Middle-Eastern Spiced Vegetable Soup

I have made a lot of spiced soups over the years, every time I make a new one it seems to be an improvement over the previous one. Then I go back into my notebooks and make one of my earlier spiced soups only to discover that the earlier ones are fabulous as well. You could put it down to experience: the more you cook, the better your ‘touch’ becomes. Actually though, I reckon it is just that you can’t go wrong with a spiced soup, especially when it’s raining outside and the wind is howling, like it was here last night. The thick broth is filling and comforting while the flavours make you want to eat and eat well beyond the point where you should stop.

I am well aware that I declare every recipe that I blog about to be delicious, fabulous, outstanding or some other superlative. The thing is, I don’t blog about everything that I cook, only the dishes that are truly outstanding – like this one, my favourite soup of the moment.

The soup is great on its own, but the garnishes take it to a whole other level, adding more flavour and texture. They don’t take long to prepare so use them if you possibly can.

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RECIPE – feeds 8 easily

olive oil

1 butternut squash, flesh chopped into rough 1.5 cm chunks

2 large onions diced

3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

3 medium leeks, trimmed and finely sliced

3 medium floury potatoes, washed but not peeled, roughly chopped

4 large vine tomatoes, roughly chopped

4 heaped tsp ground cumin

1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp sweet smoked paprika

1 tbsp chilli bean sauce

2 tins of chickpeas

1 large courgette, finely diced

For the herb oil:

olive oil

a handful of flat-leaf parsley

a handful of dill

a handful of pistachio nuts, crushed

a squeeze of lemon juice

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the garnishes:

a small onion, very finely sliced

2 tbsp groundnut oil

goats or feta cheese, crumbled


METHOD

Heat a very large soup pan, pour in enough olive oil to thinly cover the base and add the squash, onions, garlic, leeks and potatoes and saute for ten minutes or so until softened.

Add the tomatoes, cumin, cinnamon, sweet smoked paprika and chilli bean sauce, stir thoroughly so everything is coated in everything else then pour in enough just-boiled water to completely cover the vegetables. Season generously with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, bring to the boil then simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. At this point the potatoes and squash should both be very tender.

Drain the tins of chickpeas, reserving the water from the tins.

Puree the soup either in a blender or using a stick blender. It will probably be very thick at this point, so add the reserved chickpea water to loosen it, adding more from the kettle if required.

Set aside a handful of the chickpeas to use as a garnish later, bring the blitzed soup back to a simmer and add the rest of the chickpeas to it together with the courgette. Simmer for 20 minutes. At this point you can turn the soup off and allow it to sit for a few hours (or, even better, overnight). The flavours will deepen and there will be more character to the soup, though it will still be fabulous if you plough straight on…

…so while the soup is simmering make the herb oil by crushing the pistachios in a mortar and pestle, then adding all the ingredients including the pistachios to a food processor and blitz until everything is combined, adding just enough olive oil to give you a consistency like pesto. Check seasoning and put to one side.

Fry the thinly-sliced onion in 2 tbsp of groundnut oil at a high temperature, stirring regularly so they go brown and crispy but do not catch and burn. Shortly before the onions are fully ready, add the reserved chickpeas to the oil and brown them as well. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper until ready for use.

Serve the soup garnished with a drizzle of herb oil, crumbled goats’ or feta cheese and the crispy onions and chickpeas.

This goes fabulously well with crusty bread, and if you happen to have some Focaccia with Middle-Eastern Flavours lying around then these two are a match made in heaven. Loosen your belt and tuck in!

Focaccia with Middle-Eastern Flavours

Focaccia is, of course, an Italian staple; ideal for tearing and sharing, one of the easiest breads to make, and endlessly receptive to all kinds of flavours. This particular version was invented by Sabrina Ghayour and can be found in her beautiful book ‘Persiana’. I urge you to buy a copy, it is stuffed full of amazing recipes that – on the evidence of the many that I have cooked so far – are absolutely delicious.

