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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Mushroom Speltotto

Spelt is an ancient grain that has been cultivated in the middle east for around 9000 years, and has been a crop in Britain since 2000 BCE. It is a nutty, firm grain similar to the more familiar barley and in their ‘pearled’ state both are fantastic substitutes for rice. Used here instead of risotto rice, pearled spelt (or pearl barley, you can use either) go exceptionally well with the earthy flavour of mushrooms, making a warming, comforting, healthy yet very filling evening meal. Pearled barley and spelt are not quite whole grains because even though they have not been rolled, broken or ground down, they are still refined in that the pearling process polishes off the outer bran layer. This makes them easier and quicker to cook, and digest, without significantly affecting their nutritional profile.

The health benefits are many and varied, rather than rehash them here, this infographic from organicfacts.net says it all:

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We would normally have this speltotto in the autumn, but the spring weather in the UK recently took a turn for the wet and windy so this dish was the perfect antidote for the cold weather blues.

This recipe is easily adaptable for vegans with little impact on its flavour, simply omit the butter and Parmesan.


RECIPE – feeds 2

10g dried mixed mushroom (porcini, wild, shiitake, whatever you have available)

500ml vegetable stock

1 tbsp olive oil

1 red onion, finely chopped

a sprig of thyme, leaves picked (or 1 tsp dried thyme)

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped or crushed

200g chestnut mushrooms, sliced

150g pearled spelt (or pearl barley)

100ml vermouth

juice of half a lemon

15g unsalted butter

a small bunch of finely chopped parsley, leaves only

30g Parmesan, finely grated


METHOD

Soak the dried mushrooms in 150ml of just-boiled water, set aside.

Heat the stock in a saucepan and leave at a gentle simmer.

Heat the oil in a large risotto or frying pan, add the onion and thyme and fry over a medium heat for 5 minutes until the onion is softened.

Remove the dried mushrooms from the hot water, drain and pat dry on kitchen paper, retaining the liquid in the bowl. Roughly chop the rehydrated mushrooms. Strain the mushroom liquid through muslin cloth to remove the grit, set the liquid aside as it has a lot of flavour which you will use in a moment.

Add the rehydrated mushrooms, sliced chestnut mushrooms and garlic to the onion and thyme, cook on for another five minutes or so, then add the pearled spelt and stir thoroughly for a minute or so until the spelt is coated with all the other ingredients. Now turn the heat up and add the vermouth, cook for a  minute while the alcohol burns off, now add the mushroom liquid. The pan should now be set at a heat where it will simmer gently, and the spelt will absorb the cooking liquid. Keep your eye on it, and keep stirring regularly; you don’t want it to catch on the bottom of the pan. When the liquid has almost all been absorbed start to add the simmering stock, a ladleful at a time, and continue to cook and stir. It will look like this:

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Continue to add the stock as it gets absorbed by the spelt, never allow it to dry out. This will take around 20-25 minutes (40 minutes or so for pearl barley), and you will see the grains puff up as they absorb the liquid. If you need to add more liquid than is in your stock pot, just add some more hot water. When ready, the spelt grains should be cooked through and soft, but retaining a little ‘bite’.

To finish, add the butter and stir it through until melted, this will give the dish a nice shine. Stir through the lemon juice, then the parmesan – which acts as a seasoning as well as adding creaminess – and scatter the chopped parsley leaves across the top. Stir once, and serve alongside a simple green salad seasoned with a little lemon juice. It will look like this:

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The flavours are intense, so adjust the seasoning carefully. You can also add a few handfuls of spinach before adding the butter; the flavours marry perfectly.

 

Universal Barbecue Bean Burgers

It’s a bank holiday in England, as usual the weather is a bit iffy, and we are off to a barbecue. Not being a fan of greasy burgers and mystery sausages (the mystery being: what meat is this?) we always take a brace of beanburgers with us. Everybody laughs, as if pointing fingers at the weird kid in school: “Burgers? That Vegans can eat? Yeuch!”

