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.

Vegetable Stock

There really is no secret to creating great-tasting dishes; if you use good-quality ingredients and cook them well, then finish with a sympathetic garnish, you are already 80% of the way there. To raise a dish from the great to the fantastic you will need to find the final 20% though, and that’s where getting the basics right really counts.

If you start your dish with a great home-made tomato sauce or stock the results can be unbelievable. Suddenly, restaurant-quality food will start to emerge from your kitchen. There is a reason that professional chefs of any quality never use stock cubes or powders and it is for this reason that this, of all the recipes I will ever publish, is without a doubt the most useful and most important.

Sure, it takes a little time to make a great stock, but apart from the five minutes it takes to roughly chop the ingredients you can spend all that time doing something else – like sitting down with a cuppa and reading a book.

Try and find dried limes in the international section of your local supermarket, they are cheap as chips and add a whole other dimension of flavour. Just pop them in whole, or crush them in your hands.

I make two versions of this stock, a dark stock for use with heavier, darker stews and soups, and a light version for use making soups such as minestrone and tomato, and risottos, where a dark coloured stock would adversely affect the look of the finished dish. To make the lighter version simply omit the mushrooms and make sure you remove the skin from the onion.


RECIPE – makes approximately 1.5 litres

3 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried thyme

2 bay leaves

1 large onion, unpeeled, roughly chopped

1 leek, well rinsed, chopped

5 medium organic carrots, unpeeled, chopped

1 large orange sweet potato, unpeeled, roughly chopped

3 celery stalks, chopped

5 dried shiitake mushrooms

3 litres water

1 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)

2 dried limes (optional, but awesome)


METHOD 

Heat the oil in a large stock pot and add the dried herbs and bay leaves while you start chopping the veg. As you chop each ingredient, toss it straight into the pot and agitate it to get the oil and herbs coating everything. Add the shiitake mushrooms whole, then cover the whole thing with a cartouche and cook over a gentle heat for twenty minutes.

The smaller you chop your vegetables the more flavour you will generally be able to extract; don’t overdo it though, root vegetables only need to go as small as 1/2 cm cubes while the leek, onion and celery only need to be 5mm thick at a minimum. Take as long as you have, and if you’re in a hurry don’t worry about it.

*Tip: Sweating vegetables under a piece of parchment is known as using a cartouche. It is a way of cooking that simultaneously sweats and steams the vegetables, extracting maximum flavour in minimum time.

Cut a square of baking parchment that is slightly larger than the surface area of your pan, push it down so it sits on top of your sweating vegetables and then tuck the sides down so the vegetables are completely covered. Keep the heat low and after a few minutes check to see that nothing is catching on the bottom of the pan, then re-cover and continue to sweat them until they are as soft as you need them to be and the aroma is filling your kitchen.

After twenty minutes remove the cartouche, add the water and fish sauce and bring to the boil, then simmer very gently for between 60 and 90 minutes. The long, slow cooking is crucial to extract maximum flavour and nutrients from the vegetables.

Strain and remove all the vegetable matter and you now have a basic vegetable stock; the real test is that it should make a delicious broth when seasoned with salt – good enough to drink out of a mug and leave you wanting more. At this point you can use it as it is in any recipe that calls for stock, or you can reduce it further, concentrating the flavour and storing it in the fridge for later use.

Labneh

Labneh is a delicious semi-sour cream cheese from the middle east, similar in texture and consistency to Italian mascarpone. It is so easy to make, and vastly superior to anything you would buy from a specialist international shop simply because when you make it yourself there is nothing added.

It is lovely when used fresh, but it can also be rolled into small balls and stored in olive oil, or rolled in herbs such as mint and eaten with pita as part of a mezze. A quick browse through any middle eastern recipe book, or a quick internet search, will turn up dozens of uses for labneh – but if you’re so hungry that you can’t wait then it is also delicious all by itself on a piece of flatbread.

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RECIPE 

250g thick Greek yoghurt

That’s it!


METHOD

Line a sieve with a piece of damp muslin and stand it over a small saucepan or bowl with enough height to allow the bottom of the sieve to sit clear of the bottom of the pan.

