peas – just make sure they are not overcooked – a minute or two is good. Use frozen peas for a salad but boil just for 30 seconds or so.
Courgettes: We like these cut into discs and fried in a large pan. But as a side for another dish, steam in a wok or covered large saucepan using a small amount of water or stock. Season at this stage with very little salt and pepper – and perhaps that small knob of ‘optional’ butter.
Spinach and very fresh young kale: It’s impossible to have too much spinach. Use as much as will fit in a large wok with a lid. Wash and drain well and cook on high heat, stirring every minute until it all the spinach has wilted. Drain and squeeze-out excess moisture. It then goes back in wok with a small amount of olive oil and butter (more science here – dairy in spinach helps avoid the metallic itchiness spinach can leave on the roof of the mouth). The spinach is then fried briefly on medium-high heat and excess liquid (and butter) drained.
Kale and cavalo nero (both types of kale): Avoid old kale or kale that is chopped. The stalks are virtually inedible – but in any case they are not nice to eat – so why producers put them in with the leaves in bags of chopped kale? Boil until tender without a lid to retain colour – this will take longer than you might imagine. Refresh kale in cold water for a salad or mix with a dressing whilst still warm. It can be braised with oil or butter – bring out of the boiling water just before it is completely cooked.
Cabbage: Cut a savoy or green cabbage into wedges keeping the root intact. Steam for a few minutes or until just tender then drain – then add a little butter (this time it is not optional) and braise briefly.
The microwave: The microwave turns out to be an excellent way to cook vegetables. Put vegetables in a bowl and cover with cling film or use a specially designed microwave cook bag (heed the warnings about opening – the steam is super-heated!). Vegetables in the microwave will never take more than a few minutes.
These rice balls are a revelation. So simple and so easy. Apparently, in Japan they are eaten in the same way we eat sandwiches. So, what makes them so good and so easy? The answer clearly is not that obvious – otherwise we would be eating them all the time. You have to put your mind to the physics of making rice stay in a ball, then it does become obvious – stickiness. And sushi rice is nothing if not sticky. The same property that ensures the rice stick to your hands – and makes it almost impossible to manipulate – now works in our favour by sticking to itself.
The revelations continue when you realise you can put just about anything in with the rice and that they can be cooked in differently styles. I immediately thought of arancini. The arancini version is particularly successful – and (ahem…) I have to admit an improvement upon the Italian versions (…sorry!) The size is more appealing and the ‘filling’ is much easier to work with.
1. Onigiri Rice Balls
A recipe is not really necessary. It’s common sense really: take some cooked sushi rice (don’t add sushi dressing) and mix with other ingredients. Form into balls and serve with a dressing. I had a soup bowl full of leftover rice and I used 150g of shitaki mushrooms – this made about 10 onigiri. I put the chopped mushrooms in a wok with a lid and some oil and put the heat on low and waited for the moisture to be released from the mushrooms then I turned the heat up and fried and seasoned. I added a little chicken stock and cooked until absorbed in the mushrooms then I mixed in the rice. Form into balls using cling film – then moisten your hands and finish into a neat ball. Garnish with chives or other mini leaves or herbs or sesame seeds. They worked really well with simple soy sauce, but other Japanese dressings would also be good.
2/3. Onigiri with Panko Crumbs and Deep Fried
Then I fried some in oil and then coated others in flour/egg/panko crumbs and deep fried and served with a sweet chilli sauce.
I recently ordered an octopus from my fishmongers. A week later it arrived in a solid frozen block. I went off with the octopus imagining how I might cook it. I settled on three ways. On my return to the fishmongers I mentioned that I cooked his octopus three ways, but because it had eight legs, it was a bit tricky dividing into three! We both laughed. I showed him photographs on my phone; octopus the first way then the second – and then put my phone away. Where’s the ‘third way’ he asked. I said it was in the freezer, as I couldn’t get my wife to eat octopus three nights in a row! We both laughed again. You see? Octopus not only tastes good, it’s also good for a laugh!
1. Spanish style (Galician)
This method first boils the octopus and then cooks it in a quick confit. Tradition has it that putting a wine bottle cork in the water will help to tenderise the octopus. I suspect the freezer will have had more to do with this claim than the cork. My 1080 Recipes, the classic Spanish cookbook also describes a way of plunging the octopus repeatedly into boiling water. We are also told that octopus should be bought with double suckers on the legs (a double-suckered octopus is reputed to have better flavour than the single-suckered type). Whether this kitchen myth or fact is difficult to prove.
