Hasselback Sweet Potatoes with Caper Salsa and Feta

Sweet potatoes make perfect autumn food, but I tend to just bake them whole or make crispy roasted wedges with them. I’ve been missing a trick – slicing them very thinly, but not all the way through, gives them a delicious combination of crispy skin and melting flesh. Augmented by the sharp, salty flavours of capers, vinegar and feta, this might just be the best side dish I have discovered this year. 

We have these as an accompaniment to seared tuna steaks or grilled sea bass fillets, alongside a crisp green salad dressed with a little lemon juice.

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RECIPE serves 4

4 tbsp olive oil

4 large sweet potatoes

a small handful of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

a small handful of fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

1 tbsp capers, rinsed

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 tsp white wine vinegar

100g feta, roughly crumbled


METHOD

Heat your oven to 230C/ 210C fan/ gas 8.

Cut into the potatoes at 5mm intervals, but only cut about 3/4 of the way through, as the picture shows. An easy way to do this quickly is to lay a couple of wooden spoons alongside your potato and wedge the potato between them, then cut down straight until the handles of the spoons stop you going any further.

Drizzle 2 tbsp of olive oil all over the hasselback sweet potatoes, working it down into the cuts and all over the skins. Bake in the oven for around 40 minutes until the skins are crispy and the flesh is meltingly soft.

Meanwhile, combine the parsley, mint, capers, garlic, chilli flakes and vinegar to make the salsa. Stir well and set aside until the potatoes are ready.

To serve: drizzle the potatoes with the salsa, and scatter the feta over that. Serve immediately.

Dry-Spiced Potato and Cauliflower (Aloo Gobi)

It doesn’t sound exciting, but potatoes and cauliflower pair extremely well with spice. This makes a great side for Bengali curries, or as a delicious lunch all by itself – whatever the weather.

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RECIPE serves 4

450g waxy potatoes

1 cauliflower, broken into small florets

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp coriander seeds

1/2 tsp black peppercorns

6 tbsp coconut oil

1/2 tsp fennel seeds

a small onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped

a big knob of ginger, finely chopped

1 medium-hot green chilli, finely chopped

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

a handful of fresh coriander leaves, roughly chopped

METHOD

Cut the potatoes into small pieces around 2cm across. Cook in lightly salted water until just tender.

Dry-fry the cumin seeds, coriander seeds and black peppercorns until just aromatic (this takes 60-90 seconds), allow to cool slightly then grind to a powder in a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder that is only used for grinding spices.

Heat the oil over a medium hot flame, add the cauliflower florets and fennel seeds. Cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the florets are starting to brown.

Add the onion, garlic, ginger, salt and green chilli. Stir well, turn the heat down to low, cover and fry gently for around 5 minutes until the onions have softened.

As an aside, most recipes that use ginger specify that you peel it first. I have never found this necessary, I just chop off any dry exposed ends and cut out any rough and ugly protusions. I have also seen it said that you shouldn’t grate ginger, because it is too fibrous. Again, I disagree. I regularly finely grate ginger and I generally end up with just about all of the fibres in the hand I am grating with. Give those a fibres a good squeeze to extract the juice they are holding (you will be surprised!) then discard them – or pop them in a small jelly bag with your peelings and pour hot water over them to make the most enervating ginger tea.

Add the potatoes, the spices that you ground earlier, turmeric and cayenne pepper. Stir gently and cook uncovered over a low heat for a few minutes to heat the potatoes through. Add the coriander leaves, toss together, and serve.

As an alternative, I have also made this with new potatoes. I steam the potatoes for around 15-20 minutes until just tender, then lightly crush them so the skins split. The rest of the method is the same.

Cumin Flatbreads

I’m a big fan of flatbreads. Naan, rotis, pitta (or pied) or pizza, they are all so versatile, so easy to make and so filling. Rather than just serving them alongside a curry or as part of Middle Eastern mezze, they can be torn into strips and served under chilli instead of rice, torn into chunks as part of a salad, dipped into soups, used as a kind of spoon to gather up dal or sauce, split open to form a pocket for whatever filling takes your fancy, they can even be used as a plate. The next time you’re bored with the usual rice or potatoes, turn your thoughts to flatbreads.

These can be made with all kinds of spices: chilli flakes, coriander seeds, mustard seeds or cardamom. Cumin is my favourite though; it’s a heady, masculine spice with the aroma of hot desert about it, and bread is it’s perfect partner.