This bread goes well with any warm and spicy dish but also enlivens simple fare like a plate of fine cheese and vine-fresh cherry tomatoes. If you have never made bread before then start here; it is real bread in that it has to have time to rise, but it requires virtually no kneading and can be treated quite roughly with no ill-effects. It’s as close to foolproof as bread can be, it’s very impressive as well.

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RECIPE 

For the dough:

125g cold soured cream

150ml cold water

100ml boiling water

550g white bread flour

3 good pinches of sea salt

2 tsp caster sugar

1 1/2 tsp dried yeast

2 tbsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp ground coriander

1 tbsp dried mint

1 tsp chilli flakes

For the topping:

olive oil

1 tbsp cumin seeds

1 tsp dried thyme

1 tsp nigella seeds

1 tsp sumac

sea salt flakes


METHOD

Mix the soured cream with the cold water in a bowl, then add the boiling water to it.

In a large bowl, mix the bread flour, sea salt, caster sugar, dried yeast, cumin seeds, ground coriander, dried mint and chilli flakes. Make a well in the centre, then pour in the cream and water mixture. Using your hands as a claw, pull the flour into the liquid and mix all of the ingredients together. The dough will start off sticky and there will be dry bits in the bottom of the bowl; keep manipulating the dough until it all comes together and starts to leave the sides of the bowl clean. This will only take a few minutes and you will end up with a rough ball of dough that looks like this:

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Cover the dough with cling film or a tea towel and set aside in a warm place to rest for ten minutes.

Meanwhile, line a large, deep roasting tin (mine is approximately 13 inches x 9 inches) with baking parchment. Place the ball of dough in it, flatten it out and pull and stretch it so it completely fills the bottom of the tin. You can be firm with the dough to get it to do what you want, just take care not to tear it. Now using your finger poke deep holes into the dough, all over the top. Your dough should now look like this:

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Cover it with cling film or a tea towel, taking care to leave a lot of air over the dough, and set it aside in a warm place to rise for at least an hour. Don’t leave it more than three hours as the dough will get ‘exhausted’ and won’t be as good. You will see it rising, quite impressively, so when you are happy with the degree of rising you can continue.

Heat your oven to 200C/ 180C Fan/ gas 6.

Generously drizzle olive oil all over the top of the dough; make sure you completely cover the top of the dough – I use a silicon brush to ensure it gets everywhere. The Italians use an awful lot of olive oil on their focaccia so it seeps into the top portion of the dough as it cooks, that’s a bit much for my personal taste so I am generous with the oil without going overboard. It is a personal matter though so use however much oil you want to.

Now liberally cover the top of the dough with the toppings: cumin seeds, dried thyme, nigella seeds, sumac and sea salt flakes. Once again, be generous, this is all great flavour and the quantities of each that I have specified are only a guide. Your risen dough will now look like this:

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Bake in the centre of the oven for 25-30 minutes or until the top is golden brown. If you are unsure of when your focaccia is properly cooked, an instant read thermometer inserted into the centre of the bread should read at least 90C. Turn the focaccia out, together with its parchment, onto a wire rack and after a few minutes remove the baking parchment and leave to cool completely – that is if you can resist the temptation to tear straight into it…

Your kitchen will now smell gorgeous, and your finished bread will wow everybody:

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Spicy Thai Prawn and Lemon Grass Soup

Testament to the old law that simplicity is best, this fabulous broth takes minutes to make yet is packed with fresh, zingy Thai flavours. It is the perfect starter course for a Thai meal, or a light summer lunch – best enjoyed out in the garden with the sun shining.

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RECIPE – serves 2

1 pint of fish stock

2 fresh lemon grass stalks, cut into 3cm lengths and lightly crushed

1 1/2 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)

zest of 2 limes

3 red birds eye chillies, de-seeded and cut into long strips

1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice

100g raw king prawns

2 spring onions, finely sliced at an angle

a few sprigs of coriander


METHOD

Bring the fish stock to a gentle simmer in a large pan, add the crushed lemon grass and fish sauce, cover and simmer for ten minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to sit, covered, to infuse for as long as you can, a couple of hours will do the job.