Ingredients for 4
1 large frozen octopus – roughly 1.5kg.
2 cloves of garlic crushed
2 large onions, cut through the root into 4 segments each
Bunch of parsley
4 bay leaves
350ml olive oil
Sweet smoke paprika
First prepare the octopus. It should have been cleaned, but it may be necessary to remove the beak and the remainder of the eyes.
Fill a large pan with water and bring to the boil. Add plenty of salt – some say as salty as the sea… but good large pinch should be fine. Add 6 onion segments and the bay leaves. Cook the octopus for an hour but check after 45 minutes to see if it is tender. It may take as long as 1 1/2 hours. The octopus should not be overcooked as it will lose its fresh taste and the suckers will fall away from the legs.
Drain and dry the octopus. Chop the octopus into pieces. Discard the head – though it is still good to eat.
In a small heat the olive oil with the garlic and onion on a low heat for 10 minutes. Strain and discard the garlic and onion. Pour the oil into a large frying pan and add the octopus. Warm on a low heat for 5 minutes.
Drain the octopus and arrange on a platter or plates. Sprinkle over the paprika and garnish with chopped parsley.
2. Italian style
Italian octopus salad
This time the octopus is braised in it own juices i.e. without any additional liquid in the braising pot. Many chefs eulogise about how cooking without water is such a revelation.
Ingredients for 4
1 large frozen octopus – roughly 1.5kg.
1 chilli – de-seeded
3 cloves of garlic
One stick of celery roughly chopped
2 small onions
250g new potatoes
Bunch of parsley
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
First prepare the octopus. It should have been cleaned, but it may be necessary to remove the beak and the remainder of the eyes. Freezing tenderizes the meat so there is no need to bat the octopus.
Put the octopus in a large heavy cast iron pan along with the following: a good glug of olive oil, the sliced chilli, 3 cloves of garlic, one onion cut in quarters through the root (so they stay intact), the celery, the stalks from the parsley and the bay leaf. Put the lid on the pan and put on a low heat. The octopus cooks in its own juices, which will be considerable. Cook for up to 1 ½ hours. Check after a 45 minutes to see how it is doing. The octopus should not be overcooked as the suckers will fall away from the legs. Take off the heat when it is tender and leave to cool.
Boil the potatoes until cooked. Peel the skins when the potatoes have cooled enough to handle. Cut the potatoes into smallish pieces – about the same size as the octopus will be when the legs are cut into sections.
Whilst the potatoes are boiling, chop the onion finely and cook with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until soft and transparent but not coloured. Add the vinegar and reduce until evaporated.
Add the potatoes to a bowl – spoon over the onions and mix. Cut the octopus into sections and add to the bowl. Add a good squeeze of lemon – to taste and check the seasoning.
Squash ½ a garlic clove on a chopping board and add put a small handful of the parsley on top and chop to mix the parsley and the garlic. Put a couple of teaspoons of this onto the octopus and potatoes. Don’t swamp the mixture with parsley.
Place a few salad leaves on each plate and spoon the octopus on top. Garnish with a sprinkle of chopped chives, and a wedge of lemon.
Richard Olney in his book, Simple French food suggests that an octopus would be very good cooked as a daube, i.e. as a French Provencal stew. I had some trepidation with the idea of octopus braised with aromatic vegetables, (as if it were neck of lamb or shin of beef), but in fact it is not that far removed from a zarzuela – or as Mr. Olney mentions, the rich tomato and garlic based sauces associated with seafood, such as a la Setoise, Nicoise or Provencal.
For the daube
1 large frozen octopus – roughly 1.5kg
3 cloves of garlic
2 sticks of celery
2 medium onions
1 red pepper
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 large sprig parsley
300 ml red wine
1 tbs tomato paste
300g green beans
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 sprig of rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 small hand-full chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
This is best cooked to eat the following day.
Defrost the octopus and wash. Remove the beak and clean inside the head. Cut-up the octopus. The head can be cut into 4 and the body into sections of two legs each.
Use a large earthenware casserole with a tight-fitting lid or similar enamel cast iron pot.
Chop the celery, carrot and onions into small pieces, (they will be served with the stew). Slice the pepper into pieces. Crush the garlic cloves. Peel and de-seed the tomatoes.
Place all the ingredients into the pot – add water to cover half way. Place in the oven at low heat – 150C gas 2. Cook for 2 hours. Check the octopus, if it is tender remove from the oven. If not continue to cook until it is tender then remove from the oven.
Leave to cool and refrigerate overnight.