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RECIPE makes 8, but can easily be halved

1 tsp dried yeast

1 tsp sugar

250ml lukewarm water

400g plain flour

1 tbsp cumin seeds

2 tsp sea salt

1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for cooking


METHOD

Combine the yeast, sugar and water in a small bowl. Make sure your water is just lukewarm – too hot and it will kill the yeast, then you’ll end up with thin, flat rotis rather than airy, puffed-up bread. Set the bowl aside in a warm place for about 15 minutes until it starts to foam slightly, that’s the yeast feeding on the sugar.

In a dry pan, warm the cumin seeds over a medium heat for a minute or so until aromatic, then tip onto a cold plate to stop them from cooking.

In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt and cumin seeds, and mix well with your hand. Add the oil to the yeast mixture, then make a well in the middle of the flour and pour the yeast mixture into it. Forming your fingers into a kind of claw, drag the liquid through the flour, mixing and picking up dry areas as you go. Within a minute or so it will have formed a cohesive dough that will still be quite sticky. Work the dough in the bowl for a few minutes more and you will find that it starts to become less sticky and will start to form into a ball, pulling dry and sticky bits from the side of the bowl as it comes together.

Now turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and start to knead the dough. The idea is to fully hydrate the flour and develop the gluten that gives the finished bread its structure and strength. You will have to knead the dough for about ten minutes, until it is smooth, elastic and not sticky (or at least not too sticky). I’m not going to deliver a masterclass on how to knead a ball of dough, if you do need some guidance YouTube is full of great video tutorials.

Roll the dough into a tight ball and place in a lightly-oiled bowl, covered, in a warm place for an hour or two until doubled in size.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, knock it back and divide into 8 balls.

Heat a ridged griddle pan until it is scorching hot, and roll the dough balls out into rough circles 3 or 4 mm thick. Turn the griddle pan down to a high but not furious heat, brush  one side of the rolled-out dough lightly with olive oil, then place oiled-side down in the griddle pan. Cook for about 1 minute per side, until you see bubbles of air forming on the top side and the bottom surface is golden and darkly-lined from the griddle. Brush the uncooked side lightly with oil, then flip over and cook the other side. Place in a large piece of cooking foil, big enough to fold over and around all of your cooked flatbreads to keep them warm.

Repeat with the other balls of dough, storing them as you go in the foil packet that you have made. This is a job that is much easier when two of you are doing it, you can get a production line going. If you are doing it by yourself, hard-won experience tells me it is better to concentrate solely on cooking them so get all your rolling-out done before you heat the griddle pan, then cook them one after the other keeping a close eye on them – they go from raw, to charred, to burned in remarkably short order.

I generally heat my oven to 100C then turn it off, storing my foil packet of cooked flatbreads in the warm oven until the rest of my cooking is complete and ready to serve.

Perfect Polenta

A few years ago, I bought some instant polenta and made some polenta chips. I followed the recipe exactly, and the result was distinctly underwhelming. A claggy, distracting texture was the main feature, and they only really tasted good when they had cooled to a gentle warmth.

It turns out that instant polenta bears about as much relation to the real thing as instant mash does to a lovingly prepared bowl of proper, buttery mashed potatoes.

It took me years to give polenta another try, once I understood that it was real polenta or nothing. The trouble was, according to all the accounts that I had then read, real polenta takes an hour or more standing at a stove, patiently stirring for the whole time. I love cooking, but it’s not often I can spend a whole hour doing nothing but stir the contents of a pot.

In the last few years though I have taken to actually reading recipe books in their entirety, like I would a novel, and I have learned a lot. As far as polenta goes, I have learned that there are things that you can do to it, and there are things that you MUST do to it. Stirring is an essential part of the process, and not just to stop it from catching on the bottom of the pan, but how much stirring is actually necessary? Not as much as you think actually; the key is slow cooking because all you are trying to do is thoroughly hydrate the corn meal. I use a heat-diffuser under my pan, on the very lowest heat, and stir it every five minutes or so – but more of that in the method below.

The other essential is liquid, obviously. But which liquid? Water is the most traditional, but I have seen it made with vegetable stock (which I don’t like because it masks the subtle but essential corn flavour). Using a mixture of full-fat milk and water gives my preferred result – it’s elusive and almost undefinable, but the milk gives it a subtle richness.