Spoon the thick Greek yoghurt into the muslin, pull the top of the cloth together and twist tightly. Leave in the fridge for 24-48 hours to allow the whey to drip out of the yoghurt.

To serve: empty the labneh into a small bowl and drizzle with olive oil, or… dip into your books and try this as many ways as possible. It’s just gorgeous.

Tomato Salsa

Delicious. That was my lovely wife’s verdict on this bright and zingy salsa. You might think that she has to say that, but we have a deal: if something isn’t right she has to tell me, that’s the only way I can get better. She won’t mince her words, so if she says it is delicious you can bet that it is.

This is a great accompaniment to Mexican and South American dishes – fajitas, tortillas, chilli – and is also good for barbecues and as a dip for tortilla chips.

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RECIPE – feeds 4 as a side

1 long red chilli, de-seeded and roughly chopped

1 long green chilli, de-seeded and roughly chopped

4 spring onions, trimmed and roughly chopped

4 ripe tomatoes, de-seeded and roughly chopped

red wine vinegar

1/2 cucumber, de-seeded and finely chopped

1 yellow pepper, de-seeded and finely chopped

1 red pepper, de-seeded and finely chopped

1 or 2 limes, and the zest of one

chopped fresh coriander leaves to garnish


METHOD

Prepare all the ingredients.

Put the chillies, spring onions and tomatoes in a food processor with some salt and pepper and blitz until finely chopped. Tip into a sieve and leave for a few minutes to let the excess moisture run out, then tip out into a large bowl, check the seasoning, then add a good glug of red wine vinegar. Stir thoroughly, then add the finely chopped cucumber and peppers, and the zest of one lime. Stir thoroughly then add the juice of one lime.

Now it is time to taste and adjust the flavours. As required, add more red wine vinegar, salt and pepper and lime juice until the flavours are nicely balanced. Add them each a little at a time, you can always add more if required but you can’t take it out again.

When it tastes just how you like it, set aside until you are ready to eat. It is best to leave it for at least 30 minutes so the flavours can fully develop. Just before serving, add the chopped coriander to garnish, and stir through.

Thai Green Curry Paste

The difference between home-made curry paste and a shop-bought jar is – literally – the difference between night and day. The flavours in home-made are more intense, more bright and just more interesting.

This freezes really well and will last 3 months in a freezer or up to 3 weeks in a fridge, so you can make a double quantity to save time in the future.


RECIPE – makes roughly enough for 8 people

6 medium green chillies, de-seeded and roughly chopped

2 banana shallots, peeled and roughly chopped

a large 2 inch knob of fresh ginger

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a small bunch of fresh coriander, stalks and roots attached

2 fresh lemongrass stalks, peeled and finely chopped

1 lime, zest finely grated and juice

8 kaffir lime leaves, shredded

1 inch of fresh galangal, or 1 tbsp of jarred

1 tbsp coriander seeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed in a mortar and pestle

2 tsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

3 tbsp vegetable oil


METHOD

Place all of the ingredients in a food processor and blitz to a smooth paste. Use immediately or store in a jar in the fridge for up to 3 weeks or freeze for up to 3 months.

Jerk Paste

Perfect for barbecues or grilled chicken or fish, jerk paste is a classic caribbean seasoning rub that adds a huge amount of flavour to anything with which it is paired. If you like it hot, just add more chilli puree.


RECIPE 

2 tsp ground allspice

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp caster sugar

1/2 nutmeg, finely grated

a big knob of fresh ginger, 3 cm or so, not peeled, finely chopped

3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 onion, finely chopped

2 banana shallots, finely chopped

6 hot chillies, finely chopped (seeds left in if you like it hotter)

1 tbsp chilli puree

juice of 1/2 lime

1 tbsp olive oil

a small handful of fresh thyme leaves

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


METHOD

Add all the ingredients to a food processor and blitz thoroughly. Nothing could be easier!