Do not handle or stir the octopus roughly as the attractive purple coating will come off. Carefully remove the octopus pieces and discard the herbs and bay leaves. Heat the cooking sauce in a large pan, add additional fresh thyme leaves, and fresh bay leaf. Reduce the liquid if necessary to make a rich but generous sauce.
Peel and cut the potatoes into serving-sized chunks. Chop the beans into 2cm lengths. Cook the potatoes peas and beans separately in boiling water until just tender. Drain and add to the stew.
Carefully add the octopus to the stew and reheat gently.
Season and serve in large pasta plates with plenty of crusty bread.
The widespread acceptance and enjoyment of sushi has changed our attitude to eating raw fish. We no longer consider it odd, distasteful or even unsafe – now we wolf down our sashimi and maki rolls as if we turned Japanese years ago…
With the sushi mold broken two other raw fish dishes have now appeared, both based on the familiar raw meat dishes carpaccio and steak tartare. The former is thin slices of raw flesh and the latter is either chopped or minced flesh, usually formed in a neat disc. In both cases the fish of choice is invariably tuna, probably because it has a robustness similar to beef. Salmon is more delicate than tuna, both in taste and texture. Marco Pierre White’s tuna carpaccio Niçoise, for instance, includes Mediterranean herbs, olives, capers, peppers and anchovies – a mixture of tastes which is very good on tuna but over-powers the poor salmon.
My carpaccio allows the taste of the salmon to come through. In fact, this is a great example of sourcing not saucing. There are three key ingredients: basil flowers (Africa variety from Casanova & Daughters), Ravida olive oil, and top quality salmon. This recipe is brilliant and is a classic demonstration of how a simple preparation with the best ingredients can produce a stunning dish.
The three main ingredients with lemon zest and salt and pepper. The pastry brush is used to work the olive oil into the salmon. The basil flowers are inside the paper pack. Open the wide end and scrunch between palms to release the herbs. The basil flower variety has a fennel note, with a dry Mediterranean herb taste. A good alternative (tried and tested) is fresh tarragon and a little dried oregano.
This salmon is from the top of a middle side of a fillet, with skin and dark meat removed (the remainder of my piece prepared for sushi – see below). It is about 138g in total – half will cover a normal dinner plate – so the whole piece will make an impressive starter for two.
My Japanese knife does the job beautifully and was a pleasure to use but this is not sushi and the fish will get bashed about later, so any good knife will work perfectly well here. Cut the fillet horizontally in half to make two equally-sized pieces
Put one of the pieces on a large sheet of cling film, then lay another piece on top.
Gently flatten the salmon with a meat hammer or rolling pin. It should expand to twice the surface area of the original piece. The principle is similar to making escalopes – hammer gently from the centre moving the hammer to the outside of the piece as you press down on the flesh – spreading as well as flattening.
Carefully peel the cling from one side turn over the cling film and, very carefully, align the salmon in the centre of the plate and drop down. Again, very carefully, peel the cling away from the fish. NB: I have used the word ‘carefully’ three times because you only have one chance to get this right – the fish is too delicate to move around or preposition once it’s on the plate.
Next spread a good, rich but not too strong or grassy, olive oil over the salmon using a broad pastry knife (I used Ravida olive oil – an excellent oil with tomato, green leaves and apple taste notes). Sprinkle with basil flowers, a little lemon zest, chives, parsley salt and pepper. Serve with wedges of lemon and some good toasted crusty bread.
2. Salmon tartare
Based on the idea of raw chopped or minced beef. Steak tartare usually includes chopped cornichons, capers, and onion – often including mustard and Worcester sauce. It should always have a raw egg on top.
I started with steak tartar as a template and have adapted by taste to make my own version. I like the idea of shallot in the mix to give some texture. I soaked the shallots in water to take away the bitterness and sharp heat of a raw onion. Capers work very well with salmon but I did not want the mix to be overpowered with acid or salt taste so have soaked them as well. Cornichons add too much lingering dill pickle taste so I have omitted and used fresh cucumber int he garnish. Mustard is surprisingly good and even better with anchovy sauce. Lemon is tricky with a tartare. I need the freshness of lemon but do not want to cure the flesh as in a ceviche, so I use the zest and add a squeeze of lemon right at the end. I finish with a salad garnish.
The basic ingredients. For the tartare – (salmon), shallot, parsley, mustard, anchovy sauce, capers and lemon zest. For the garnish: tomato, roasted peppers from a jar, cucumber, chives and parsley. Worcester sauce is used in the egg garnish only (see below).
