Sweet Potato Saag Aloo

Saag aloo is usually made with regular potatoes but this sweet potato version from The Hairy Bikers is particularly luscious. The great thing about sweet potatoes is that they are richer in nutrients – particularly vitamin C – than white potatoes and lower in starch. They count towards your five a day too, while regular potatoes don’t.

This is a great meal if you are dieting, coming in at only 200 calories per serving and making you feel comfortably full. That means you can have a serving of rice and a couple of rotis with it, without bursting your waistband.

The secret to great flavour here is to use your own fresh curry powder mix. It’s not hard to make and my recipe is here.

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RECIPE serves 4 

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

20g fresh root ginger, grated

2 tbsp curry powder

2 medium sweet potatoes, diced

1 large ripe tomato, diced

300ml vegetable stock

a small bunch of coriander, stalks only, chopped

200g bag of baby spinach, picked over and thoroughly washed

To serve:

the zest and juice of a lemon

a few green chillies, sliced

a small bunch of coriander leaves, chopped


METHOD

Heat the oil in a large flameproof casserole dish or a deep frying pan. Add the onion and cook it quite briskly until it’s softened and very lightly browned. Add the garlic, ginger and curry powder and stir until combined.

Add the sweet potatoes to the pan and stir to coat them with the garlic, ginger and spices, then add the tomato and the vegetable stock. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the stock to the boil, then turn down the heat, cover the pan and simmer very gently until the sweet potato is just cooked. This should take no longer than 10 minutes, but check regularly from 5 minutes as you don’t want the sweet potato to go mushy – it should still have a little bite to it. Loosen the sauce with a little more stock or water if necessary.

Add the spinach and chopped coriander stalks to the pan and cover the pan again until the spinach has wilted down. Stir very carefully to combine without breaking up the sweet potatoes.

At this point you can turn the heat off and leave it for for a few hours or overnight, the flavours will only get better. If you are going to eat it immediately, garnish with the lemon zest and juice and a sprinkling of finely sliced green chillies and chopped coriander leaves.

Serve with basmati rice and roti.

Sri Lankan Coconut Dhal

We are a diverse family, encompassing unrepentant meat-eaters, pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans. When any combination of us gets together it can be tricky to come up with meals that will satisfy everyone’s needs while also being satisfying.

What that really means is that I need a good stock of vegan recipes, a thought that would drive my grandfather into a rant about lentils. Well, this is a vegan dish, and its made from lentils, and even my grandfather would approve. He always appreciates luscious food, and this has lusciousness in spades. It’s quick too, so if you walk in the door after a long hard day and don’t fancy a big work-up in the kitchen, this will feed everybody and anybody.

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RECIPE serves 4 

2 tsp sunflower oil

250g red split lentils, rinsed thoroughly

1 banana shallot, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a small handful of dried curry leaves

a small cinnamon stick

1 green chilli, finely chopped

4 tsp curry powder

1 400ml tin of coconut milk

a small bunch of coriander, leaves and stalks

the zest and juice of a lemon


METHOD

Gently fry the shallots, garlic, curry leaves, cinnamon stick and chilli in the oil, for around 5 minutes until softened and aromatic.

Mix a little water into the curry powder – please use either my own recipe for curry powder, or (if you really must) a top quality, fresh off the shelf supermarket version – to make a paste, and add it to the pan. Cook the spices out for a few minutes, then add 400ml of water, the coconut milk and the lentils.

Simmer for around 20 minutes until the lentils are soft and plump. Finely chop the coriander stalks and add them to the dhal, stir them in thoroughly.

At this point you can turn the heat off and leave it for for a few hours or overnight, the flavours will only get better. If you are going to eat it immediately, garlish with the lemon zest and juice and sprinkling of chopped coriander leaves.

Serve with basmati rice and roti.

Lightweight Lasagne

I’m on a bit of a Hairy Bikers’ roll at the moment. I keep flicking through their books and spotting things that I absolutely have to make. I can honestly say that every single recipe of theirs that I have ever made has been exceptional, and I have made a lot – perhaps 50 or so over the years.

