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.

 

Black Bean Chilli

We are largely vegetarian in our house; I will happily eat anything but my wife won’t eat meat – though she will eat fish. The challenge then is to come up with meals where the absence of meat is not an issue, and the secret to achieving that is to concentrate on flavour and texture.

We both love the heat and flavour of spices, so we have spent a great deal of time testing and refining recipes for chilli. Quorn mince has been a godsend; it is so good now that when we have friends and family over for dinner they often don’t realise that they haven’t had ‘real’ mince. Using a meat replacement always feels like a bit of a cheat to me though, one I’m happy to indulge in, but it is so much more satisfying to have a recipe that stands on its own ingredients rather than pretending to be something else. The black beans used here add a rich, thick texture that works perfectly with chilli.

This black bean chilli recipe is universally loved, and the reason for that is the bold spicing. It isn’t blow-your-head-off spicy, instead it is deeply-flavoured and comfortably warming. It has a lovely umami feel as well, thanks to the addition of a little fish sauce – fish sauce is my favourite seasoning ingredient, adding not only a layer of salt that accentuates the other flavours, but also a layer of ‘mmmmmm’ that you can’t quite put your finger on. It smells disgusting when you open the bottle, but once cooked in it takes all the other flavours to another level entirely.


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RECIPE – to feed 4

250g dried black beans (or 2 tins)

1 onion, halved

1 orange, halved

2 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole


2 tbsp olive oil

4 garlic cloves, crushed

2 large onions, finely chopped

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

3 tbsp smoked paprika

3 tbsp ground cumin

3 tbsp cyder vinegar

2 tbsp caster sugar

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

2 tsp fish sauce

1 tin of kidney beans

1 lime, zest and juice

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

 

The conventional wisdom is that you should soak the black beans in plenty of water, the evening before you use them. However, after much back-to-back testing it is plain that not soaking them makes them blacker, more beany and flavourful, at the cost of having to cook them for a little longer. How long? Around 90 minutes or so, until they are soft but retain bite and texture – the older your beans the longer they will take. To cook them, use a big pan and plenty of water, into which you have put an onion – halved but otherwise intact – an orange, again halved and gently squeezed, and then put both halves in the water, and a couple of whole, peeled garlic cloves. Bring to the boil then simmer until ready. If you have a pressure cooker then life is much simpler, follow the guidelines for your device but cook them for around 20-25 minutes. When cooked, remove the onion, orange and garlic and set the beans aside.

You don’t have to do all this, but for some reason using dried beans adds more flavour, and when cooked using aromatic ingredients the flavours are amped up even higher; tinned beans are fine though, no need to feel guilty.

Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onions until just softened, then add the garlic and chilli flakes. Cook gently for a minute or two, taking care not to burn the garlic.

Put the paprika and cumin in a small bowl, add the cyder vinegar and sugar and mix to a paste – you may need to add a little water. Doing this prevents the powders from burning and means the flavours cook out more evenly. Add this paste to your onion mixture and cook on for another minute or so before adding the tinned tomatoes and the fish sauce. Simmer gently for ten minutes, then add the cooked (or tinned) black beans and the kidney beans. Bring back to a boil then turn the heat off. Ideally, leave your chilli to sit for a few hours so that the flavours can develop, the longer you can leave it the better it will be. This really works, but if you eat it straight away it will still be delicious.

Just before serving, finely grate the zest of the lime into it and squeeze in the lime juice, stir thoroughly and check and adjust the seasoning.

This goes extremely well alongside guacamole, and can be garnished with chopped spring onions, soured cream, grated cheddar, chopped coriander leaves, crumbled feta, sliced radishes, chunks of avocado and, of course, is best served with fluffy rice.

To make it suitable for a vegan, simply omit the fish sauce; it can be replaced with 4 teaspoons of Marmite which has a similar umami nature.

Guacamole

There must be as many recipes for guacamole as there are people living in Mexico, and everybody will tell you that theirs is the best. I have lost count of how many different guacamole recipes I have tried, all of them were missing an elusive something. The recipe I give you below was, in a slightly different form and for a couple of years, the best one that I had distilled down from all the others. Everybody raved about it, but I always felt that it was still missing something. It was only when I read Thomasina Miers’ excellent ‘Wahaca: Mexican Food at Home’ that I realised that all it needed was a little garlic to make it complete.