Salsa Verde

Having a good salsa verde recipe is indispensable if you cook fish on a regular basis. If you’re stuck for ideas of what to have with your fish then a pile of home made chips and salsa verde will always pull you out of trouble. Vibrancy from the herbs and gherkins, a little bit of heat from the mustard, saltiness from the capers and anchovies, the unctuousness of the olive oil and the sharp tang of the vinegar – it is the perfect accompaniment for fish and chips because, if you think about it, it’s all about salt and vinegar.

The best thing? It takes literally five minutes to make.

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RECIPE – makes enough for 4 very generous servings

3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 tbsp capers, drained

6 anchovy fillets

2 large gherkins

2 handfuls of rocket

a small pack of parsley, roughly torn

a handful of mint, leaves only

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1 tbsp English mustard

extra virgin olive oil


METHOD

Put everything into a food processor and turn it on to continuous mode. As it is chopping everything, slowly pour in the extra virgin olive oil and you will find that it becomes a thick puree and then a thick sauce. Only you can judge how you like your sauces, so stop pouring when it looks right to you. As a rule of thumb, around 100ml of oil is the minimum you are likely to need.

As I said earlier this goes great with fish and chips, or just fish by itself – anywhere you would think of using tartare sauce you can easily substitute this salsa verde.

 

Curry Powder

The best curry-making advice I ever received was this: never, ever, EVER use a jar of curry powder that you have bought from a shop. I remember reading, years ago, that commercial curry powder is mainly comprised of the scrapings and dust from the factory floor; while I doubt that is actually true, some of the curry powders I have tasted over the years are so disgusting that it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Many curry recipes don’t call for curry powder at all, instead they require freshly roasted and ground whole spices. I have an extensive spice cupboard filled with all kinds of whole and ground spices that I use so frequently that there is never a danger of anything going beyond its best. That is the  first true secret to a great curry: use the freshest spices you possibly can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using ground spices from a packet, just make sure they are from a reputable, high-quality manufacturer – I don’t do endorsements but you will quickly learn which ones are the best – and make sure they are as fresh as possible. If that means digging into the back of a shelf in the store to get the newest stock then don’t be embarrassed.

There are times however when a good curry powder is exactly what is needed, and this mix – compliments of Madhur Jaffrey – is as good as it gets. It has layers of complex flavour and aromas, it bursts with life and does a little dance with your taste buds. If that all sounds like I’m getting a bit carried away, make it and see for yourself…


RECIPE – makes a small jar

2 tbsp coriander seeds

1 tbsp cumin seeds

2 tsp black peppercorns

1 1/2 tsp brown mustard seeds

6 whole cloves

1 tsp fenugreek seeds

1 1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 tsp hot chilli powder

1 tsp turmeric


METHOD

In a large pan – NOT non-stick – place the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, brown mustard seeds and whole cloves. Put over a high heat and stay with the pan, shaking every few seconds. Within a minute or so the spices should start to become aromatic, this is the dangerous time…

If you burn your spices you have no option but to start again, so watch them carefully. Just as the cumin seeds start to darken and you can really smell everything – this takes just a couple of minutes at the most – add the fenugreek seeds. Shake the pan for ten seconds then take off the heat and immediately empty the spices onto a plate (preferably a metal one) to cool. The pan will be very hot so if you had left the spices in it they would burn.

Using a small electric coffee grinder – I have a small, cheap one which I use exclusively for grinding spices – or a mortar and pestle, add the chilli flakes, chilli powder and turmeric to the toasted spices, and grind to a fine, well mixed powder.

Store in a jar in a cool, dark place and this mix will easily last 3 months or more without losing much of its vitality. It is quite exceptional when used straight from the grinder.

 

Ghee

If you like cooking Indian curries, middle eastern cuisine or southern Asian food in general then it is essential that you have a supply of ghee in your fridge if you are going to get the very best results.

Ghee is used in place of vegetable and other oils because of its high smoke point (the temperature at which its molecules begin to deteriorate) of around 250C, higher than most vegetable oils, and also because of the unique taste and scent that it adds to a dish.