I have fancied a lasagne for weeks now, but it’s a rich, heavy dish and it is just after Christmas after all, so who needs all those calories? So, I almost jumped for joy when I spotted this recipe, a genius way of making a lasagne that has all the rich, creamy unctuousness of a traditional lasagne, but coming in at only 343 calories per serving.

We had this for dinner last night, and while my wife was extolling its deliciousness I told her that it was a low-calorie dish. She looked at me unsure whether I was pulling her leg: surely something this good couldn’t be diet food?

Yes it is. The Hairy Bikers = nothing short of genius. They have used a few tricks here: limiting the amount of pasta, being extremely judicious with the amount of oil used and, perhaps most importantly, roasting vegetables for the filling rather than mince. If you’re a meat lover you’ll be amazed – you won’t miss it at all.

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RECIPE serves 6 

for the tomato sauce:

1 tsp olive oil

2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp fish sauce

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

for the vegetable filling:

1 aubergine, halved lengthways and cut into 1cm thick crescents

200g pumpkin or butternut squash, sliced into thin wedges

1 large red onion, cut into thin wedges

2 red and 1 green pepper, diced

10 garlic cloves, in their skins

low-calorie spray oil

for the bechamel:

600ml semi-skimmed milk

1 onion, chopped

4 cloves

1 bay leaf

10 black pepper corns

20g cornflour

to assemble:

150g dried pasta

50g low-calorie cheddar. grated

25g Parmesan, grated


METHOD

First make the tomato sauce, the further ahead you can make this the better the flavour will be.

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat and add the garlic, cook gently for a minute until aromatic, then add the chilli flakes and oregano. Cook for a further minute, allowing the flavours to infuse the oil, then add the tomatoes and fish sauce. Mix thoroughly, bring to the boil, then simmer gently for an hour to allow the sauce to reduce, thicken and intensify.

After an hour, add the red wine vinegar, cook for a couple of minutes then check the seasoning. At this point you can set the sauce aside for a few hours or overnight to allow the flavours to develop further.

Preheat the oven to 200C/ Fan 180C/ gas 6.

Arrange the aubergine, pumpkin, onion, peppers and garlic on two baking trays, spray lightly with the oil and toss thoroughly to ensure everything is coated. The oil will prevent the vegetables from burning, while encouraging internal steaming and external caramelisation. Don’t be tempted to try and squeeze everything onto one tray; when roasting, everything needs to have airflow around it otherwise it might steam instead.

Roast for around 30 minutes until everything is soft and just beginning to caramelise.

Meanwhile, make the bechamel. Put the milk in a saucepan with the onion, cloves, bay and peppercorns. Heat until the milk is at scalding point (just short of boiling), then turn off the heat and leave the milk to infuse with the aromatics until it is almost cold.

Strain the milk into a jug and dispose of the solids, wash the pan out and put the milk back into it. Mix the cornflour with a little of the milk to make a thin paste, reheat the milk and pour the cornflour paste into the pan. Gradually bring the milk back to the boil, whisking or stirring constantly to ensure that no lumps form. When the sauce is hot and as thick as double cream, turn the heat off and season it. Set aside for now.

Meanwhile, soak the lasagne sheets in just-boiled water until ready for use.

Retrieve the roasted garlic cloves, squeeze the cooked flesh from the skins and mash with a fork. Add the mashed garlic to the tomato sauce that you made earlier, stir it in well and heat the sauce back up.

To assemble the lasagne: spoon half the tomato sauce into the bottom of an ovenproof dish and top with half the roasted vegetables. Spoon over a small amount of bechamel, then top with half the pasta sheets. Spread the remaining tomato sauce on top of that, followed by the other half of the vegetables and another small amount of bechamel, then the final pasta sheets. Pour the remaining bechamel over the top and smooth out, then sprinkle the grated cheese over the top with a good grinding of black pepper.

Bake in the centre of the oven at 200C/ Fan 180C/ gas 6 for around 45 minutes until the top is crunchy and golden brown, and the lasagne is piping hot.