Garlic. Among the most common of all cooking ingredients, and yet it had never crossed my mind (nor that of virtually every other guacamole recipe-writer) to add it to my guacamole. It just didn’t seem right; guacamole should taste like a bright, zesty ray of sunshine, garlic brings undertones of darkness and danger. And yet, that little bit of shading that garlic brings to guacamole makes the brightness shine even harder. It was a reminder to me that a recipe is never finished, is always evolving, and there’s always somebody out there with a different perspective on things who can bring real enlightenment to you. I’m not one to give advice to others, but my advice to myself is: always seek those people out.


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RECIPE – to feed 4

2 limes, zest and juice

2 large, ripe avocados

1 small green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

4 spring onions, trimmed and very finely chopped

1 plump garlic clove, crushed

1 ripe medium tomato, skinned, deseeded and finely chopped

A bunch of fresh coriander, leaves chopped, stems finely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

First thing, zest the limes then juice them, putting both into a large bowl. It is essential that you do this first as cut avocado requires citrus to prevent it from oxidising.

Now cut your avocados in half lengthways, take out the stone, then score the flesh down to the skin (but not through it) and using a spoon remove the flesh and toss it thoroughly through the lime juice and zest immediately. Roughly mash the avocado so that approximately half is fully mashed, a quarter is not mashed at all and the final quarter is slightly crushed; this will give you a lovely texture.

To skin your tomato, boil a kettle, lightly score a cross in the base of the tomato and put it into a cup. Pour the just-boiled water over the tomato and leave for 15-20 seconds. Empty the hot water out and immediately refill it with cold water. Lift out the tomato, insert the point of a knife under the score and lift the skin away, you should find that the skin peels off easily. If you leave the tomato in the hot water for too long it will begin to cook, and the skin will not come so easily.

Prepare and combine the remaining ingredients, stir thoroughly and season carefully. You may need to add more lime juice, just keep on testing and seasoning lightly until you have the perfect balance of sharpness from the lime and flavour accentuated by the salt and pepper.

To feed a crowd, just double the quantity; you will be amazed how far it will go and how quickly it will be demolished.

Pizza!

Watching Masterchef the other evening, I heard a Michelin-starred chef state that the whole idea of eating out is that you get to eat something better than you could ever make at home. That’s the whole idea of eating out for me, but it can be a double-edged sword – sadly we can’t go out for pizza any more, not even to the best restaurants; we are always disappointed because we unavoidably compare what we are given with what we make at home. I’m not blowing my own trumpet, the truth is that nothing can compare with a fresh, home-made pizza.

There is a secret ingredient to a great pizza, that ingredient is time. Time for your dough to develop its flavour, time for your tomato sauce to mature, and the shortest possible time in the oven. Master the use of time and, like me, you will never be able to go out for a pizza again, and you certainly will never order in.

The best thing about making your own pizza is that you can make it faster than you think. Spend a little time getting your dough and sauce ready the day before, then ten minutes rolling your dough and assembling your toppings, ten more minutes in the oven and it is ready to eat. That’s faster than the time it takes for a takeaway to be delivered, and probably faster than the time between ordering and eating in a restaurant. It costs next to nothing as well.


 

RECIPE (Makes 2 thin and crispy pizzas, double or treble everything to make more)

For the dough:

125g strong white flour

125g ’00’ flour

1/4 tsp dried yeast

1 tsp fine sea salt

160ml tepid water

Olive oil, for kneading

For the tomato sauce:

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

A good pinch of Maldon sea salt

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 tsp caster sugar

30g basil leaves, shredded

A drizzle of the best extra-virgin olive oil


METHOD

The evening before you plan to eat, make your dough.

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, using your fingers in a claw, making sure everything is well combined. Make a well in the centre and add the water, slowly, again using your fingers in a claw bringing the water and dry ingredients together. When all the water is added and you have pulled everything together you should have a slightly sticky dough which pulls itself away from the sides of the bowl, leaving it clean. If you need to add a little more or less water then do so, but be careful not to make your mixture too wet.

Lightly oil a clean, dry work surface with good olive oil, turn the dough out onto it and gently massage the dough using your fingers and palms for around 20 seconds to end up with a fairly smooth ball. Now leave it for ten minutes; when you come back to it you will see that it has already softened and become more silky. Gently knead it again for twenty seconds, using your fingers and palms, shape it into a ball and leave again for ten minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl.