Chop the salad garnish and put in a bowl ready to mix with a vinaigrette dressing.
100g of good salmon. More than enough for a single starter portion.
Chop with the other ingredients. Mix these to taste. I cut back on the shallot.
Soak the capers in a couple changes of water squeezing out the water. Soak the shallot in water for 15 minutes and dry.
I was not keen on a raw egg on my salmon so I soft boiled my eggs, used the yolks only. Mix with a tablespoon of good thick creme fraîche. Season with salt and pepper, tabasco and Worcester sauce. Add a pinch of xanthan gum powder and form into a quenelle. (Yes, a home cook can use xanthan gum – it’s available at Lakeland.) touch over the egg.
The finished tartare. Form the chopped mix into a patty and add the egg yolk quenelle. Sprinkle unsmoked paprika as finishing touch for the egg. Arrange the salad garnish. Drizzle with extra olive oil and serve with lemon and a slice good crusty toasted bread. It’s really good.
3. Nigiri Style Sushi
Raw fish in the form of sushi was once a esoteric rarity, only available to the travelling cognoscenti. But having been popularised by Yo! Sushi! it’s now omnipresent on the shelves of many fast food outlets such as Pret a Manger, Wasabi and Itsu, or even your local supermarket. There has also seen a rise in sushi bars and restaurants, from the accessible and reasonably priced Sushi Tetsu, to the exclusive and astronomically priced Nobo. But you know what? You don’t need to buy sushi from a chain or an expensive restaurant – you can make it at home.
A few bits from your Japanese store cupboard is all that’s needed for sushi: sushi rice, soy, wasabi, rice vinegar, mooli, salt and sugar
Start making the rice. First rinse the rice. The Japanese have a knack with this. It involves kneading, swishing and straining with the palm of the hand. I don’t get it, I’m afraid, so I use a whisk instead. Rinse the rice about 5 times until the water is clear, as in the photo. By volume I measured 200ml of rice in a measuring jug. This was enough rice for about 14 balls of rice.
Let the rice drain for 30 minutes. This is actually allowing the water to penetrate the surface of the rice rather than ‘drying’.
Put the rice with 250ml water in a heavy pan with lid. Bring to the boil then immediately turn the heat down the lowest setting, put on the lid and cook for 15-20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice steam for 10 minutes.
Make a sushi dressing by gently heating 70ml rice vinegar, 45g sugar (yes – it does seem like a lot! – but you know how the Japanese like their sugar…) and 10g salt. Put the cooked rice in a bowl.
Fold the dressing into the rice – add to taste (I did not use all the quantity I made). Then spread the rice out to cool. In a Japanese home or a sushi restaurant the rice is served ideally a little warm. But at home it is unlikely that we will have the ability to time to this exactitude. Instead, leave the rice until ready. NB: there is sufficient acid, sugar and salt in the dressing to prevent the breeding of harmful microbes in the rice. It will be safe to leave out of the fridge for an hour if necessary. Ideally, serve with cold fish on room temperature rice. Failing guests arriving on time – do use the fridge, especially to keep the fish fresh.
Now the fun part. Making the little balls of rice for the sushi. Use cling film to begin with then form into squat sausage shapes. I find there is not other recourse than to use moistened clean hand – but keep the wetness to an absolute minimum. When you will finish you will know what they mean by ‘sticky’ rice!
Make a mooli garnish while the rice is cooking. Peel the mooli and make julienne slices with a special julienne tool. Freshen the mooli in a bowl of cold water for 10 mins and drain well.
Now the fish. I have used a middle cut of a side of salmon. This piece shows the portion that is suitable for raw fish. It is about 825g. I made all three raw dishes from this single piece – enough for raw starters for two from each recipe, a hot pasta dish from two from the remainder and even a dish of nice brown meat for the cat.
Turn over the fillet and slice off the skin and remove the skin and dark meat – use your best stainless steel knife.
Cut the fillet in half along the original length of the side of salmon. This leaves a thick top half of the filled. I don’t own a sujihiki slicing knife or a yanagiba sushi knife but I do have a Miyabi gyutoh – Western balanced – cooks knife. This knife is thinner and can be made sharper than any of my carbon steel knives. It is also stainless steel so the metal will not taint the delicate fish (which carbon can).
This is much easier than it may seem. With the right knife the salmon cuts like butter. Make your sushi pieces and store in the fridge until ready to prepare.
Form the balls of rice into the shapes shown above, put a little wasabi on the rice. Add the wasabi to taste, I have used quite a lot (!).