The other must-do is getting the first five minutes right…

Get your water & milk boiling hard, make sure it is salted, and add the corn meal s..l..o..w..l..y. Sifting it through your fingers a small handful at a time is the way to go, whisking hard and fast so that lumps do not get a chance to form. Get this bit wrong and you will never be proud of your polenta. Once the corn meal has all been added, reduce the heat to a low simmer and keep whisking for about 5 minutes until the polenta has properly thickened. Again, if you try and short-cut this bit then your polenta will never have the texture it needs.

How much liquid? It depends on what level of firmness you want. The classic ratio is 1 part corn meal to 4 parts liquid, and that’s great for slices that will be baked or grilled to a melting loveliness. Use 1 part corn meal to 3 parts liquid to make it firmer for chips and the like, and 1 part corn meal to 5 parts liquid makes a loose, potato-mash consistency which is the standard accompaniment for saucy meat dishes and ragu. Recipes for all these will undoubtedly follow…

One last thing… which polenta should you use? There is white corn meal and yellow corn meal, fine ground or more coarsely ground. The good thing is that the things you must do never change, no matter which colour or degree of grind you use. White is a little more delicate than yellow, so which you choose depends on what you plan to have with it. The coarse grind is probably better for firm polenta as used to make polenta chips, and the fine is better for a wetter polenta – but this is family food we are making so I wouldn’t get too serious about it. Buy good quality corn meal, of whatever type, as long as it is never, never, ever instant.

Things that you can do to your polenta include using stock as your liquid. As I said earlier, I don’t do it that way, preferring instead to bring my pan of liquid up to a boil from cold, with the salt added at the beginning with a bay leaf. You can augment it with garlic, and I have seen all kinds of nonsense added in an effort to be trendy or cutting-edge. Polenta doesn’t need it, it’s a base for other things to work around, so I advocate keeping it simple, getting it right and using your imagination on what you are going to serve it with.

The taste and texture? Get it right and it is right up there alongside the most comforting bowl of buttery mashed potato, with a subtle sweet edge from the corn. It is truly delicious.

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BASIC RECIPE serves 4

375ml cold water

125ml full-fat milk

1 bay leaf

1 tsp sea salt

125g corn meal

50g unsalted butter, cut into thin slices

75g Parmesan, very finely grated


METHOD

Put the water and milk in a large saucepan, add the salt and the bay leaf, then bring to a hard rolling boil.

Once the liquid is boiling, remove the bay leaf. It has done its job and if you leave it in it will get broken up as you whisk, leaving you with unappealing ‘bits’ in your finished polenta.

Measure the corn meal into a bowl big enough to get your hand into, and when the liquid is boiling take a small handful and let it slowly sift through the fingers of one hand into the liquid while you whisk vigorously with the other hand. Keep doing this until all of the corn meal has been incorporated and there are no lumps. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, continuing to whisk it constantly.

You will see the mixture transform from a loose slurry to a thickening paste over the space of five minutes. Make sure the polenta has properly thickened before you stop whisking, though it will still be a loose mixture at this stage.

Now put your pan on a heat-diffuser, over the lowest heat that you can. Pop a lid on the pan (this is sacrilege to many Italians, but it works) and let it cook very, very gently for around 30 minutes. Every five minutes, go back to the mixture and give it a good whisk. When it comes to the point that it is too thick to whisk, take a wooden spoon to it.

The polenta is done when the texture becomes creamy and amalgamated. When you taste it there should be no hint at all of graininess from the corn meal.

Turn off the heat and dot the butter around the top of the polenta, then stir it in until it has almost all melted, then add the finely-grated Parmesan. Stir again, cover again, and leave it to stand for five minutes. Check the seasoning, and now you have something you can work with.

What you do with it next depends entirely on what your meal plans are, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with just taking it to the table in a serving bowl, drizzling it with a very little extra-virgin olive oil and a generous grinding of black pepper and eating it with a spoon. It’s quite amazing in a bowl, topped with a fried egg as well!

Courgette and Chilli Salad

I’m lucky enough to have a pick-your-own farm nearby. I say lucky, I’m notorious for picking more than we can reasonably eat. With that in mind, I have a growing collection of speedy side dishes that I can put together in a hurry and that allow us to savour the freshness of just-picked vegetables.

This one is superb: extremely simple, delicious and elegant. The sharpness of the lemon and mustard powder make it a great accompaniment for oily fish such as mackerel or salmon. Last night we had it alongside a rich polenta dish, purely because that was what I was making. I had a good handful of small, sweet, tender, green and yellow courgettes, so – as often happens – I thought what the hell and put this together on the off-chance that it would work with the buttery polenta. It did, and how.

