Chana Masala

Indian restaurant food has the undeserved reputation of being unhealthy. I struggle to understand how this has come about, when you examine the ingredients used in freshly-made Indian food and compare it to the ingredients list of any ready-meal or processed foodstuff it is immediately plain which option is the healthier.

Admittedly, I have had (poor) Indian meals in the past that have been swimming in ghee, but that’s bad cooking, not bad cuisine.

Chana Masala is one of my favourite healthy foods; the chick peas are stuffed full of fibre, protein, trace minerals and vitamins, while the spices are a smorgasbord of antioxidants. It’s very filling, so you don’t have to eat much to feel satisfied, and because it is a ‘dry’ dish if you ever see any oil then you know it has been poorly prepared.

I worked my way through a great many recipes for this, tweaking and testing along the way, until I finally came up with this perfect copy of the unbeatable chana masala that my local Indian restaurant serves up.

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RECIPE – serves 4

250g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight

1 tbsp flour

1 tbsp fine sea salt

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 bay leaf

2 cinnamon sticks

2 tbsp ghee (or vegetable oil if making vegan)

2 large onions, halved and finely sliced

4 garlic cloves, finely sliced

a large thumb of fresh ginger, cut into matchsticks

1 long green chilli, finely chopped (remove the seeds if you don’t want the extra heat)

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp paprika

1 tsp turmeric

1 1/2 tsp garam masala

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

a pinch of sea salt

250ml cold water

1 lemon, zest and juice

2 tsp golden caster sugar

a big handful of fresh coriander, chopped


METHOD

The evening before, soak the dried chick peas in plenty of water (they will absorb a lot) with 1 tbsp flour, 1 tbsp fine sea salt and 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda, stir well and set aside.

The next day, rinse the chick peas well, there should be no salt left on them. Put into plenty of water with the bay leaf and cinnamon sticks and bring to the boil, then simmer for 60-90 minutes until they are soft and tender, skimming off any scum if necessary. You may need to add more water as it evaporates. If you have a pressure cooker it will save you a lot of time, cook as per the instructions for your device (mine takes around 25 minutes).

Drain and set aside, removing the bay leaf and cinnamon sticks.

If you are using tinned chickpeas, use two tins; you won’t need the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda, bay leaf or cinnamon sticks.

Heat the ghee (or oil) in a large pan, when hot cook the onion over a low heat for 10-15 minutes until softened but not coloured, then turn the heat up and cook for another couple of minutes until they are lightly browned. Make a paste out of the ground coriander, ground cumin, paprika, turmeric, garam masala and cayenne pepper by putting them into a small bowl and adding a little water. Set aside for now.

Add the garlic, ginger, chilli and cumin seeds, turn the heat off for a moment and stir thoroughly in the hot pan for a couple of minutes. Turn the heat back on and add the spice paste. Cook on for a minute, stirring so everything is thoroughly coated, then add the tinned tomatoes and a pinch of sea salt. Stir thoroughly again, add the water, bring to the boil then add the drained chickpeas. Simmer gently for as long as it takes to reduce the sauce to a thick and sticky consistency.

At this point you can leave the chana masala to sit for a few hours until you are ready to eat. Giving it time will intensify and soften the flavours.

When ready to eat, warm the chana masala gently and add the sugar. Just before serving stir through the lemon zest and juice, top with a little garam masala and fresh coriander. Garnish with onion salad and a birds-eye chilli lightly fried in a little ghee.

This is great served alongside Basmati rice, naan bread and carrot and ginger salad or carrot salad with cardamom, ginger and lemon.

Preserved Lemons

I love middle-eastern food, it is fast becoming my go-to cuisine when I’m not sure what to cook. It’s the intense bursts of flavour coming from unfamiliar ingredients that keeps on drawing me back: the dark smokiness of dried limes; the sharp intensity of barberries; the intoxicating aromas of dukkah and za’atar, and the sunshine brightness of preserved lemons.

I had been buying preserved lemons for years, until I discovered just how easy it was to do at home. Is there any point to making your own rather than just buying them in? Not really, except for the satisfaction of having yet another thing in the pantry that you have made yourself. It’s a good feeling.

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RECIPE 

Lots of ripe unwaxed lemons

120g fine sea salt per 1kg of lemons


METHOD

First, sterilise your chosen jar and its lid: heat the oven to 140C/ gas 1 and wash your jar and lid in hot soapy water, rinse and let them dry out in the warmed oven. When you take them out to use them, keep your grubby fingers away from the insides of the lid and jar or you will undo your good work.