Put the fish on each and decorate with chopped chives.
Add the mooli salad garnish and a dipping bowl of soy. All done. Now all you have to do is stop yourself eating it all before it’s ready to serve! Absolutely completely delicious…
We’ve all heard of ceviche – you know, where the lime ‘cooks’ the fish – but why don’t we see more of it?
Ceviche is common way to eat fish in Mexico and Latin America. Could the climate and geography of these regions make it more palatable? Possibly. I can imagine if I travelled to the West coast of Mexico and was sitting in a cantina, basking in the tropical sun, gazing out over the Pacific Ocean while sipping an ice cold cerveza , the mahi-mahi ceviche would go down very well indeed.
Is this the reason ceviche cannot find traction in our cool and temperate land? Or are we just suspicious of the unfamiliar; happier to choose fish that is properlycooked – preferably deep-fried and coated in batter!
Well, what ever the reason, we should be eating this all the time – it really is very good. It’s no more trouble than making a taco and certainly much easier than making fish and chips. Make it as a starter – and use salmon, it works brilliantly.
As well as fish, you can ‘ceviche’ any kind of seafood, Mexicans are fond of using prawns, squid, clams and scallops.
For this much fish (about 180g), I used half a lemon, half a lime, half a small blood orange, half a shallot and 2 tbs ginger beer. I used a good pinch of salt, pepper and sugar. The salmon is skinned and sliced thinly. Slice the shallot thinly, mix all the curing ingredients and pour over the fish. NB: I am using orange, and ginger beer to tone down the sharpness.
Before and after. I cured the salmon for 2 hours. The effects of the cure can clearly be seen. The salmon is opaque all the way through, the slices have some bite and firmness to them and seem like a normal piece of cooked fish. However, it has a fresh and satin-soft texture which is deliciously satisfying.
Drain the salmon and layer green salad leaves, avocado, skinned and cubed tomato, sliced roasted red peppers from a jar, a few of the shallots, chilli and cilantro. Taste and season. Drizzle over some olive oil and serve with lime.
From the tropics to the arctic! Gravadlax is a Scandinavian way of curing fish. Gravad means buried in Swedish and lax means salmon. We’re not talking rotten fermented year-old shark here, quite the opposite. A sophisticated delicacy on a par with traditional smoked salmon. The recipe is simply salted salmon. But the salting is halted after twelve hours to 2 days so that the fish does not loose all its moisture. I’ve used Tom Kime’s recipe in the past and it was good, so have used his ingredients and method here. One starts with salt and sugar – the traditional seasoning is dill and lemon – further aniseed notes are added with the fennel and the star anise – Juniper introduces a hint of Nordic pine . I might experiment with caraway and Juniper – but as you can see below the process is quite involved – so I only make gravadlax on a special occasion. This infrequency mitigates against too much experimentation. (If it’s not broken don’t fix it!)
Ingredients for the cure and presentation. Juniper, star anise, fennel seed, pepper, sugar, dill, lemon and salt.
I used about 200g of Malden salt, crushed the spices in a pestle and mortar and then blitzed the sugar, a quarter chopped lemon with a spoon of salt. Once this was blended I added the rest of the salt and blitzed for a second, then mixed by hand until all blended.
The salmon after 12 hours of curing (and soaking). Discard the curing mixture and soak for 1 hour in cold water changing the water every 15 minutes.
Press lemon rind and chopped dill and pepper into the salmon and cut into thin slices.
Arrange on a cling film and cover with another sheet of cling film. Use a pan to flatten.
Arrange on a plate. Serve as an hors-d’oeuvre or starter with rye sourdough bread, salad and lemon. You could use a thin mayonnaise and mustard dressing.
This is rather similar to ceviche, but the fish is cooked before it is covered with curing liquid. The method is also used for pickling vegetables. In Mexican cooking en escabeche describes a ‘light’ style of pickling, famously used for purple pickled onions and jalapeno chillies (my recipe is based on a jalapeno chilli escabesche). I have recipes from Mexico for octopus and oyster escabeche and in Europe I have also seen it adopted with oily fish such as mackerel. Salmon is also oily and works a treat as an escabeche.
The pickling ingredients: pepper, cloves, dried oregano and thyme, allspice, lime and bay leaves, cumin, salt and pepper, white wine vinegar (with chicken stock at twice the volume of the vinegar.
Veg to go with the pickling liquid.