Later, remove the lemon grass stalks with a slotted spoon (or pour through a sieve) and discard. Bring back to the boil then add the lime zest, chillies, black pepper and lime juice. Simmer gently for 3 minutes, then add the prawns and allow them to poach gently until they are just pink. This will only take a few minutes. Stir in the spring onions and coriander and serve immediately.

Thai Prawn Green Curry

The Thais are generally a slender people, I have to wonder how they do it. I just wanted to continue eating this incredible Thai prawn green curry until I burst. The silky sauce is so full of flavours, each of them entirely distinct from one another, and yet it takes so little time to make. I could have made another batch of this within about 20 minutes; believe me, I was very tempted.

To experience this at its best please make your own Thai green curry paste if you can. It doesn’t take long but the difference in the depth of flavour compared to a shop-bought jar of paste is indescribable.

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RECIPE – serves 4

1 fresh lemon grass stalk

1 1/2 tbsp sunflower oil

2 tbsp Thai green curry paste

4 kaffir lime leaves, shredded (or the finely grated zest of 2 limes)

2 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)

2 tsp caster sugar

1 400ml tin of coconut milk

500g raw king prawns, peeled but tails on

200g fine green beans, cut into 2cm lengths

a small handful of fresh Thai basil leaves, or ordinary basil leaves, shredded


METHOD

Peel off the tough outer layers of the lemon grass, trim the root end then slice the tender whitish centre finely.

Heat a wok or large frying pan until it is hot, then add the sunflower oil. Now add the green curry paste and stir fry for a couple of minutes.

Add the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves (or lime zest) fish sauce, caster sugar and coconut milk. Reduce the heat and simmer for around 5 minutes.

At this point, if you wish, you can turn off the heat and allow the sauce to sit so the flavours can develop for a few hours. If you have the time then it is well worth doing.

When you are ready to serve, add the prawns and fine green beans and cook gently for around 4 minutes, stirring occasionally until they are just pink on both sides. Take off the heat, add the basil leaves and stir thoroughly.

Serve alongside plain steamed or boiled rice. Beware: this is seriously addictive!

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.

Moist Carrot and Sultana Cake

How do you improve a carrot cake? Tough call, but lots of cinnamon and sultanas does the trick in this delicious and surprisingly low-calorie tea cake. It’s made with sunflower oil instead of butter, and is a creation of the Hairy Bikers who reckon that it is only 239 calories per slice. Perhaps the toughest part of a calorie-controlled diet is the self-denial, but sometimes a little self-indulgence can help keep you on the path. When delicious and (almost) guilt-free creations like this are available, why deny yourself?

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RECIPE – serves 10

200g (net weight) carrots, peeled, trimmed and grated

3 large eggs

100 ml sunflower oil

100g caster sugar

200g self-raising flour

100g sultanas

finely grated zest of an orange

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

icing sugar to decorate


METHOD

Heat the oven to 190C/ Fan 170C/ Gas 5. Line the base of a 23cm springform cake tin with parchment paper, and lightly oil the sides.

Beat the eggs with a whisk until light and frothy, add the sunflower oil and sugar and whisk until fully combined. Stir in the carrot, sultanas, orange zest, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the baking powder to the flour, mix it in thoroughly, then add the flour and fold it in carefully until the mixture is just combined. You want to keep as much air in the mix as possible so don’t overmix it. There is no need to sift the flour into this cake.

Pour into the lined cake tin and gently level it off.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 25-30 minutes until the top is golden and the sides of the cake are just starting to shrink away from the sides of the cake tin. If you are unsure then a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake will tell you if it is done – if the skewer comes out clean then the centre is baked.

Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

This cake will happily last 3 or 4 days in the fridge – if it is around that long…

Hyderabadi Fish with a Sesame Sauce (Macchi Ka Salan)

The majority of curries use tomatoes as the basis for the sauce, this one is very different in that it uses toasted sesame seeds as its main ingredient, and is thickened with onions and peanut butter. The result is as fabulous as it is interesting: an almost-bitter nutty undertone overlaid by the almost-sweetness of the dessicated coconut, tempered by the sour edge of the tamarind.

