Physalis, that tiny paper covered cousin of the tomato is back. If you like a tart little treat you’ll be relishing them just as they are, minus their papery cases (that goes without saying) but if you’re like me, you’ll be looking at them, sitting there looking more than reminiscent of their Mexican cousin the tomatillo, thinking they must have so much more to offer other than the traditional pies and flans. And as there’s nothing like putting a good theory to the test, that’s just what I did.
I’m not really that particular when it comes to good food. I like most of it and I like a lot of most of it (moderation is a work in progress for me; serving sizes have never been my strong point) so perhaps it will surprise you to know that I also love lovely little plates of tapas. Possibly because it represents as good a reason as any to sample most of what the menu has to offer but that’s by the by. I’d find it hard though to condense down though to one or two of my favourite dishes; Spanish cooking always seems so undeservedly underrated to me. From the garlicky prawns to the Serrano hams served with various cheeses all the way through to the octopus salads, simple tortillas, anchovies, olives or padron peppers the choices are almost infinite. And hidden in there comes this dish. I couldn’t even dream of claiming this as one of my own as one of my own; even the briefest trip through Spain will reveal hundreds of variations on the theme but this is my take on it. So good that if you don’t fancy preparing the other bits or bobs for a true tapas feast you can serve a soup bowl full of it up rustic style with a hunk of crusty bread on the side. Make it in advance if you’re that organized and let the flavours develop then serve it a bit warmer than room temperature or stick it in an ovenproof dish and crack a couple of eggs into a couple of wells you made for just that purpose and bake for a different version of heuvos rancheros. Your choice. However you serve it it won’t matter. It’s always delicious.
I do love barbecue season. Bear in mind I live in the UK so the novelty doesn’t really wear off; sadly it can be perilously short. This, coupled with the fact that my husband takes a very hands on approach to cooking when faced with an outside grill or fire (move the grill into the kitchen and you wouldn’t see him for dust) means that I like to enjoy a good barbecue as much as possible. And I know I’m not alone, although perhaps others not for the same reasons as me (do all the prep, let someone else finish off whilst I relax with a Pimms) judging by what I see on the supermarket shelves in the run up to the weekend.
The other week I went on a ‘relaxing’ walking weekend with my sister and mum. Short walks were planned. Well, maybe planned is a bit of an exaggeration. Arguably, had it been a bit more planned we may have finished the short walks we set out on, instead of the marathon length ones we ended up completing. We saw a lot of the countryside; let’s leave it at that. After one such epic journey I sat down to a meal that will stay with me for a long time; a tamarind fish curry. At the time, tired and exceptionally hungry it tasted unbelievably good. I couldn’t wait to get home and try to replicate it. (Obviously after a long soak in a hot bath first.) Mostly to ascertain whether it was the hunger talking or whether it really was as delicious as I remembered. After a bit of research, I played around a bit then served up my version, braced for crushing disappointment. It never came. The resulting curry was just as deliciously fresh tasting as the first. Which was just as well. I really don’t have the time to be roaming the hills for hours working up my already rather healthy appetite.
Summer is finally on its way and although the weather forecast might not really agree, my stomach does and that’s what counts round here. Lighter fare is called for. Which is good news because the half term holidays (not the right time for slow cooking marathons) are here too, bringing with them the lovely relaxed, rush-free days peppered with endless cries of ‘what’s for lunch?’ and ‘when’s dinner?’ Usually before the lunch has even been cleared off the table. I do not exaggerate when I say that two days into the holidays I usually start day dreaming of the return to school, just so the kitchen can be clean for a couple of minutes a day or watching those busy little spring birds with a new found sympathy and respect, slaving around the clock trying to shovel enough food into the mouths of their ever growing offspring. I moan but at least my food gets delivered.
Rhubarb is a funny one. It is a vegetable but it really does think it is a fruit. Although there are more and more savoury recipes out there nowadays more fitting to its veggie status, a quick search of rhubarb recipes will mostly yield a vast array of crumbles, fools and jam recipes. All of which are utterly delicious but all of which my entire family completely eschew for reasons best known to themselves. However I love the stuff and really can’t bear to be defeated in this one. As far as I’m concerned there are no foods you don’t like, only the ways of preparing them. Apart from the devilishly bitter radicchio. The least said about radicchio the better. Just take it from me I have tried. But I digress. Getting back to the point; it follows then that I just haven’t happened upon a way of serving rhubarb yet that they all approve of. Or so I thought.
Samphire (also known as sea asparagus and sea beans), or to call it by its proper name Salicornia, grows along the coastlines of Europe and Northern America and is riding high right now on its cool and trendy status. It takes its name from the French, herb de Saint-Pierre or St. Peter’s herb, presumably because of its love for all things rocky and comes into season properly round me a little bit later in the year. But thanks to this cool and trendy status, you can get it a bit earlier (in time for the arrival of its closest tasting companion; asparagus) if you know where to look. Sadly, the days when the fishmonger would shove a handful in with the fish he was selling you seem to be gone but locating some still shouldn’t be a herculean task. I love the pair of them; not only for how they taste but for what they represent. When they appear, summer must be nearly here. And of course, armed with the two of them, feeling full of pre-summer optimism (despite these endless April showers. Not too much to ask is it? It is May after all) you can knock up a really quick and fancy meal loaded with fresh spring flavour without leaving the house.