First heat the stock and add the all the spices and herbs, sugar, salt and pepper and simmer for 5 minutes, then add the vinegar and simmer 2 minutes. Fry the carrots, cauliflower, pepper and garlic (3 cloves, peeled and left whole) for 3 minutes. Then add the shallots and chilli and fry a further 3 minutes. Then add the pickling liquid and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Adjust the timings to suit. We want crunchy vegetables – but cooked sufficiently to mellow the marinade and penetrate the veg.
While the vegetable finish simmering, fry a lightly floured fillet in a pan on a medium high heat. Make sure there is some colouring on the salmon. It should be nearly cooked.
Then transfer to a deep dish and pour over the hot vegetables and liquid to marinate. Leave to cool and refrigerate overnight.
This is the finished the escabeche, marinated overnight. It’s wonderfully peppery, piquant and tangy, making it an ideal starter to stimulate the appetite for the roast dinner to come…
Grilled food is great to eat, it’s quick and easy and it gives an excellent char-grilled flavour to the food. It’s like campfire cooking or even upside-down barbecuing in the comfort of your own kitchen. There are some caveats: for those of us who do not have wall-mounted deluxe grills with commercial extractors, it can get a bit smoky, it can be difficult to see what is going on under the flames and it can be difficult to judge when something is cooked. Clearly these are significant caveats and perhaps the reason why I do not use the grill as much as I would like.
However, having decided to use it for these three marinades I am sold again with the idea of grilling. I would urge you to try one of these recipes, they are superior to almost all others in terms of imparting flavour and tenderness.
Marinades add flavour to food. Acid marinades can tenderise meat depending on the time they are left in the marinade, however, acids on fish will ‘cook’ or denature the fish, as in a ceviche. Adding salt to a marinade makes a brining solution – which will encourage the marinade to penetrate the flesh of meat. But over time salt – especially in higher concentrations – will will draw moisture from fish and cure it. Alcohol will also tenderise and flavour the flesh, but can also denatures the surface. For these fish marinades I have not used citrus or added salt. Alcohol has been used in small amounts.
1. Salmon Teriyaki
Salmon teriyaki is a favourite. The marinade gives the fish a wonderful flavour and protects the fish from drying out under the grill. Teriyaki sauce is popular in America, where it has widely been widely adopted in restaurants and fast food outlets or as a barbecue marinade. I can’t help thinking of Larry David (the ‘teriyaki chicken guy’) in Curb Your Enthusiasm walking into his favourite restaurant with the waiters behind the counter mockingly flapping outstretched chicken-wing arms while singing with a heavy accent: ‘teriyaki chicken – teriyaki chicken!’
The marinade for this is very simple, use 50ml soy to 1 tbs mirin to 1 tbs sugar. Mirin is a sweet sake. Mix the ingredients together until the sugar has dissolved.
The best way to keep marinate the salmon is to put the marinade in a zip-lock plastic bag. Put in the fridge for an hour.
This is what it looks like when it has marinated for an hour.
Put tin foil over the grill rack and grill for about 10 minutes (depending on your grill) turning once. Baste with teriyaki marinade as you grill. The salmon will be cooked if the flesh is opaque when prodded with the tip of a knife or when 60C is registered on a temperature probe. You will need to watch that the salmon does not burn too much – so adjust the position, height and temperature so that it cooks evenly. The marinade includes sugar and soy which easily burn. Check the residues on the tin foil do not catch under the grill. Adjust the heat as you cook allowing the salmon some time at a higher heat to give browning, but also at a lower heat to ensure the salmon is cooked all the way through.
Here is my salmon. It may look overcooked or even burnt – but it is not – it was cooked perfectly. Teriyaki should have a bronzed glaze or lacquer finish (teri – referring to this effect – the yaki meaning to grill). As I mentioned above the sugar and soy will easily burn under a grill – but the odd caught bit is fine. (Think of it as the crispy browned and burnt skin on a piece of grilled chicken.)
The finish salmon plated with brown Japanese rice, green beans and sesame seeds. Serve with a teriyaki sauce made from the marinade which has been heated and strained.
2. Herb and garlic marinade
This is a simple a straight forward marinade for fish. There is no sugar in the marinade so it behaves itself under the grill and is not likely to burn as easily as the Japanese recipes here. It’s based on the flavours of Italian or Mediterranean herbs. For an easy grill recipe this is fairly foolproof.
Herbs are chives, oregano, rosemary, thyme – all fresh. One clove chopped garlic and good olive oil.
Marinate in the fridge for at least half an hour or an hour and more. The open flesh in fish allows marinade flavours to penetrate quicker than they do with meat.