Serve with an apple and celery salad, the perfect combination of texture to match the creaminess of the lasagne, while the sharpness of the salad cuts through the richness. Perfect.

Llama Farmer Cottage Pie

Another Hairy Bikers’ triumph, this vegetarian cottage pie (which can easily be made vegan-friendly by substituting the cheese for a vegan product) is low in calories, easy to make and so absolutely delicious that it positively encourages over-eating. The trick here is using a gorgeous baked crust of sweetcorn and polenta, rather than mashed potato.

The good news is that if you DO over-eat (and in my experience that is quite likely) you still won’t have eaten too many calories. Dividing this between four people gives exceedingly generous portions, each serving coming in at only 400 calories.

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RECIPE serves 4 – 6 

1 tsp olive oil

1 large red onion, finely chopped

2 celery sticks, finely chopped

1 large carrot, small dice

1 red and 1 green pepper, each small dice

3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

1 tbsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1/2 tsp cinnamon

2 dried chipotle chillies, finely chopped

1x 400g can of kidney beans

1x 400g can of butter beans

1x 400g can of chopped tomatoes

300ml vegetable stock

small bunch of finely-chopped fresh coriander

Topping:

500g sweetcorn kernels

3 tbsp fine cornmeal (polenta)

1 tsp baking powder

15g unsalted butter (vegetable oil if making it for a vegan)

50g mature cheddar (or vegetarian/vegan equivalent)


METHOD

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat, add the onion, celery, carrot and peppers, with a pinch of salt and a splash of water and sweat, covered, gently for around fifteen minutes until softened.

Add the garlic and spices and cook, stirring, for a further minute, then add the beans, tomatoes and stock. Stir thoroughly and bring to the boil.

Reduce to a simmer and leave it to reduce to a thick sauce.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 190C/ fan 170C/ gas 5.

Make the topping: in a food processor, blitz half the sweetcorn with the polenta, baking powder, butter and a generous pinch of salt. At this stage you want a smooth paste. Now add the remaining sweetcorn and pulse the food processor until the texture is rough but all the sweetcorn has broken down. Check and adjust the seasoning.

Check and adjust the seasoning of the filling then pour it into an ovenproof dish and carefully spoon the topping thinly and evenly over it. Sprinkle with the grated cheese and a good grinding of black pepper. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the topping is a deep golden brown and the filling is piping hot.

Red Lentil and Harissa Soup

I hate ‘punish-yourself-January’. So many people eschewing alcohol and meat, going on diets that will never succeed and buying gym memberships they will never use. Here’s my highly opinionated tip: if you’re going to change anything about anything, then you need to make changes that will be permanent. Permanent means life-long, so you’d better make sure that you love the changes that you do make.

It doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t have to be punishing. With people like The Hairy Bikers around, low-fat, no-sugar, delicious food is easy to make. This gorgeous soup of their devising takes a mere ten minutes or so to put together, from what are likely to be store-cupboard ingredients. It is also vegan, so whatever you are putting yourself through this January, this dish ticks every box.

The ‘gremolata’ lifts this from the everyday lovely to the out-of-this-world, so don’t leave it out. Frightened of raw garlic? Don’t go and breathe on people afterward; that’s all I can say.

Don’t be thinking that this is a dish suitable only for January, you can eat this as a summer supper, meaning you can make those lifestyle changes permanent.

If serving 6 (this is a filling dish), the calories come in at 166 per portion. If serving 4 it is 249 per portion, and you’ll be full.

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RECIPE serves 4 – 6 

1 tbsp olive oil

2 large onion, finely chopped

3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

a small bunch of finely-chopped fresh coriander stalks

2 tbsp harissa paste

200g red lentils, rinsed

1 litre vegetable stock

1 400g tin of chopped tomatoes

the juice of half a lemon

‘Gremolata’

the finely grated zest of a lemon

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

a small bunch of finely-chopped fresh coriander leaves


METHOD

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat, add the onions with a pinch of salt and cook gently for five to ten minutes until softened. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for a further minute, then add the coriander stalks and harissa paste. Stir thoroughly then add the lentils, stir thoroughly again until everything is coated in the harissa, then add the stock and bring to the boil.