Wash the lemons well, trim off the pointed end and cut through the lemons so you have four segments, still attached together at the stem end. Sprinkle the salt into each lemon, then push the lemons down into the jar, as hard as you can so they are under pressure. When you cannot fit any more lemons into the jar, fill the spaces with more freshly squeezed lemon juice so the lemons are completely covered. The quantity of salt that you will need is determined by the total weight of the lemons that you used, including those that you only used the juice from.

Seal the jar and leave in a cool dark place for a month, at which point the lemons will be ready to use. You can use the flesh, though it is the peel that is used more often – chopped finely and sprinkled into salads, stews, soups, tagines… anywhere a burst of citrus is required. You can also use the briny juice as a seasoning.

Be sure to keep the preserved lemons in the jar covered in juice at all times, adding more freshly squeezed lemon juice if necessary, and these will last for as long as you need them.

Home-Made Chilli Oil

I am always looking for ways to get more flavour into my food, one of the easiest ways is to carefully choose which oil you cook with. That subject deserves an essay all its own, suffice to say that when cooking anything spicy – whether it is from Italy, Thailand or anywhere in-between – chilli oil can add even more zing to your meals.

I have always found store-bought flavoured oils to be either insipid or rough, whereas what I need from a flavoured oil is character with subtlety. Beware though: this chilli oil can be fierce, nothing subtle here! It is easily diluted though, so if you want the character that it brings but aren’t too keen on obvious heat just add a few drops to the pan with your regular oil.

I find this works extremely well as a drizzle on a pizza straight from the oven, tossed through drained pasta, or used on its own as a cooking oil in place of regular oil. When you cook, make the first question you ask yourself: ‘which oil shall I use?’ and you will soon find endless ways to use this oil.

The quantities used in the recipe are extremely flexible; I tend to make this in 200ml batches and store it in a cool, dark cupboard. It will keep for ages if you follow the instructions, and as it ages it develops more heat and, bizarrely, more subtlety.

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RECIPE 

150ml olive oil

30 red birds-eye chillies, finely sliced, seeds left in

1 tbsp dried chilli flakes


METHOD

First, sterilise your chosen jar or bottle, and its lid: heat the oven to 140C/ gas 1 and wash your jar and lid in hot soapy water, rinse and let them dry out in the warmed oven. When you take them out to use them, keep your grubby fingers away from the insides of the lid and jar or you will undo your good work.

To ensure that you make exactly the right amount, put the sliced birds-eye chillies and dried chillies in your chosen jar, then top up with regular olive oil until the jar is very nearly full. Empty the entire contents of the jar into a small saucepan and gently warm the oil for a few minutes until the pan is too hot to touch. Leave it to cool for ten minutes or so, then put the chilli oil back into your jar. You can use it immediately, but when it has been infusing for a couple of weeks it is an absolute knockout.

Oven-Baked Fish with Tomato and Parsley

The aroma that filled my kitchen last night was indescribable – I am yearning for the day that some clever boffin invents a way to transmit smells across the internet. Until then, you’ll have to take my word for it, unless you decide to make this for yourself, and I strongly recommend that you do – delicious food doesn’t come much easier than throwing some flavourful ingredients into a casserole and sticking it in the oven.

This Greek-inspired recipe comes from ‘Falling Cloudberries’ by Tessa Kiros, a book my wife initially bought just because it was a beautiful book. The picture below comes from that book, and when I first laid eyes on it I knew we were having it for dinner that night. I have made it several times since, and every time I do my wife says she could happily eat this every night for the rest of her life. Praise indeed.

Tessa Kiros claims that this tastes great straight from the fridge; I have to wonder how she ever has any leftovers to put in the fridge!

This needs nothing more than some crusty farmhouse or sourdough bread to wipe every trace of sauce from the casserole, your bowl and your cutlery.

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RECIPE – serves 4 

1 kg firm white fish fillets (cod, hake, haddock or similar)

1 400g tin of chopped tomatoes

a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, stalks and leaves chopped separately

4 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

the juice of 2 large lemons

2 celery stalks, with some leaves, finely chopped

1 tsp golden caster sugar

3 tbsp olive oil

farmhouse or sourdough bread to serve


METHOD

Heat the oven to 200C/ Fan 180C/ gas 4. Place your fish fillets between pieces of kitchen paper to absorb any excess liquid and set aside.

In a casserole, mix together the tinned tomatoes, chopped parsley stalks, garlic, lemon juice, celery and sugar with the olive oil. Season, then cover with the lid, or some foil, and bake in the oven for 30 minutes or so, then remove the lid, stir and place back in the oven uncovered.

Lightly season the fish fillets and cut into chunks around 2 inches thick.