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Picture Credit: Jamie Oliver


RECIPE serves 4 as a side dish

4 large, or 8 small courgettes, a mix of green and yellow looks great

1 fresh red chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped

the zest and juice of a lemon

extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 tsp English mustard powder

a few sprigs of basil, with small leaves


METHOD

Wash the courgettes then, using a potato speed-peeler, make long, thin ribbons. Add the chopped chilli and toss together.

Zest and juice the lemon into a bowl, and add roughly the same amount of extra-virgin olive oil as you have lemon juice. Stir in the mustard powder and a pinch of flaked sea salt, whisk it all together and pour over the salad. Toss thoroughly, then pick off the basil leaves and scatter over the top. Serve immediately.

Red and White Rice Salad, with Butternut Squash and Pomegranate

I quite often find myself with absolutely no idea what to make for dinner. Despite having approaching 850 cookery books, and my own notebooks containing close to a thousand tried, trusted and delicious recipes, I still scratch my head some mornings. When faced with such a conundrum, I will often turn to what is lurking in the fridge or the pantry and use what I already have as a starting point.

I picked up a beautiful pomegranate the other day. I had no idea what I would do with it but it was such a perfect fruit I couldn’t leave it there. I spotted it in our fruit bowl, and from there it was easy: pomegranate means salad, the developing summer leads me to middle-eastern flavours, and from there I just hit the books until I spotted this wonderful, hearty salad courtesy of Sabrina Ghayour’s ‘Bazaar: Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes’.

It is studded with interesting textures and flavours, and the combination of sharp vinegar, sweet orange and honey, together with warming cinnamon makes for a knockout fragrance. It is perfect as an accompaniment to falafels (which is how I served it), and I think it would also be perfect alongside grilled fish or shredded cooked chicken, with some pitta bread on the side. It is hearty enough to act as a vegetarian main course all by itself as well.

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RECIPE serves 4

1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped into bite-size cubes

olive oil

2 tbsp cumin seeds

75g basmati rice

75g red Camargue rice

100g dried cranberries OR barberries

50g toasted flaked almonds

50g flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

1 medium red onion, very finely diced

finely grated zest and juice of a large orange

1 tsp ground cinnamon

3 tbsp red wine vinegar

2 tbsp clear honey

extra-virgin olive oil

the seeds of a pomegranate

150g crumbled feta (optional)

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Pre-heat the oven to 220C/ 200 C fan/ Gas 7.

Place the cubed butternut squash on a prepared baking tray and drizzle generously with olive oil. Scatter over the cumin seeds and season generously with salt and pepper. Using your hands, ensure everything is properly combined, spread out to ensure there is plenty of space for the squash cubes to roast properly, and cook in the middle of the oven for around 450 minutes until the squash is meltingly soft and just charring around the edges. If your honey is of the set kind, drizzle it over the hot squash now to melt and combine. Set aside to cool completely.

Meanwhile, cook the rice per packet instructions – in a separate pan for each type – until cooked but still slightly firm in the centre of the grain. This will take as little as five minutes for the basmati, and around 30 minutes for the red rice so keep an eye on things. Once cooked, rinse the rice thoroughly in cold water until completely cool, drain and set aside.

Put the cranberries (or barberries) almonds, parsley, onion and rice into a large serving bowl and mix well. Add the orange zest and juice, cinnamon, a generous glug (around 2 tbsp) of your best extra-virgin olive oil, the vinegar, the honey (if you didn’t use it earlier) and some salt and pepper. Mix well and taste for seasoning. Season carefully, adding more salt until the flavours are punchy – you may need more salt than you would expect.

A word on adding those liquids: the orange juice, vinegar and oil. Normally I would combine them in a small bowl and whisk together, then add the mixture as a whole. Adding them to the salad singly, as described above, somehow results in a less uniform distribution, no matter how well you mix the salad together. It means that every mouthful is different, sometimes startlingly so. It’s a new trick for me, one that I will think about whenever create a dressing in future.

Now add the butternut squash and pomegranate seeds and gently fold in, keeping the squash cubes intact. If you like, and depending on what you are having alongside this salad, you can crumble feta across the top as well for fresh, salty bursts of flavour.

Leave this covered, on the side at room temperature, until ready to serve.