Put tin foil over the grill rack and grill for about 10 minutes (depending on your grill) turning once. The salmon will be cooked if the flesh is opaque when prodded with the tip of a knife or when 60C is registered on a temperature probe. I’ve left quite a bit of the herbs on the underside of the fillet, but only a few on the top in case the herbs and garlic burnt.
Here is the finished fillet. Evenly browned and cooked.
To re-introduce the flavours of the marinade, gently cook the remaining marinade for a few minutes – add more olive oil if necessary.
Serve with a salad and sauté potatoes – drizzle over the strained marinade oil and finish with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon.
3. Miso marinated and grilled salmon
This was inspired by a visit to a Hyper-Japan event at Earl’s Court. The event was full of Japanese foods, products, clothes, popular culture and entertainment. Apart from sampling some good food the biggest treat was enjoying the visitors themselves – most of whom dressed spectacularly in their favourite manga character. Even those that could only manage a pink or purple wig helped to keep a smile on your face. We came away with goodie bags, chop sticks, a bonsai (still surviving) and an Eat Japan recipe for miso marinated salmon…
The miso marinade: 100ml white or other miso, 1 tbs mirin, 1 tbs sake, 1 tbs caster sugar.
Mix it up in a bowl and transfer to a plastic zip-lock bag with the salmon fillet. Marinate overnight or up to two days.
Here it is after marinating overnight.
Put tin foil over the grill rack and grill for about 10 minutes (depending on your grill) turning once. Baste with miso marinade as you grill. The salmon will be cooked if the flesh is opaque when prodded with the tip of a knife or when 60C is registered on a temperature probe. You will need to watch that the salmon does not burn too much – so adjust the position, height and temperature so that it cooks evenly. The marinade includes sugar and miso which easily burn. Check the residues on the tin foil do not catch under the grill. Adjust the heat as you cook allowing the salmon some time at a higher heat to give browning, but also at a lower heat to ensure the salmon is cooked all the way through. The fish should also have a ‘bronzed’ look to it – some charring is fine. The fish will still be tender and moist. (Think of it as the crispy browned and burnt skin on a piece of grilled chicken.)
Serve with edamame beans, mooli garnish and a side of rice. Serve with a soy and lemon sauce (soy with a little sugar and squeeze of lemon).
If frying another piece of salmon fillet is becoming predictable and too familiar, try cutting it up and stir-frying instead. It’s quick and easy – and you’ll find yourself with a highly versatile new ingredient. Stir-frying is a good way to cook salmon – the salmon is robust enough to stay in whole pieces, it will brown in an appetizing manner and stays tender and tasty. Also stir-frying is more economic than frying single fillets as stir-fried fish can be stretched among other ingredients.
In this recipe I stir-fried the salmon as part of a warm Thai salad. You could add the stir-fried salmon to other types of warm salad, as I have in my salmon and spelt salad, or you could make an Italian tomato sauce or a creamy wine and tarragon sauce and serve it with pasta or rice.
Here are the salad ingredients: pak choi (leaves separated from the stalks), carrots, cooked refreshed and drained pad Thai rice noodles, cooked refreshed and drained bean sprouts, pepper, celery, spring onion, ginger, chilli.
A note on bean sprouts. There was a time when we ate bean sprouts raw, however, it turns out that this is no longer considered safe. This is a shame because most of the appeal of a bean sprout is its crunch – which is quickly lost when cooked. The problem lies in our inability to generate sufficient heat at home to cook them quickly. Our only options are to drop them into a commercial vat of boiling water for 10 seconds, or to take them to the local Chinese takeaway and give them a quick stir-fry over their 250,000 BTU wok burner. However, I believe I have found a domestic solution to this conundrum: the microwave cooking bag. I microwaved my sprouts for a couple of minutes and then plunged them into cold water and drained. I can vouch that the sprouts were not only well-cooked but also crunchy.
Skin the salmon – allow about 200g-250 for two people. (This piece is about 180g.)
Cut the salmon. I have cut the salmon differently for each of these three recipes. Here I am cutting into small cubes so they easily distribute through the salad.
Stir-fry the salmon. The wok must be very hot. Then add a small amount of groundnut oil. A typical gas range can only manage a measly 6,000 BTU, so don’t shake, bang and toss the wok about like they do in the takeaway – instead let it sit without moving. After it has browned and coloured on the pan-facing side, stir and toss to redistribute the pieces in the wok. Then let it sit still again to brown and colour. Repeat this process once more. They will be cooked in about 4 minutes or so. Cut one of the pieces to see if it is cooked and then drain and keep warm on a plate.
