This is a manic time of year, right? Exams to get them through, then school sports days, holidays to plan and on top of all that the garden explodes. Literally explodes. I swear, I went out of the house one morning and my garden was all neat and tidy and I came back to a jungle. I have noticed that I usually develop a more tolerant approach to weeds about this time of year and advise you do too; changing my definition from a plant growing in the incorrect place to anything goes as long as it’s not a stinging nettle. Evil things that they are.
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.
You’ve got to love the humble courgette or zucchini as it’s known over the water haven’t you? Originally from the Americas, over the centuries the popularity of this firm fleshed fruit masquerading as a vegetable (like the rest of its fradulent family, the squashes) has spread world wide. It’s true that it often doesn’t really shine simply boiled as a veggie side (you should hear the cries of ‘boring!’ when I serve them up like that in my house) probably because of their rather inconvienient tendency to carry on cooking as they sit on the table but they are so versatile that you really shouldn’t feel the need to stop there anyway.
When I grew up home cooked food could be pretty much divided up into four categories. There was the standard British fare, the Mediterranean which was basically Italian with a bit of French mixed in, Chinese and Indian. All delicious but (even back then) not considered exotic. But that all changed about twenty years ago when Thai food hit the mass market in the UK big time. I remember the first time I tried a green curry well; it was so totally different from anything I’d had before. Obviously everyone else felt the same because it didn’t take long for green and red curries to make it onto everybody’s monthly meal rotation and for curry pastes of varying quality to hit the supermarket shelves. I admit it; it was enough for me. I kind of fell out of love with them. That is until last week.
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.
Recently we’ve started growing our own mushrooms. It’s not as complicated as it sounds; we took the lazy route and bought the kits and grew them on old coffee grounds. As long as you remember to water them, three weeks after you crack the pack open you’ll have your first harvest of organic, homegrown mushrooms. Much cheaper than you’ll ever get in the shops and so much fresher. But, of course they all enthusiastically appear at once so you’ve got to be able to deal with the inevitable glut you’ll have on your hands. (Especially if you follow my family’s super size philosophy and have three packs on the go at once.)
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.