Then they try one, and I discover that I didn’t bring enough…


RECIPE – makes 4 large or 6 smaller patties (they are filling) 

1 tin of black beans, drained and roughly mashed

30g butter (or 2 tbsp olive oil if cooking for a vegan)

1 red onion, finely chopped

140g mushrooms, any kind, finely chopped

2 tbsp light soy sauce

1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed

a bunch of parsley, chopped (stalks and all)

1 sping onion, trimmed and finely chopped

1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

4 tbsp gram flour

1 tsp Marmite

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste


METHOD

Roughly mash the black beans, ensuring you keep enough texture to make the final burger interesting. Prepare the rest of the ingredients…

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Melt the butter, with a little oil (or just oil if you will be making these for vegans) in a large frying pan and gently sautee the onion for three or four minutes until softened but not coloured. Add the mushrooms and soy sauce, continue cooking until most of the mushroom liquor has evaporated, this should only take another three minutes or so. Now stir in the garlic, spring onion, parsley, chilli and black beans. Mix well and cook for a couple of minutes then add the marmite and season to taste with black pepper.

Transfer to a large bowl and stir the gram flour through the bean mixture, the gram flour will act as a binding agent to hold the patty together. Allow the mixture to cool until you can handle it comfortably, then shape into either 4 larger or 6 smaller patties…

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Cover them and chill thoroughly before cooking. They will firm up and can be patted into their final shape when chilled.

They can be pan fried for 1-2 minutes each side until golden brown, grilled for 3 or 4 minutes each side, or barbecued for a minute or so each side. Serve in a bap with your choice of salad and prepare to be quite full – if you can manage two of the larger ones you are a rare breed.

Fennel Chips

These chips get made on a regular basis in my house, and no matter how many I make, I never make enough. Feather soft inside, crunchy on the outside, with the delicious aniseed tang of roasted fennel seeds they are deliciously moreish.

They’re a healthy option as well, roasted in the oven with a little oil rather than deep fried. It’s a good job too, we always end up eating a few more than is good for us…

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RECIPE 

2 large floury potatoes (e.g. maris pipers, roosters) per person, plus 2

olive oil

fennel seeds

sea salt


METHOD

As a rule of thumb, allow two large floury potatoes per person, then add two more for the pot. So if you are cooking for four people use ten large potatoes – believe me, there will be no leftovers.

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

Peel the potatoes and chop them into thick and chunky chips. The chips at the extreme sides are likely to end up skinnier so will be more crispy, adding great contrast.

Place the chips in a large pan of unsalted cold water, bring to the boil. Keep an eye on the water and when it just begins to boil set a timer for three minutes. After three minutes drain the chips in a colander and let them steam themselves dry for a minute or two. Hang on to the empty pot, you will need it again.

Give the chips in the colander a good shake, the edges of the chips should roughen and fluff up slightly. Tip the chips back into the pan and drizzle a good glug of olive oil over the chips – don’t overdo it, all you are trying to do is coat each chip with a film of oil so it doesn’t stick to your baking tray. Agitate the pan to spread the oil around, then take a small handful of fennel seeds and scatter them all over the chips, agitate the pan again then tip the chips out onto a large roasting tray.

Give each chip plenty of room, if you crowd them together they will steam and so won’t roast so effectively. You only need a millimetre or two between each chip, but if you need to use two roasting trays then use two roasting trays. Scatter more fennel seeds over the chips, ensuring they are evenly distributed. Season lightly with sea salt, then roast on the middle shelf for approximately an hour. Turn them after 30 minutes to ensure even browning and so you can gauge how much longer they will actually need.

Serve straight from the oven – I leave them on the roasting tray and put it in the middle of the table. Season with a little more salt if necessary.

These chips are brilliant by themselves, awesome with seared tuna, amazing with any fish, and a match made in heaven when paired with salsa verde. I could use even more superlatives, but I think you get the idea…

Cod Loin with a Fragrant Curry Sauce

This is a very simple curry that packs a huge punch of flavour. The spicing is bold but it isn’t the kind of curry that will have you bolting for a glass of milk to cool your mouth, instead the spices emerge as layers of flavour that queue politely for your attention.