Both asparagus and samphire are really good for you; a fact you could probably guess at looking at their bright green colour. They are both rich in fibre, vitamin A and C, good sources of folate and they’re packed with minerals. Not forgetting that asparagus has a glutathione (anti- inflammatory, anti-aging, detoxifying wonder anti-oxidant) level to rival that of brussel sprouts and that samphire has a linoleic acid (omega 6) level similar to safflower oil. And, arguably more importantly, they are gorgeous to look at and to eat. I like them with a bit of bite so this quick way of cooking them is a great trick to have up your sleeve. Coupled with the classic and amazingly healthy combination of garlic, chilli and ginger the veg is the star of this show and choice of adding prawns/ shrimp is yours. I do love asparagus and samphire with seafood but this recipe is nothing if not flexible. I wouldn’t have a problem with anyone if they served this to me as a meat free option but then again, not many meat eaters would complain about the addition of some thinly sliced rare beef either. One thing’s for sure though; once you’ve made it, and however you have made it, you will want to eat it again and again.
On a final note, do not panic if you can’t get your hands on samphire. Just double up your asparagus and it’ll be almost as good. You may need to check your seasonings though. One of the beauties of cooking with samphire is that, due to its exposure to all that lovely sea air, it takes away your need for any extra salt; it has its own already.
Ginger and Garlic Chilli Prawns with Asparagus and Samphire Noodles Recipe
A good splash of chilli oil (or add extra cayenne if you’re using plain olive oil)
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 cms fresh ginger grated
3-4 cloves garlic crushed
200g king prawns (shrimp)
100g petit pois
100g fine green asparagus stems, woody ends removed and sliced in half (horizontally not vertically)
A good tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
Juice and zest of a lime
3 tbsps semi dry sherry
1 tsp fish sauce
A pinch of sugar
One ‘nest’ of fine egg noodles per person
Heat the oil in a large frying pan, or better still a wok and add the ginger, cayenne pepper, garlic and the prawns.
Fry the prawns for 2-3 minutes until they turn pink and are just cooked through. Keep everything moving around the pan as you don’t want the garlic to catch.
Take the prawns out of the pan and keep to one side, leaving as many of the spices as possible in the pan.
Add the asparagus and samphire to the pan and stir fry, moving them around the pan every so often, for another 3 minutes. Do not add any salt; you will find that the samphire will be salty enough.
Boil the kettle and get your noodles ready. Cook the noodles with the petit pois according to the packet instructions; 3 minutes is usual.
Add the sherry to the hot pan with the asparagus and samphire. Let it sizzle for a good minute then turn the heat right down and add the fresh lime zest and juice, the fish sauce and sugar. If you feel you may need extra sauce add a tablespoon or so of the noodle cooking water. Return the prawns to the pan.
When the noodles are cooked, drain them and pour the veg and sauce over the and toss to combine.
Serve sprinkled with the chopped coriander and with extra lime wedges. Delicious.
I’ve sung the praises of middle Eastern food before on this blog but I haven’t yet touched on Ful. Ful Medames (also spelt foule mudammas or Ful mudammes) is a mouth wateringly delicious Egyptian breakfast dish popular all over the Levant. The recipes vary as much as the region but essentially it consists of cooked broad (fava) beans blended with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and cumin. A bit of a surprise it hasn’t cropped up here yet then; full as it is with all my favourite flavours. I have to confess though that I hadn’t tried it at all until recently when a good friend of mine (who experienced it first hand from the Syrian refuges she helps out) pointed me in its direction. I owe her; I’ve been hooked ever since my first mouthful and amazed that the rest of the world doesn’t want to start the day with the same style.
I think we all know by now how I feel about fresh lemons and in particular their juice. What I haven’t shared with you yet though is my love of preserved lemons. Preserved lemons, that staple of North African cuisine, are so simple to make it always surprises me that more of us don’t give it a go (You can here). I suspect this is more than likely a by-product of their new and trendy status; gorgeous packaging and sometimes eye watering prices (especially round me where they are only really available in the delis) all give the impression that they are something super special and successfully disguise the fact that they are simply salted lemons. But despite this simplicity, or perhaps because of, they are an ingredient that nobody should have to live without; blessed as they are with that amazing ability to lift even the most mundane food with their unami flavours to something divine.
One of the reasons why meat free Monday is such a great idea is that cooking veg is usually much less time consuming than a similar meat dish would be (in fact for that reason I think I’d change it to meat-free mid week if it were up to me, but all you meat lovers out there can breath a sigh of relief- it isn’t). And right now we’re finally coming to the time of year now when nature is really on our side, when most of the veg just needs the briefest of cooking times or even just dressing, helping make our lives so much easier and stress free. And tastier. Take this family friendly curry for example. It’s jam packed full of some really healthy spices and is ready in just less than half an hour. Perfect for any mid week night when the time (and more probably inclination) just isn’t there for starting on dinner preps before lunch is even finished.