When the sauce has been uncovered in the oven for ten minutes, place the fish pieces into the sauce with the parsley leaves and ensure that each piece of fish is covered by the sauce. Put back in the oven for ten minutes or so, until the fish is just cooked and flakes easily. By now the sauce will be rich, thick and unctuous.

Take to the table with a big spoon, some bowls and plenty of bread, and bask in the appreciation that will surely follow.

Carrot salad with Cardamom, Ginger and Lemon

At the risk of being boring, once again I am going to extol the virtues of delicious, fresh ingredients coming together and doing their thing, with minimum interference. Putting together a great salad – any side dish in fact – is like putting together a great guest-list for a party, every element must contribute something to the whole, and the more variety you have the more interesting the result. The most important proviso – for parties as well as food – is that every element must get on with the others, otherwise it can be a disaster.

Every element in this dish has a clear and well-defined job, and when they come together… well, make it, taste it, and find out…

This is an excellent accompaniment to anything spicy: Middle-Eastern dishes and curries in particular.

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RECIPE – serves 4 to 6 people as a side dish

A good thumb-sized knob of ginger, roughly chopped

1/2 red onion, roughly chopped

1kg very fresh organic carrots, topped and tailed

the zest and juice of 2 lemons

1/2 tsp ground cardamom seeds

5 tbsp extra virgin olive or rapeseed oil

2 tsp flaked sea salt

1 tsp golden caster sugar

1 pinch of freshly ground white pepper

a small handful of chopped coriander leaves, or whole mint leaves to garnish


METHOD

Using a food processor makes this extremely quick and easy to make. First, cut away any ugly rough bits of the skin of the ginger, but otherwise leave it unpeeled. Roughly chop it then process it in the food processor, until it is chopped. Now add the red onion and process again.

Change the chopping blade for the grating attachment and grate the carrots into the processor bowl with the ginger and onion, then tip the whole lot into a large bowl and, using your fingers, mix everything thoroughly.

If you don’t have a food processor then you are going to be busy using a grater on the ginger, onion and carrots so allow some time to do this.

Grate the lemon zest over the carrot mixture, and take a small handful of cardamom seeds and gently bash them with a mortar and pestle. Take the seeds out of the husks, and pound them into a powder. Set aside for a moment.

To make the dressing, mix together the lemon juice, oil, salt, sugar, white pepper and cardamom, mix well then drizzle it over the carrot mixture. Toss well so everything is coated, then put into a cold place and leave to sit for a couple of hours for the best flavour – you can of course serve it immediately if you wish.

Stir through some finely chopped coriander leaves just before serving, or scatter with a small handful of whole, small mint leaves.

Basmati rice with Butter and Lemon

Rice is often written off as a mere afterthought, a side dish intended to bulk out the main element of a meal. It doesn’t have to be that way though, with just a little thought your rice can be used to add extra layers of flavour that enhance the overall dish.

This extremely simple twist on plain boiled rice lends a bright, luscious tang to anything you serve it with. I mostly use boiled rice with curries, but even in those circumstances where strong flavours and aromas abound, the flavours here manage to augment and improve the main dish.

Use unsalted butter here, it allows you complete control over the amount of salt you use.

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RECIPE – serves 4 to 6 people as a side dish

a good knob of unsalted butter (around 30g)

1 long strip of lemon rind

400g basmati rice


METHOD 

Using a potato peeler, peel a single long strip of rind from an unwaxed lemon, it may take a little practice but try to ensure you have as little of the white pith as possible.

Put the butter, lemon rind and a pinch of salt in a large pan with around a litre of cold water. Bring to the boil, and allow it to boil for a couple of minutes while you rinse your basmati rice in a couple of changes of cold water. Rinsing rice isn’t strictly necessary these days, but even so you will see the first change of water turn quite cloudy as you rinse off any excess starch and dust.

Add the rice to the boiling water, then bring the water back to the boil. Just before it actually boils, reduce the heat so the water is at a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered for around 6-8 minutes, checking the rice frequently toward the end of the time. When the grains are fully soft yet retain their shape and a little bite, they are ready.

Remove the lemon rind, drain the rice, fluff it up and serve. A little finely chopped coriander leaf adds more visual and taste-bud interest.

Tip: Back in the days when I could only manage to cook a small handful of simple dishes, the one and only thing that I could cook well was rice. In my hands it always had perfect bite coupled with softness, each grain was distinct and separate from its neighbour and there was no hint of stodginess. Then it all went wrong.