I didn’t know what to expect when I first made it, but I was converted after one mouthful, and by the time I had finished it I was completely in love with it. You can use salmon or any white fish – cod, hake, pollock, haddock, or monkfish is a particular treat – and if you use a mix of fish it is even better.

This is a sauce that is best made early and allowed to sit for a few hours, or even overnight. Like all curries, the ingredients list looks daunting but this is actually a quick and easy dish to make.

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RECIPE – for 4 people

Paste 1:

2 tsp cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp turmeric

2 tbsp dessicated coconut

4 tsp ground coriander

Paste 2:

2 tbsp chunky peanut butter

5 cm fresh ginger, not peeled, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

3 tbsp tamarind paste

1 tsp salt

For the sauce:

115g sesame seeds

ground nut oil

2 medium onions, peeled, halved and finely sliced

1 tsp brown mustard seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

12 curry leaves

4 salmon or white fish fillets or loins, or a mix


METHOD

Combine the paste 1 ingredients in a bowl. Lightly toast the sesame seeds in a large pan that is NOT non-stick. When toasted, remove from the heat and add the paste 1 ingredients. The pan will still be very hot, so just agitate the ingredients for a minute or so off the heat, then pour everything back into the bowl and allow to cool. When cool, use a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle to grind it in to a smooth paste. This will probably have to be done in two batches, and because the sesame seeds are oily it will grind into something more like a paste rather than a powder. Set aside.

Pour ground nut oil into a large pan to a depth of 3mm, get it very hot but not smoking then add the onions and stir-fry for around ten minutes until they are brown and crisp. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and drain them on kitchen paper; retain the remaining oil for use later.

Put the paste 2 ingredients in a blender, together with the onions and 250 ml of hot water and blend to a thick puree. Add the paste 1 ingredients that you toasted and ground earlier, together with a further 250 ml of hot water. Blend again, check the seasoning and the balance of sourness, adding more tamarind paste if you feel it needs it.

Heat the oil that was set aside earlier, add the mustard and cumin seeds, and when they start to pop add the curry leaves and cook for 15 seconds, then add the blended sauce. Pour another 250ml of hot water into the now-empty blender and swirl it around to wash out the sauce that is left behind, pour into the pan with the rest and bring to the boil before setting it to a gentle simmer.

If you will be leaving the sauce to sit and develop then at this point you can allow the sauce to cool until needed.

Lightly season the fish you will be using, you can leave the fish as whole fillets or cut it into 2 cm wide chunks, whichever you prefer. When ready to cook, gently push the fish into the simmering sauce so that it is just submerged and poach it for 5-7 minutes until it is just cooked.

Serve alongside plain rice and garnish it with fresh coriander. Madhur Jaffrey advises that this is also excellent served with new potatoes and lightly sauteed brocolli, garnished with chopped flat-leaf parsley. Who am I to argue?

Quorn Meatballs in a Rich Tomato Sauce with Spaghetti

When my children were young, on the rare occasions that I was called upon to cook for them we had a delicious concoction we called ‘spaghetti and meatballs a la papa’. Truth to tell, although we all loved it and my children have fond memories of it, it actually wasn’t very good, consisting of a couple of tins of Campbell’s meat balls in tomato sauce, a teaspoon of dried oregano and some packet spaghetti.

Like so many things in life, it was the circumstances in which we had it that made it special: It’s spaghetti! Dad is cooking! We can stay up late!

We always had a lot of fun making it; we all mucked in, they were little and I was almost useless so we all muddled through it together. They were happy times.

Every time I make spaghetti and meatballs I am transported, misty-eyed, back to those days, and when my now-adult children come to visit we very often have the new, updated and very much improved meatballs a la papa. I still use meatballs that have been made by somebody else (though I do actually make a pretty good real meatball) but now they are made of quorn and they are enhanced immeasurably by a proper, rich and flavourful tomato sauce which began life as a Jamie Oliver recipe. Many times I have made this for carnivores and they have had no idea that they are eating quorn rather than mince; when they found out they didn’t care and went back for second and third helpings.