As this is the first proper curry dish that I have posted here I wanted to use an amazing general-purpose sauce, to show how simple it can be to get great flavour and also how versatile a good sauce can be. I have used cod loin here but you can use any firm white fish loin or fillet, salmon, prawns, lobster, chicken and even pork. Quorn pieces go very well with this and if you want to make it for a vegan just omit the fish sauce, substitute the ghee for vegetable oil and use firm textured vegetables (e.g. potatoes, carrots, cauliflower) as your key ingredients.

I have specified using curry powder in this recipe – please note that it is my own recipe for curry powder and the recipe below is linked to the recipe for the curry powder. Please, please, please do not use a commercial curry powder in its place, it will be – how can I put this plainly? – crap.

This goes very well with chapatis and coriander rice.

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RECIPE – feeds 2 – 4 people 

One cod loin per person

3 tbsp ghee

1 tsp black mustard seeds

4 bay leaves

4 banana shallots, finely sliced

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a big knob of fresh ginger, about 25g, not peeled but rough bits cut off, finely chopped

1 green chilli, finely sliced

1 birds-eye chilli, finely sliced (optional, for if you like heat)

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp turmeric

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 tsp fish sauce

1 tin coconut milk

small bunch fresh coriander, leaves and stalks separated, stalks chopped finely


METHOD

Prepare all ingredients, combine the curry powder and turmeric with a little water to make a paste, set aside.

Tip: Adding a little water to dry ground spice powders to make a paste ensures that they don’t burn when added to a hot pan. It also allows the flavours to begin to develop even before you cook with them.

If you are ever adding powdered spices to a very hot oil (e.g. when cooking stir-fry in a wok) then make the paste using vegetable oil rather than water.

In a large pan, melt the ghee over a medium heat then add the mustard seeds and bay leaves, cook for approximately a minute then add the shallots, garlic, ginger and chilli. Cook for a few minutes until soft and aromatic then add the curry powder and turmeric paste. Cook for a minute or so, stirring the paste around to distribute it around and coat the other ingredients, then add the tomatoes, fish sauce and coconut milk. Bring to the boil then simmer for five minutes.

Turn off the heat, make sure your fresh coriander stalks are finely chopped and add them to the sauce; stir them in thoroughly and now let the sauce sit for as long as you possibly can. This sauce gets better with time, so try and make it in the morning or early afternoon for the evening meal. If you can make it the evening before it will be even better.

When ready to eat, gradually heat the sauce up and when it reaches a boil add the cod loins (or other fish) and simmer for 5-8 minutes until it is just cooked – it will continue to cook in the sauce, even off the heat. Scatter chopped fresh coriander leaves over the top and serve.

If using chicken or pork it should be cut into fairly small chunks and added with the tomatoes and coconut milk. By the time it comes to reheat it the meat will have slowly cooked through.

If using vegetables they should also be cut into fairly small chunks and added with the tomatoes and coconut milk. Check the vegetables for firmness before reheating to serve and cook on for as long as necessary to cook to your liking.

If using Quorn, that should also be added with the tomatoes and coconut milk.

 

Coriander Rice

Rice is often viewed as a bland accompaniment to strongly flavoured dishes, but treating it that way does it a huge disservice. Like pasta and potato, rice is an excellent carrier of flavour and a little ingenuity with your rice goes a very long way in turning a good curry into an exceptional meal.

I have a large repertoire of rice side dishes, this is one of the simplest but it still packs a punchy, aromatic flavour.

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RECIPE – feeds 4-6 people 

Basmati rice, cooked and cooled

2 tbsp groundnut oil

1 tsp coriander seeds

2 kaffir lime leaves (dried or fresh), finely shredded

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves


METHOD

First, weigh out your rice. You will probably know how much rice your family and friends will eat, it varies greatly among people so I have avoided giving a defined quantity. As a rough guide, if you need it, a small mug filled with dry rice will easily feed two people with leftovers at my table, as an accompaniment to other dishes.