I learned that the way I cooked rice was incorrect. I convinced myself that I should be using exact volumes of rice and water, cooking for exact times, sealing pan lids, leaving it to sit for ages, using tea towels as steam absorbers – the more instructions I followed, the more I got away from the simple pleasures of cooking rice simply, the worse my rice got.

My wife was in despair; “you have lost your rice mojo” she told me. Eventually I did the sensible thing and went back to cooking my rice the wrong way, and now it’s perfect again.

In my world, you put your rice in the largest pan you have and cover it in a lot of cold water, at least an inch of water over the level of the rice. Season the water with a very little salt and over a high heat bring the water up toward boiling point. Before it actually boils, turn the heat right down so that the water settles into a very gentle simmer. This will prevent the rice grains from bursting.

The time it takes your rice to cook can differ greatly, so check your rice after 3 or 4 minutes at the simmer and check it every minute thereafter. Your grains should be soft but with a definite firmness to the grain. Overall, your pan of rice should emerge as clean, distinct grains that will be a pleasure to eat.

Yellow Split Pea Soup

It’s raining outside, the day is cold and grey and miserable. It is days like these that yellow split pea soup was invented for – one mouthful and you might just find yourself wishing that every day was cold and grey and miserable, just so you had an excuse to make this more often.

This is yet another deceptively simple soup, made great by a beautiful homemade stock, and transformed by the addition of a little mace.

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RECIPE – serves 4 to 6 people

2 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely diced

1 celery stick, finely chopped

2 bay leaves

2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

a couple of blades of mace, ground to make 1/2 tsp powder

500g yellow split peas

approx. 1.5 litre vegetable stock

1 tsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla) or Marmite

To serve: 

a small bunch of coriander leaves, chopped


METHOD 

In a large pan, heat the oil and gently fry the onion, carrot, celery and the bay leaves for around 10 minutes until just softened, then add the garlic and mace. Mix well and cook gently for a minute or two, stirring frequently and taking care not to burn the garlic and mace.

Add the yellow split peas, give it a good stir then add the vegetable stock and the fish sauce. Bring to the boil then simmer, covered, for an hour or so until the yellow split peas are soft and the soup has turned thick and sludgy. Keep an eye on the liquid, you may need to add a little more as it cooks. Season when the split peas are fully cooked.

Ideally, at this point leave your soup to sit for a few hours so that the flavours can develop, the longer you can leave it the better it will be. This really works, but if you eat it straight away it will still be delicious.

To serve, scatter with the coriander and eat it warm, rather than boiling hot.

To make it suitable for a vegan, simply omit the fish sauce; it can be replaced with 2 teaspoons of Marmite which has a similar umami nature.

Brazilian Squash and Black Bean Soup

Another in an unending series of amazing winter soups, perfect for those long, dark, cold evenings. This one, again, manages to be so much more than the sum of its parts – put it down to great ingredients, being allowed to exhibit their greatness.

In my recipe notebook there is a little annotation beside this one, it simply says: ‘Wow!’

This is why I love winter, food like this.

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RECIPE – serves 4 to 6 people

1 butternut squash, chopped into 2cm chunks

2 tbsp olive oil + 1 tbsp to coat the squash when roasting

1 large onion, chopped

1 tbsp cumin seeds, dry-fried and ground

1 tbsp coriander seeds, dry-fried and ground

2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

2 red chillies, finely chopped (seeds left in if you like heat)

1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped into 1cm chunks

1 tbsp fresh thyme, leaves only

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

1 litre vegetable stock

1 tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla) or Marmite

150g dried black beans

100g frozen sweetcorn

1 tsp light muscovado sugar

2 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped

the zest and juice of 1 lime

To serve: 

a small bunch of coriander leaves, chopped

50g per person bulghur wheat, toasted


METHOD 

The conventional wisdom is that you should soak the black beans in plenty of water, the evening before you use them. However, after much back-to-back testing it is plain that not soaking them makes them blacker, more beany and flavourful, at the cost of having to cook them for a little longer. How long? Around 90 minutes or so, until they are soft but retain bite and texture – the older your beans the longer they will take. To cook them, use a big pan and plenty of water, into which you have put an onion – halved but otherwise intact – an orange, again halved and gently squeezed, and then put both halves in the water, and a couple of whole, peeled garlic cloves. Bring to the boil then simmer until ready. If you have a pressure cooker then life is much simpler, follow the guidelines for your device but cook them for around 20-25 minutes. When cooked, remove the onion, orange and garlic and set the beans aside.

You don’t have to do all this, but for some reason using dried beans adds more flavour, and when cooked using aromatic ingredients the flavours are amped up even higher; tinned beans are fine though, no need to feel guilty.