Reduce to a simmer for ten minutes, then add the tomatoes and simmer for a further ten minutes. The lentils should be soft by this time, so test and adjust the seasoning, and add lemon juice to thin the soup and add liveliness.

To make the ‘gremolata’ (a real gremolata uses parsley, but the coriander used here is splendid) chop the ingredients together and spoon over each serving once it has been put into bowls.

Pearl Barley, Parsnip & Preserved Lemon Tagine

This simple, yet vibrant and elegant dish led to one of those happy evenings with everyone swooning over how lovely it was, and it continued the next day when leftovers were shared. Since I made it last week there has been a clamour for me to get it on the blog, so here it is.

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This dish appears in the current issue (December 2017) of BBC Good Food Magazine.


RECIPE – Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil

2 onions, sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 tsp turmeric

1 heaped tsp paprika

2 heaped tsp ras el hanout

2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

3 parsnips, cut into chunks

3 carrots, cut into chunks

2 preserved lemons (bought, or if using home-made use 1), chopped

200g pearl barley

1 litre vegetable stock

1 small pack parsley, leaves picked

1 small pack mint, leaves picked

150g green olives, chopped

juice of ½ lemon

pomegranate seeds, to serve

zest of a lemon, finely grated to serve

For the tahini yogurt:

160g thick Greek yogurt (or dairy-free alternative)

2-3 tbsp tahini

juice of ½ lemon


METHOD

Heat the oil in a flameproof casserole dish. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, cook for around 5 minutes until they are beginning to colour and soften, then stir in the garlic and spices. Cook for a minute or more until fragrant, then add the sweet potato, parsnips, carrots, preserved lemon and pearl barley.

Give everything a good mix and cook for a minute or so until the vegetables and barley are coated in the spices. Pour in the stock and some seasoning, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 45 minutes or until the vegetables and barley are tender.

To make the tahini yogurt, mix the yogurt with the tahini, lemon juice and some seasoning, then add a splash of water to make it loose and spoonable.

Chop most of the mint and parsley leaves. Taste the tagine for seasoning, then stir through the chopped herbs, olives and lemon juice.

Scatter over the pomegranate seeds and the remaining herbs to add colour and texture, and scatter the grated lemon zest over everything.  Serve with the tahini yogurt.

Stir-fried King Prawns with Chinese Spinach and Garlic

Browsing in my local supermarket the other day, I spotted a living salad tray that contained Chinese spinach. It’s not something I have ever encountered before, and in truth it’s not actually that different from the ‘regular’ spinach you find on supermarket shelves, though it does release a deliciously earthy liquor when it is wilted down. This makes it an ideal choice for a stir-fry, where all that flavour can be used to enhance the sauce.

If you can’t find Chinese spinach, use ordinary spinach, or substitute it for pak choi.

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RECIPE serves 2 as a main, or 4 as a starter

2 tbsp groundnut oil

3 fat garlic cloves, finely sliced

4 birds-eye chillies, finely sliced

200g Chinese spinach (or pak choi) roughly chopped

16 large, raw king prawns, tails on

2 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tsp rice wine vinegar

2 whole dried red chillies, crumbled

1 spring onion, finely chopped

2 tsp toasted sesame oil


METHOD

Prepare all the ingredients before you begin to cook. Things happen quickly when you stir-fry so you need to be organised.

Put the oil in a cold wok with the garlic, and heat it up over a high heat – this will flavour the oil and protect the garlic from burning while it releases its flavour. When the garlic is golden, add the birds-eye chillies and spinach (or pak choi) and cook for about a minute, keeping things moving all the time.

Now add the prawns, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar and cook for a further 3 or 4 minutes, keeping it all moving, until the prawns are just cooked.

Remove from the heat and sprinkle over the dried chilli flakes, spring onion and sesame oil, toss together and serve immediately accompanied by steamed Basmati rice or your choice of noodles.