Saffron Rice with Barberries, Pistachio and Mixed Herbs

I have a ridiculous number of cookbooks, magazines, recipes ripped from newspapers and magazines, and downloaded from the internet. It can make choosing what to eat more of a problem, not less, so when I’m stuck for inspiration I have a few strategies: I might pick a book or magazine at random, and just cook anything and everything that sounds delicious. Or I might go into the larder and pick out an overlooked, forgotten-about ingredient and find recipes to use it with.

This last strategy came into play this week, when I found a pot of dried barberries lurking, doing nothing. It was a good move, I made two absolutely divine dishes with them, which went together perfectly: a yellow split pea and aubergine stew, which I found in an old Jamie magazine, and this, from Yotam Ottolenghi’s delightful book ‘Jerusalem’.

Barberries are tiny, sweet-and-sour Iranian berries that add a real hit of intensity to Middle Eastern dishes. You can get them online, and from Middle Eastern grocers. If you can’t find barberries, use currants soaked in a little lemon juice instead, or dried sour cherries also make a great substitute.

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RECIPE serves 6 (modify amounts to suit) 

40g unsalted butter

360g basmati rice, rinsed under cold water and drained

560ml boiling water

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

a pinch of saffron threads, soaked for 30 minutes in 3 tbsp boiling water

40g dried barberries, soaked for a few minutes in freshly boiled water with a pinch of sugar

30g dill, roughly chopped

20g chervil, roughly chopped

10g tarragon, roughly chopped

60g slivered or crushed unsalted raw pistachios, lightly toasted


METHOD

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and stir in the rice, making sure the grains are well coated. Add the boiling water, a teaspoon of salt and some white pepper. Mix well, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook on a very low heat for 15 minutes. Don’t be tempted to uncover the pan – you need to let the rice to steam properly.

Remove the pan from the heat – all the water will have been absorbed by the rice – and pour the saffron water over about a quarter of the surface, leaving most of the rice white. Cover with a tea towel, reseal tightly with the lid and set aside for five to 10 minutes.

We are not big fans of saffron, some people just aren’t. If this also applies to you then consider finely grating a couple of centimetres of fresh turmeric root (now very widely available from larger supermarket chains) and soaking in a couple of tablespoons of hot water. The flavour is heady and aromatic, it makes a perfect substitute wherever you are called upon to use saffron.

With a large spoon, transfer the white rice to a large bowl and fluff it up with a fork. Drain the barberries and stir them in, followed by the herbs and most of the pistachios, reserving a few to garnish. Fluff up the saffron rice in the pan, then fold gently into the white rice – don’t over mix: you don’t want the white grains to be stained by the yellow ones. Taste, adjust the seasoning and transfer to a shallow serving bowl. Scatter the remaining pistachios on top and serve warm or at room temperature.

Vegetarian Gravy

Most great gravy recipes are based on the juices from roasted meat. When cooking for vegetarians that is, of course, out of the question so, how do you pack flavour into a vegetarian gravy?

The key is to remember that gravy is just another word for sauce, and the French have spent hundreds of years creating and refining the art of sauce-making. Taking cues from that tradition, making a thick, rich, glossy and flavourful gravy isn’t hard at all.

As with all cookery, building flavour is a simply a matter of understanding where flavour comes from, and sensibly layering it into the sauce. The caramelised onions provide the base flavour, the butter adds richness and unctuousness, the wine brings aroma and the Marmite and mustard bring punch.

This gravy is not second-class, it has become my regular go-to recipe. You can (as I have) fearlessly serve it alongside roasted beef or a nut roast and everybody will be delighted.

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RECIPE makes enough for six people

2 onions, thinly sliced

50g unsalted butter

2 tbsp olive oil

100ml Madeira or Marsala

600g dark vegetable stock

1 tsp Marmite (or similar yeast extract)

4 tsp vegetarian gravy browning (Bisto is vegetarian-friendly)

1/2 tsp English mustard powder

a small knob of butter to finish


METHOD

In a large pan, melt the butter with the oil (the oil prevents the butter from burning) then fry the onions over a medium-high heat until they are well coloured and starting to catch. Stir frequently but not constantly.

Meanwhile, prepare and heat the vegetable stock and add the Marmite to it.

Add the Madeira/Marsala to the pan and it should bubble vigorously, for a bit of fun you can set light to the alcohol fumes as they bubble off – just be careful. Scrape any caramelisation from the bottom and sides of the pan, then after a minute add the vegetable stock and bring it to the boil.