Cook your rice, tip into a sieve to drain and leave to cool completely.

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

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

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

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

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

When almost ready to eat, make your coriander rice at the last minute.

Heat the oil in a saucepan large enough to comfortably hold your rice. When hot but not smoking add the coriander seeds, agitate the pan constantly and when the coriander seeds begin to pop add the shredded kaffir lime leaves. Cook for a minute or two, ensuring that you don’t scorch the seeds or leaves, then add the rice. The pan will be hot so the rice will quickly heat through, stir thoroughly so the kaffir lime leaves and coriander seeds are well distributed, then add the chopped fresh coriander leaves and stir through again until well combined.

Serve alongside any dish where you would normally use plain rice.

Chapatis

A quick and easy way to make a slight dish much more filling, chapatis – an unleavened Asian flatbread – can be on the table 15 minutes or so after weighing out the flour. Traditionally eaten alongside curry, where it is often used as a scoop in place of a fork or spoon, chapatis are also excellent with middle eastern dishes and make delicious vegan wraps.

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RECIPE – makes 4, will feed 2 people as a side dish

125g wholemeal bread flour

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

85ml water


METHOD

Weigh the flour into a bowl, add the salt, make a well in the centre and add the water. Using your fingers in a claw-like grip, pull the flour into the water, pulling and kneading with your fingers to get everything off the sides and bottom of the bowl. The dough should start off sticky but quickly become stiff and silky. At this point take it from the bowl to a lightly floured work surface and knead it for 7-10 minutes.

Heat a skillet, or large dry frying pan, until very hot. While it heats up, divide the dough into 4 equal pieces and roll them out into a rough round shape, adding small amounts of flour to prevent sticking as you roll. The chapatis need to be thin, thinner than a penny piece. If you have trouble rolling them out thinly, cut two squares of baking parchment, dust them with flour and roll the dough out between them.

To cook, lay the rolled chapati in the hot skillet and cook on each side for a minute or so. They should scorch and even burn a little; that’s fine, that’s where a lot of the flavour comes from.

Repeat until all four chapatis are cooked, the ones made previously can be kept warm in a low oven under a tea towel.

This recipe is easily scaled up to feed four or more people, just scale all the ingredient quantities up in equal ratios.

Bombay Potatoes

For an amateur cook, there are some seemingly unattainable holy grails when it comes to making curries:

  • getting a curry to taste just like it does in the restaurant
  • making the perfect naan
  • making the perfect Bombay aloo

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the perfect Bombay potatoes recipe, but it’s the best refinement yet of a great many that I have tried, and it’s as close to perfection as I’m likely to come. Those who have tasted it prefer it to the one that we have in our local Indian restaurant, and theirs is very good indeed.

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RECIPE – feeds 4-6 people depending on what you have with it

3 large potatoes, peeled and halved

a knob of ginger as big as both of your thumbs, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 large tomatoes, one quartered the other cut into thin wedges

3 tbsp ghee

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp brown mustard seeds

1 large onion, roughly chopped

1 tsp ground turmeric

2 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp garam masala

1 tsp hot chilli powder

1 tsp nigella seeds

a small handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped


METHOD

In a large pan of slightly salted water, boil the potatoes until they are just tender. Drain, and when they are cool enough to handle cut them into 2cm cubes. Set aside.

In a mortar and pestle, grind the ginger, garlic and quartered tomato into a smooth paste; set aside.

*Tip: It seems that every time I read a recipe that calls for finely chopped 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 it finely skin ‘n’all.

In a small bowl, add a little water to the ground turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala and hot chilli powder, stir to a paste and set aside.

Heat the ghee in a large frying pan over a moderately high heat, when melted add the cumin seeds and brown mustard seeds. When the cumin seeds start to darken (a minute or so) add the onion, stir thoroughly and cook for a minute longer then add the ground ginger, garlic and tomato mixture, the ground spice paste and a pinch of salt. Gently saute for a minute or two, check the seasoning and correct if necessary.