Ghee is a kind of clarified butter that has had the milk solids removed and is slightly caramelised, as such it is incredibly easy to make. You can of course buy it, many major supermarkets now stock it and if all else fails you will definitely find it in specialist Asian shops. Why go to the bother of searching for what may well be a more expensive yet inferior product though? The chances are that what you buy will not be made from the best quality butter and will have all kinds of preservatives and other chemicals added to it to extend the shelf life. You can make home-made ghee with the butter that you like, and with nothing added it will last for months in the fridge.

Ghee


RECIPE – makes enough to fill a small Kilner jar

1 kg unsalted or slightly salted butter

 


METHOD

Place the whole blocks of butter in a large pan over a very low heat and allow to melt slowly and completely. Once melted, the butter will begin to separate into three distinct layers: foam will appear on top, the milk solids will begin to drop to the bottom, and the clarified butter will float in the middle.

Turn the heat up very slightly and leave, undisturbed, for up to an hour. The butter will take a little time to fully clarify, and the longer you leave it the more the ghee will caramelise, giving you a distinct and delicious flavour.

Three important points to note while cooking it:

  • DO NOT LET THE GHEE SMOKE
  • DO NOT LET THE GHEE BURN
  • DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, STIR YOUR GHEE

Turn the heat off when the ghee is coloured to your liking, which could be anything between the yellow in the picture above to a deep, dark toffee brown. It is all a matter of taste so feel free to experiment to see how you like it best.

Without disturbing the pan, skim off the floating sediment. Allow the ghee to cool a little, for ten minutes or so, then strain the ghee through a muslin cloth into a sealable jar. The muslin will catch the solids at the bottom, which will likely be very dark brown by this stage.

Refrigerate your ghee and use every time your recipe calls for vegetable oil. It will go solid in the fridge, but if you take it out half an hour or so before you need to use it then it will soften sufficiently for you to get a spoon into it.

 

Sun-Dried Tomato Paste

I try to make as many things from scratch as possible, partly because I like to know exactly what I’m eating (I am very distrustful of processed food after extensive reading into the subject) but mainly because I like the challenge, I like to experiment and, well… why not?

Sun-dried tomato paste is widely available in UK supermarkets, and the type that we keep in our pantry is very good indeed – if a little expensive. I use it as an ingredient in many Italian dishes, and often use anything from a teaspoon to a tablespoon to augment the flavour of a tomato-based sauce, so it is something we get through a lot of.

Stuck with an hour to spare one afternoon I decided to start making dinner early, and on a whim I filled that hour experimenting with my own sun-dried tomato paste. The results were spectacularly good, yielding a more intense flavour than shop-bought, and it is so quick and easy to make.

Sometimes life is too short to muck around making everything from scratch, and sometimes life is too short not to. Sometimes, all you’ve got time for is a bowl of pasta with something stirred through it – stir a tablespoon or two of this through a pan of fusilli, add a good handful of freshly grated Parmesan, a dribble of good extra-virgin olive oil and a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley and I’m sure you’ll be eternally thankful that you did muck around making this from scratch.


RECIPE 

2 x 280g jars of sun-dried tomatoes in oil

8 fat garlic cloves

3 tbsp olive oil

2 tsp red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp sea salt


METHOD

Drain the jars of sun-dried tomatoes in a sieve, put into a bowl and cover with just-boiled water. Stir for a minute then drain again. This softens the tomatoes up so they will blitz more easily, and cleans off the remainder of the oil.

Peel and crush the garlic, put into a food processor with the tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar and sea salt, then blitz until it is a smooth puree. You may need to add a little oil if the paste is too stiff, and you will very likely need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times to get everything. You can also do this in a blender, or if you’re really keen a pestle and mortar will do the job.

Decant into a sterilised jar, top off with a little more oil (do not mix it in, the idea is that it sits over the paste and protects it from the atmosphere) and refrigerate. This will happily keep for two weeks or more, and quantities can easily be doubled or trebled.

*To Sterilise Glass Jars: Heat oven to 140C/120C fan/gas 1, then turn it off and keep the door closed. There is no point in wasting energy! Wash the jars and lids in hot, soapy water then rinse well. Place the jars on a baking sheet and put them in the oven to dry completely. If using Kilner jars then boil the rubber seals, as the dry heat of the oven will make them perish.