While bringing it to the boil, combine the gravy browning with the mustard powder and then add a little water to make a thin paste. When the gravy is boiling, add the paste and stir constantly until the gravy is thick.

Sieve out the onions, and test and adjust the seasoning. You can now leave it to sit until you are ready to eat.

Just before serving, reheat the gravy and when it is hot add a small knob of butter and whisk it in until the sauce is glossy. Transfer to a warmed jug and serve.

Yorkshire Puddings

They are big, they are ugly, and they are light and delicious!

Yorkshire puddings are one of those things that people tend to struggle with. They either don’t rise, or they collapse, or they’re greasy and chewy, or all three. It doesn’t need to be that way, you just need three things: a good batter recipe; well-developed gluten, and heat.

The key is time. If you are going to be cooking a roast dinner at, say, 5pm, then make your Yorkshire pudding batter at lunchtime. If you give your batter a good long beating and then plenty of time to sit, then the gluten in the flour will develop, giving the puddings lots of strength. You also need plenty of heat; heat when you add the batter to the tin, and lots of heat in the oven. The batter will spring up, and as the heat hardens the mixture the strong gluten will enable them to hold up and they won’t collapse. There is no need to use self-raising flour, or any raising agent at all. If you get plenty of air into the batter then that will do the trick.

The result will be great big puddings that literally leap out of the tin. They will have lots of air in them so they will be light, and not at all stodgy. Try it, you’ll never look back!

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RECIPE makes 12

115g plain flour, sifted

a pinch of fine sea salt

2 large eggs

140ml whole milk


METHOD

Several hours before cooking (or the night before, just leave the batter in the fridge) sift the flour into a mixing bowl with a pinch of fine sea salt. Lightly beat the eggs together, and start to whisk the flour and salt gently before you add anything else.

While whisking, gradually add the eggs, with a little of the milk, to make a smooth paste. When all the eggs have been incorporated, gradually add the rest of the milk, increasing the whisking speed. Obviously this is much easier if you are using a stand mixer. When everything has been added then whisk the mixture at high speed for three minutes or so, this will get air into the mixture and also work the gluten in the flour. Now just leave the batter to stand, and go and do something else with the rest of your day.

When the time comes to cook, get your oven up to 220C/ 200C fan/ gas 7. This might not be possible, or advisable if you are cooking something else in there at the same time, but get it as hot as you dare. In a 12 hole metal muffin tray, pour a little vegetable oil into each hole and put it into the oven for a few minutes to get hot.

Go back to your batter and give it a final whisk for a minute or so, to wake it up and ensure that everything is evenly distributed.

Take the muffin tray out of the oven and put it on the stovetop, with a burner underneath it on a high heat. This will keep the oil very hot while you work.

Now, quickly – but carefully – ladle the batter into the muffin holes, filling each approximately half-full.

Quickly again, put the muffin tin back in the oven, close the door and DO NOT OPEN IT FOR 20 MINUTES.

After twenty minutes, you will be greeted with the best Yorkshire puddings you have ever eaten. I promise.

Sauerkraut

I am a total beginner when it comes to home fermentation, though it is a topic that has intrigued me for a while now. I was pushed to actually give it a go a few weeks ago when I listened to an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme that gave a fermentation masterclass by Sandor Katz.

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I now have a 2 litre jar of home-made sauerkraut fermenting away – flavoured with juniper berries, caraway seeds and fenugreek seeds – and I have to tell you that it is delicious right now, and I believe that it will only get better. The trick is to keep on tasting it, every few days, until it is exactly how you like it then put it in the fridge to drastically slow the fermentation. Of course if, like me, you’re a newbie to kraut then you have no idea how you like it, so it’s all an experiment. I’m just going to keep it going as long as I can, I’ll soon figure out how I like it – if it lasts long enough. I’m already finding uses for it: as a condiment, tumbled over soups, tossed through salads and – my favourite so far – scattered over cheese on toast. I’m going to see if I can make use of it as a stock base as well; truly, the only limit seems to be your imagination.

So, what’s it all about, and how do you make it? I’ll let an expert tell you, here is Sandor Katz:

“The fermentation of cabbage into sauerkraut is not the work of a single microorganism. Sauerkraut, like most fermentations, involves a succession of several different organisms, not unlike the life of a forest, in which a series of different trees follow each other as the dominant species, each succeeding type altering conditions to favour the next. The fermentation involves a broad community of bacteria, with a succession of different dominant players, determined by the increasing acidity.