I have specified cans of chopped tomatoes here, though you can use canned whole tomatoes. You have to handle them slightly differently though; whole tomatoes are picked and canned before they are fully ripe, because it is easier to remove the skins and keep them whole when they are firm and immature. This means that the seeds can be bitter so when you cook the sauce down don’t break the tomatoes up before the cooking is completed, somehow this completely removes any bitterness. Chopped  tomatoes are picked and canned when they are fully ripe so this problem doesn’t arise.

Please don’t try and shortcut the cooking time, the sauce here is everything and it needs the time to reduce, thicken up and intensify its flavour. Some things can’t be rushed, and you will be glad that you took your time.

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RECIPE – for 4 people

2 tbsp olive oil

2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 tsp dried oregano

3 tins of chopped tomatoes

1 tsp fish sauce

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

500g Quorn meatballs

1 ball mozarella

a small handful of basil, leaves only, shredded

salt and pepper

120g of spaghetti per person (a generous serving)


METHOD

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.

In a large pan of salted water at a rolling boil, cook the spaghetti.

Meanwhile, add the quorn meatballs, simmer for 10 minutes, then add the mozarella (cow or buffalo, it doesn’t matter) and shredded basil. Stir well, the cheese will melt and make the sauce stringy and unctuous, the basil will wilt and add lovely flavour and aroma.

Drain the spaghetti, then tip it into the sauce. Toss the spaghetti in the sauce until thoroughly coated.

Serve with a simple green salad dressed with the juice of half a lemon. Lovely!

Sticky Jerk Salmon with a Crunchy Mango and Red Cabbage Salad

Spring has officially sprung here in England, the evenings are long and hot and our garden is in full flower. The weather is so variable here that we take every chance that we can to eat outside. That doesn’t always affect the choice of what we will have to eat, but sometimes the evening is so glorious that all that is required is something light and easy and, perhaps most importantly, quick to make.

I had a small stock of jerk paste that I had made a few weeks ago lurking in the freezer, and decided that if I didn’t use it now it would end up in the bin. I also had a very ripe mango that I picked up yesterday, for no other reason than that it was reduced for a quick sale. Thinking cap on, I searched through my flavour thesaurus, came up with an interesting combination of flavours that ought to work together and was rewarded with one of the most glorious salads I have ever eaten.

We are having a big family barbecue in a few weeks – when we can depend on the weather a little more – and so I have been thinking about what to make to feed a lot of hungry people who will expect something special. This salad just shot to the top of my list; it is wonderful with the salmon here, but would also be great with jerk chicken, or even just as a salad all by itself.

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RECIPE – for 2 people

1 heaped tbsp jerk paste

1 tbsp clear honey, plus 1 tsp

2 salmon fillets

juice of a lime

1/2 red cabbage, core removed and thinly sliced

1 ripe mango, thinly sliced into strips

1 red pepper, thinly sliced

3 spring onions, finely sliced on an angle

a small bunch of fresh coriander, leaves only


METHOD

Mix the jerk paste with 1 tbsp of clear honey. Lightly season the salmon fillets, place on a foil-lined baking tray and spread the paste all over the top of them. Place under a hot grill for 8-10 minutes until just cooked through and the paste is starting to caramelise. Meanwhile make the salad.

Tip: I found that the paste on top of the fish hadn’t quite caramelised as much as I would have liked by the time the fish was done. I finished it off with a cook’s burner, not something I use very often in my kitchen but an extremely handy thing to have available at times like these.

Put the 1 tsp of honey, the lime juice and a little seasoning in a large salad bowl and mix thoroughly. Add the red cabbage, mango, pepper, spring onions and coriander, toss thoroughly with the dressing.

Serve the salmon in a bowl on top of a bed of the salad.

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!