Pan-Fried Salmon with Roasted Apricots and Couscous

Everybody I know who has ever tried dieting, has failed. Actually, that’s not strictly true; in general they have lost some weight, but then gone back to eating how they used to eat and put the weight back on again. The key to losing weight and keeping it off is, of course, to permanently change the way you eat.

The trouble is, it’s all a bit of a trial isn’t it? All that denial, no treats, and the food is so unappealing…

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m probably preaching to the converted, but if you can cook, then rustling up delicious healthy meals is very easy. With a little practice and a stock of good recipes you can make food that you would be happy to pay for in a restaurant. This is one of those meals: it’s quick and easy, packed full of interesting and delicious flavours, it’s attractive and it is, of course, extremely healthy.

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RECIPE serves 4

250g couscous

310ml light vegetable stock

2 pinches of saffron

25g unsalted butter

8 apricots, halved and stoned (fresh or dried)

1 tbsp caster sugar

1/4 tsp ground cumin

4 spring onions, finely sliced

3 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped (or flaked almonds)

4 250g salmon fillets, skin on

coriander leaves, roughly chopped, to garnish

lemon or lime wedges, to garnish


METHOD

If you are using dried apricots, soak them overnight to rehydrate them, and keep the liquid that is left.

Dry the salmon fillets thoroughly on kitchen paper, set aside.

Put the couscous into a large bowl. If you have the soaking liquid from rehydrating dried apricots, add the stock to it to make it up to 310ml. add the saffron and a pinch of salt and, in a pan, bring it to the boil and turn the heat off. Add the butter, stir until it is melted, then pour the stock over the couscous, stir well, cover and set aside for ten minutes.

Place the apricots, cut-side up, on a grill tray and sprinkle with the sugar, cumin, salt and pepper. Grill under a high heat until they are bubbling and golden. Chop into smaller pieces, then fluff up the couscous with a fork. Stir the apricots and spring onions through the couscous, check the seasoning and scatter the pistachios over the top.

Season the salmon on both sides with a little salt, then fry in a little oil over a medium high heat for 3 minutes, skin-side down. Flip over and cook for a further minute, the flesh should still be bright pink and just cooked.

Serve alongside the couscous and lemon or lime wedges, garnished with coriander leaves. Apple and celery salad is a fantastic accompaniment to this dish, adding more flavour and texture.

Mauritian Butter Bean Curry

I’ve been away for a while, enjoying the summer, but I haven’t been idle. I’ve been living in a camper van for most of the last two months so I have been experimenting with cooking with limited resources, as well as over coals (when the weather permitted). The break from the norm has led to some new ideas, some new discoveries, and has definitely made me a better cook.

My big discovery of the summer has been Mauritian cooking, courtesy of Shelina Permalloo (shelinacooks.com), winner of UK Masterchef in 2012, and her wonderful book ‘Sunshine on a Plate’. As she puts it: “Mauritius is a melting pot of cultures and [the] food reflects that, encompassing Creole, French, Indian, African, British and Chinese influences.” It’s also delicious!

I first made this curry eight weeks ago, and since then I have made it at least another dozen times. Everybody who tastes it, swoons. The difference is in the spicing, rather than use an Indian curry powder blend, the Mauritian version of curry powder is subtly but discernibly different. I have included a recipe for it, just click here.

It’s quick to make (though it does benefit from being left all afternoon to steep, or overnight if you can manage it), low calorie and filling. Did I mention that it’s delicious? It’s delicious!

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RECIPE – Serves 4

2 tbsp ghee (or rapeseed oil)

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a fat, 3cm thumb of fresh ginger, grated

5-10 curry leaves

3 tbsp Mauritian curry powder

2 red birds-eye chillies, seeds in, chopped

2 medium, ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped

2 tbsp tomato puree

400ml chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

1 tin of butter beans, including the water from the tin, OR 200ml dried butter beans

flaky sea salt

the stalks from a bunch of coriander, finely chopped

the leaves from a bunch of coriander, to garnish


METHOD

If you are using dried butter beans, soak them overnight then cook them before doing anything else, they take a lot of time. To cook: place the beans in a large pan covered with 2cm of water. Bring to the boil over a medium heat, then reduce the heat and simmer until the beans are tender and creamy, checking after 1 hour and adding more water as necessary to keep beans submerged. They should be cooked within 1.5 hours.