Add the tomato wedges, and cook for three minutes then add the cubed potatoes and nigella seeds. Cook for a further 3-5 minutes until done to your liking, sprinkle with the coriander leaves and serve.

To make it vegan, simply use vegetable oil in place of the ghee.

 

Nettle Soup

My wife and I have developed a keen interest in foraging over the past couple of years, driven by our curiosity about all the plants we saw while out walking our dog. We knew that some were edible, but apart from the obvious – nettles, wild fennel, elderflower, cherries – we didn’t have a clue which would taste great and which might kill us. We now know that there are a fair few that will kill you, and wherever you live you are very likely within half a mile of a common poisonous plant.

Foraging is a huge subject, endlessly interesting and a great way of filling anything from an hour up to a whole weekend (or more), but well beyond the scope of anything I can write. The potential dangers are such that I recommend that you book onto a half- or one-day foraging course where under expert guidance you will learn to find, identify and cook a huge variety of wild food. If you live anywhere near Hampshire, Dorset or Wiltshire, or you are willing to travel, I can unreservedly recommend James Feaver of Hedgerow Harvest who runs excellent courses in seashore, hedgerow and fungus foraging. You can find him here: www.hedgerow-harvest.com

One plant we can all safely identify is the common stinging nettle, and if you want to discover just how good wild food can be then this simple and delicious dish is the place to start.

To gather stinging nettles all you will need is a carrier bag, a pair of scissors, a pair of stout gloves and clothing offering enough protection to ward off the stings. The nettles you are looking for are the young leaves and the tops of the plants, in other words the leaves shooting off thin stems which you will most likely find in the spring – though if you live in an area where hedgerows get cut back then you will probably find new growth throughout the summer. Avoid thick stems and old tough leaves, they are not good to eat. Also avoid nettles that directly border paths where dogs are walked – though it is a brave dog who will cock a leg on a nettle I am sure it happens. Instead, push back a couple of feet where the nettles will be undisturbed by canine activity – that is why you need stout gloves and heavy clothing.

Passers-by may well think you’re mad, but once you’ve gathered your nettles and made this soup you will very probably ignore what others think and go nettle foraging again and again.


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RECIPE – to feed 6

 

1/2 a carrier bag of young nettle leaves and tops

50g unsalted butter

1 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, roughly chopped

1 large carrot, roughly chopped

2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 litre vegetable stock

1 large potato, diced into 1cm cubes

1/2 nutmeg, finely grated

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

The standard unit of measurement for nettles is the carrier bag; you don’t need to be accurate, but the more you gather the more flavour you will get. When you get them home, wash them thoroughly, pick out anything that doesn’t belong and leave to drain. As long as the stems are thin then you don’t need to strip the leaves off, it will all blitz up and every part of the plant gives you flavour.

Gently sweat the onion, carrot and garlic in the oil and butter, in a large heavy-bottomed pan, with the lid on. After 10-15 minutes the onion should be soft but not coloured, and the carrot should be softening. And the stock and the potato, then pile the nettles on top and carefully push them down; they will wilt and lose volume, and as soon as they start to cook they will lost their sting. Bring to the boil, then simmer for around 20 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked.

Leave to cool for a few minutes, just so it is a little safer to handle, then add the nutmeg and blitz until it is perfectly smooth using a stick blender, or pour into a jug blender – you will need to do it in several batches if using a jug blender.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with a little creme fraiche or double cream, some chopped chives (wild if you can get them) or similar foraged plants such as crow garlic or wild leeks (see, you’ll need to get onto a foraging course now!)

You can also make this using wild garlic in place of the garlic cloves, though the season is very short – just a few weeks in early spring. If you do manage to gather some wild garlic then add a dozen or so leaves to the nettles and use the wild garlic flowers as a garnish – they are quite crunchy and taste like delicate garlic, quite delicious.

To make it vegan just use olive oil and omit the butter.