Do not be deterred by the biological complexity of the transformation. That happens on its own once you create the simple conditions for it. Sauerkraut is very easy to make. The sauerkraut method is also referred to as dry-salting, because typically no water is added and the juice under which the vegetables are submerged comes from the vegetables themselves. This is the simplest and most straightforward method, and results in the most concentrated vegetable flavour.”


RECIPE – by Sandor Katz

1 kilogram of vegetables per litre. Any varieties of cabbage alone or in combination, or at least half cabbage and the remainder any combination of radishes, turnips, carrots, beets, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, greens, peppers, or other vegetables.

Approximately 1 tablespoon salt (start with a little less, add if needed after tasting)
Other seasonings as desired, such as caraway seeds, juniper berries, dill, chilli peppers, ginger, turmeric, dried cranberries, or whatever you can conjure in your imagination.


METHOD – by Sandor Katz

Prepare the vegetables.

Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and reserve. Scrub the root vegetables but do not peel. Chop or grate all vegetables into a bowl. The purpose of this is to expose surface area in order to pull water out of the vegetables, so that they can be submerged under their own juices. The finer the veggies are shredded, the easier it is to get juices out, but fineness or coarseness can vary with excellent results.

Salt and season.

Salt the vegetables lightly and add seasonings as you chop. Sauerkraut does not require heavy salting. Taste after the next step and add more salt or seasonings, if desired. It is always easier to add salt than to remove it. (If you must, cover the veggies with de-chlorinated water, let this sit for 5 minutes, then pour off the excess water.)
Squeeze the salted vegetables with your hands for a few minutes (or pound with a blunt tool). This bruises the vegetables, breaking down cell walls and enabling them to release their juices. Squeeze until you can pick up a handful and when you squeeze, juice releases (as from a wet sponge).

Pack the salted and squeezed vegetables into your jar.

Press the vegetables down with force, using your fingers or a blunt tool, so that air pockets are expelled and juice rises up and over the vegetables. Fill the jar not quite all the way to the top, leaving a little space for expansion. The vegetables have a tendency to float to the top of the brine, so it’s best to keep them pressed down, using one of the cabbage’s outer leaves, folded to fit inside the jar, or a carved chunk of a root vegetable, or a small glass or ceramic insert. Screw the top on the jar; lactic acid bacteria are anaerobic and do not need oxygen (though they can function in the presence of oxygen). However, be aware that fermentation produces carbon dioxide, so pressure will build up in the jar and needs to be released daily, especially the first few days when fermentation will be most vigorous.

Wait.

Be sure to loosen the top to relieve pressure each day for the first few days. The rate of fermentation will be faster in a warm environment, slower in a cool one. Some people prefer their krauts lightly fermented for just a few days; others prefer a stronger, more acidic flavour that develops over weeks or months. Taste after just a few days, then a few days later, and at regular intervals to discover what you prefer. Along with the flavour, the texture changes over time, beginning crunchy and gradually softening. Move to the refrigerator if you wish to stop (or rather slow) the fermentation. In a cool environment, kraut can continue fermenting slowly for months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid; eventually it can become soft and mushy.

Enjoy your kraut!

I start eating it when the kraut is young and enjoy its evolving flavour over the course of a few weeks (or months in a large batch). Be sure to try the sauerkraut juice that will be left after the kraut is eaten. Sauerkraut juice packs a strong flavour, and is unparalleled as a digestive tonic or hangover cure.

Tips…

Surface growth – The most common problem that people encounter in fermenting vegetables is surface growth of yeasts and/or moulds, facilitated by oxygen. Many books refer to this as “scum,” but I prefer to think of it as a bloom. It’s a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air. If you should encounter surface growth, remove as much of it as you can, along with any discoloured or soft kraut from the top layer, and discard. The fermented vegetables beneath will generally look, smell, and taste fine. The surface growth can break up as you remove it, making it impossible to remove all of it. Don’t worry.

Develop a rhythm – Start a new batch before the previous one runs out. Get a few different flavours or styles going at once for variety. Experiment!

Variations – Add a little fresh vegetable juice and dispense with the need to squeeze or pound. Incorporate mung bean sprouts . . .hydrated seaweed . . . shredded or quartered Brussels sprouts… cooked potatoes (mashed, fried, and beyond, but always cooled!) . . . dried or fresh fruit… the possibilities are infinite . . .