Personally, I use a pressure cooker, which cooks them perfectly in around 20 minutes. However you do it, retain the cooking water to use in the dish itself.

To make the curry: melt the ghee in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat then gently fry the onion until it is translucent.

Meanwhile, add some water to the Mauritian curry powder to make a loose paste. This will stop the powder from burning when it is added to the pan.

When the onions are ready, add the garlic, ginger and curry leaves and saute for a further 3 minutes.

*Tip: It seems that every time I read a recipe that calls for finely chopped or grated ginger it tells you to peel the ginger first. That is a huge waste of flavour. All I do is cut off any rough and dry bits on the outside and make sure that it is clean, then chop or grate it finely, skin ‘n’all.

Now add the curry paste, chillies, tomatoes and tomato puree, and cook for a further five minutes, stirring frequently.

Add the chicken (or vegetable) stock, and the butter beans together with their water. Simmer, uncovered, for a further 15 minutes until the sauce has thickened.

Now begin to season the curry with flaky sea salt. Do this properly and it will be transformed from excellent to mind-blowing. Add a small pinch of salt at a time, stir thoroughly and cook in for a minute or so. Taste, and repeat, until the flavours are jumping in your mouth. Turn off the heat and add the finely chopped coriander stalks.

If you can now leave it to steep for a few hours, or overnight, it will be even better. You can serve it immediately though, if you wish.

Garnish with the coriander leaves, alongside Basmati rice and a few simple roti.

To make this suitable for a vegetarian or vegan, use rapeseed oil instead of ghee, and vegan vegetable stock instead of chicken stock.

Chunky Butternut Mulligatawny

It may seem odd to make a hearty winter soup in the middle of summer, but the truth is that some things taste great all year round. This hearty one-pot supper is something I often make when I yearn for some spice but I’m short on time. It’s also an easy go-to when I am on a 5:2 diet day and need something filling and delicious in the evening; on those days when I limit my calorie intake, food like this makes them something to look forward to rather than a trial.

The nigella seeds are the ingredient that really elevates this dish, they are readily available in larger supermarkets or Asian shops so please don’t be tempted to leave them out. Also, please, please please make up your own curry powder, it makes an unbelievable difference. My recipe for curry powder is linked from the ingredients list below.

This recipe is suitable for vegans, in fact it makes a persuasive argument for embracing veganism.

Ostensibly, this recipe will feed four people, but very often I will make it for my wife and myself and we will polish off the lost between us. At only 212 calories per serving it is guilt-free gluttony!

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Picture Credit: BBC Good Food

RECIPE – Serves 4

2 tbsp rapeseed oil

2 onions, finely chopped

2 apples, peeled and finely chopped

3 celery sticks, finely chopped

a small butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, chopped into small pieces

3 heaped tbsp curry powder

1 tbsp ground cinnamon

1 tbsp nigella seeds

2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes

1½ litres vegetable stock

150g basmati rice

small pack of coriander, leaves and stalks, chopped

zest and juice of a lemon


METHOD

Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan. Add the onions, apples and celery with a pinch of salt and cook gently for 10 mins or so under a lid, stirring occasionally, until softened.

Add the butternut squash, curry powder, cinnamon, nigella seeds and a grind of black pepper. Cook for 2 mins more, then stir in the tomatoes and stock. Cover with a lid and simmer for 15 mins.

By now the vegetables should be tender but not mushy. Stir in the rice, add the chopped coriander stalks, pop the lid back on and simmer for another 12 mins until the rice is cooked through. Taste and add more seasoning if needed.

Finely grate the lemon zest over the top, then squeeze the lemon juice over that, scatter the chopped coriander leaves over everything (don’t stir it!) and bring to the table to serve in bowls.