While you are preparing the beans, coat the squash chunks in a little oil, season lightly and roast in a 200C/ gas 6 for around 30 minutes until soft and just starting to caramelise at the edges. This is another worthwhile step; roasting vegetables accentuates their sweetness and adds further dimensions to any dish in which they are used.

Put the cumin and coriander seeds in a small pan (not non-stick) and heat gently with no oil for a few minutes until they are aromatic and the cumin seeds are just starting to pop. Tip onto a metal plate to cool, then either crush in a mortar and pestle or grind to a powder using a coffee grinder reserved exclusively for spices.

Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onions for around 10 minutes until just softened, then add the cumin and coriander, garlic, chopped chillies, chopped red pepper, thyme and chilli flakes. Mix well and cook gently for a minute or two, stirring frequently and taking care not to burn the garlic or dry herbs and spices.

Add the squash, with sufficient stock to cover everything (it may not require the whole litre) and add the fish sauce. Bring to the boil then add the black beans, sweetcorn and sugar, then simmer for 15 minutes.

Ideally, at this point leave your soup to sit for a few hours so that the flavours can develop, the longer you can leave it the better it will be. This really works, but if you eat it straight away it will still be delicious.

Five minutes before serving, roughly chop the tomatoes (as a guide, chop into around 12 pieces) and add to the simmering soup then, just before serving, finely grate the zest of the lime into it and squeeze in the lime juice, stir thoroughly and check and adjust the seasoning. Scatter with the coriander and top each bowl with a few spoonfuls of toasted bulghur wheat.

To make it suitable for a vegan, simply omit the fish sauce; it can be replaced with 4 teaspoons of Marmite which has a similar umami nature.

Vanilla Extract

First, a word of warning: never, Never, NEVER buy vanilla essence. It’s a nasty chemical substitute for the real thing.

Second: make your own vanilla extract. It is ridiculously simple and involves nothing more than two ingredients. Even the most pure and expensive commercially-produced vanilla extract contains a number of additional elements, including sugar. You don’t need them in your life. What you DO need are two kinds of vanilla extract: made with vodka for a clean vanilla taste, and made with dark rum for a darker, more complex caramel flavour. Experiment with both kinds in your baking and you will soon be turning out cakes so good you would swear they had been made by Mary Berry.

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RECIPE – makes 100ml

1 vanilla pod, split lengthways

100ml of vodka or dark rum


METHOD 

It doesn’t get any easier than this: put both halves of the split vanilla pod into a 100ml bottle (the exact size is largely immaterial, anything between 50ml and 120ml will produce perfect vanilla extract). Top up with the vodka or rum, then put the lid on and set it aside for at least a month. It will last for as long as you need it to, but if my experience is anything to go by you will use it up pretty quickly once you discover just how good it is.

Red Lentil and Bulgur Soup

This is an astonishing soup; lentils, rice and bulgur wheat are not exactly exciting ingredients on their own, but here the alchemy that occurs between them is unbelievable. It isn’t even that it is heavily spiced to bring the flavour in, the aromatics here are only garlic, paprika, a little chilli and some dried mint, it’s just magical.

I have heard it said, many times, that making soup is the absolute best way to learn about flavour; this soup proves it, and the drizzle that goes over the top hammers the point home even more forcefully.

Warming, filling and deeply satisfying, this soup goes perfectly with Pide bread or Middle-Eastern focaccia.

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RECIPE – serves 4 to 6 people

3 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

2 tbsp sweet smoked paprika

1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 tbsp tomato puree

200ml passata

250g red lentils, rinsed

50g basmati rice, rinsed

1.5 litres vegetable stock

50g bulgur wheat, toasted

1 1/2 tbsp dried mint

1 tsp salt

For the topping:

2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

1 tsp sweet smoked paprika

1 tsp dried mint

a small pinch of chilli flakes


METHOD 

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat and add the onion, cook for 5-10 minutes until softened then add the garlic, paprika and chilli flakes and cook for a further minute or so. Add the passata and tomato puree and stir thoroughly. Add the lentils, rice and stock, bring to the boil then simmer for 25 minutes until the lentils are very soft and pulpy.

Meanwhile, toast the bulghur wheat, full instructions for doing so are here.

Add the toasted bulgur wheat and dried mint, and cook for a further ten minutes until the bulgur has softened, then add the salt and check and adjust the seasoning.

Add the paprika, mint and chilli flakes to the melted butter, serve the soup in warmed bowls and drizzle a little of the infused butter over the top. To make this vegan, use warmed olive oil instead of melted butter.

Prepare to be amazed!