This fish is cooked perfectly. I might have drained off more fat or dried on kitchen towel – but as it will end up in a salad with an oil based dressing I have not worried. Stir-fying salmon as I shown here will keep the fish in neat pieces. The small fragments you can see are from a single piece that I broke to test for doneness.
This warm salad starts life as a stir fry. Begin with the ginger, onion and chilli.
Then add the salmon and stir to amalgamate the flavours. Set aside in a dish.
Next briefly stir-fry the pepper, carrot and pak choi stalks put into a separate dish.
Mix the dressing ingredients to taste: from top left, nam plah, groundnut oil, soy, chilli oil, lime, palm sugar. The ingredients reflect the sweet, sour, salt, hot combinations that are so characteristic of Thai cooking. NB: the palm sugar will need to dissolve into the dressing – use a small blender or mix ahead of time to allow it to dissolve. Start with a proportion of 3 parts soy, to 3 parts oil, to one part nam plah, to 1 part sugar, to 2 – 3 parts lime – finish with a couple drops of chilli oil if you like.
Finally, toss all the ingredients in a bowl with the dressing and serve.
2. Shallow-fried salmon
This method is a half-way house between stir-frying and deep-frying. The outcome makes perfect salmon nuggets for a fish taco. But the same nuggets could be served any number of ways and would be popular for young children.
Fish tacos are a famous export from Baja California in Mexico. The fish can be battered and deep-fried or grilled. My way is a bit of a cheat and uses only flour and egg – it is very effective and tasty and less oily and fatty than batter. The coating does not have the crispy crunchiness of the deep-fried salmon below, but this is fine as there is plenty of texture and taste – enough to imagine you’re on a Baja beach enjoying Mexican fish and chips!
The basic ingredients are corn or flour tortillas, cabbage for a citrus slaw, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and creme fraiche, mayonnaise and lime for a lime mayo dressing.
Chop and slice the salad ingredients. To make the citrus slaw marinade the cabbage with a good squeeze of lime juice, a large pinch of salt and a little sugar and leave for half an hour – or longer.
The fish fillet does not need to be perfect. You can easily get four good sized tacos from this piece (about 170g).
Cut the fish into random small bits – these shapes suit the nature of tacos. They also make attractive asymmetrical ‘nuggets’ for children.
The beauty of this recipe is the simplicity of preparation. The only ingredients you need are flour and beaten egg. Dip first in the flour and then the egg.
Keep the fish in a bowl until you are ready to fry.
Fry the fish in batches in a very shallow pool of groundnut oil.
Turn when browned and brown on the other side.
Drain on kitchen towels.
Make a lime mayo dressing by mixing equal parts creme fraiche and mayonnaise and add lime to taste.
Make the tacos by heating the flour or corn tortillas in a hot pan (without oil) for a minute on each side. Fill with salad, then fish and then mayo dressing. Chillies are optional.
3. Deep-fried salmon
This time you can imagine you are on holiday in Britain eating scampi and chips!
Here is the tableau of ingredients. I use panko breadcrumbs rather than a batter. It seems neater, and less fatty. Of course deep fried nuggets need something to dip into and tartar sauce is ideal. Finally, if you can go the extra distance, chips are the perfect accompaniment.
Choose a piece of fish between 150g-200g for one person. The fish will go further when it is bread-crumbed (but then more of it is likely to be eaten!) It doesn’t need to be a perfect piece of fish as it will be cut-up and fried. Skin the fillet and cut into scampi-like shapes.
Get four bowls ready with milk, flour, beaten egg, and breadcrumbs. Dip the fish into each bowl in the order listed (you will need larger bowls than those shown in the photo). Keep one hand for wet and one for dry, otherwise you will develop growing clumps of sticky crumbs on your fingertips.
The bread-crumbed fish. These can be left quite happily in the fridge whilst getting on with the tartar sauce or chips.
Heat a large deep pan with vegetable oil and heat up to 180C. Gently slide a few fish into the batter. Do this in batches. If too many are put in at once the temperature of the oil will drop, distorting cooking time and making the nuggets greasy.
Dry the fish on kitchen towels and keep warm.
Here are the ingredients for a tartar sauce. Chopped gherkins, capers, parsley. Creme fraiche, mayonnaise and lemon. When I mixed up the contents of these dishes I found I needed about the same again of mayo and creme fraiche. Some recipes call for shallots, but I find this can make the tartar sauce harsh and difficult to digest. Adding creme fraiche makes a lighter sauce.