Come back to your dough after ten minutes, give it a final twenty second knead, shape into a ball, place in your oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Put it in a cold place overnight and leave it. The time it now spends gently rising gives the flavour of the yeast the chance to permeate through the dough.

The same evening, make your tomato sauce.

Sieve the tinned tomatoes, pushing the liquid through until you are left with the tomato pulp and a little liquid. Approximately half the volume of the tin will be left in the sieve, the other half (the liquid) you can leave, covered, in the fridge for a week or so and use in a stock, or you can indulge yourself in a Bloody Mary or two…

Combine the rest of the ingredients and stir thoroughly. Cover and leave overnight, chilled or not doesn’t matter. You can now forget about it for the rest of the night, and your finished sauce should look like the picture below:

IMG_0311 The following morning, check on your dough, it should have risen to at least twice its original size, probably more, and will be soft and pillowy. Using your fingers, and leaving it in the bowl (just to avoid making a mess) gently push the dough back in on itself, expelling the air and shaping it back into a ball. The professionals call this ‘knocking back’ or ‘punching down’ but that sounds too violent to me; I think bread should be treated tenderly and it will reward you. Cover again, and leave it in your kitchen to rise again until around an hour before you intend to eat.

When you reach that time, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (regular plain flour is fine, no need to use the ’00’ flour at this stage), push it down again using your fingers, and divide the dough into two equal balls. Place on a lightly floured piece of baking parchment, dust the top of each ball lightly with flour and loosely cover with either a clean, dry tea towel or a piece of cling film. If using cling film gently drape it over or it is likely to stick.

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When the time comes to start cooking, pre-heat your oven to the hottest temperature it will reach (mine reaches an indicated 250C, and if I use it on fan – which I do – it will reach a real temperature of around 270C). Put two baking trays in the oven to heat up with it, and give it plenty of time to get properly and thoroughly hot.

Now roll out your dough. On a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, roll it out as thinly as you can. We go down to less than the thickness of a twenty-pence piece; don’t be scared of going so thin, it makes the base lovely and crunchy and, because it has had around 24 hours to develop, the dough will be strong enough to hold. If you do get a little tearing just pinch the holes together and it will be fine. If you roll it thinly enough your dough will be big enough to completely fill a standard-sized baking tray. Don’t worry about trying to make it perfectly round, we shape ours into an approximate rectangle. The whole idea is to get a pizza that tastes terrific even if it looks a bit ‘rustic’ – this is home cooking after all.

Now transfer your rolled dough to a piece of baking parchment or a silicon sheet which has been lightly dusted with fine semolina. Flatten it out and thinly spread a layer of the tomato sauce that you made the night before all over the pizza base. Be careful not to apply too much sauce, it is there for flavour and too much will prevent your pizza base from getting really crispy.

Now finish with whatever toppings you like on your pizza – my favourite is torn mozzarella, thinly sliced shallot, a tin of tuna in oil (drained and flaked), thinly sliced hot jalapeno chillies and sweet piquante peppers, topped with a grating of cheddar cheese and a good grinding of whole white peppercorns. When it comes out I like a thin drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a scattering of rocket leaves and it leaves me very full indeed. My wife is more spartan and likes hers cooked just as a pizza base with the tomato sauce, and when it comes out she shaves fresh parmesan onto it and scatters rocket leaves over the top. Whatever toppings you prefer, the base and sauce will lift it to a whole new dimension.

This bit will take two people: remove your pre-heated baking tray from the oven – using oven gloves as it will be fiercely hot. Gently and carefully slide the pizza, on its parchment, onto the hot baking tray; we do this by having one person holding the edge of the hot baking tray level with the surface on which the pizza is sitting while the other person gently slides it on to the tray. Cook in the hottest part of your oven for 5-10 minutes – keep an eye on it as it cooks quickly. If your pizza looks like mine below then I want to come to your house!

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Both the dough and sauce are easily scaled up, just exactly double or treble the ingredients, nothing else changes. If you don’t manage to prepare your dough and sauce the previous evening, don’t despair. Just give them as much time as you can and they will still taste great – your dough will need a minimum of two hours to develop enough strength and it will be fine to use, you just won’t get the same depth of flavour.

I also make my own mozzarella – but that’s a subject for another day…