Wednesday, 25 February 2009

A Recipe for Change

To say that I was a fussy eater as a kid would, quite frankly, be the understatement of the year. I remember many an evening when my mum or sisters would prepare another completely different meal, just for me. There was a period when all I would eat were white bread, tomato ketchup and mayonnaise sandwiches. I even convinced myself at one stage that I had developed an allergy to Chlorophyll and could not eat anything green, as it made my lips swell up. I had a talent for digging out minuscule pieces of mushrooms, onions and tomato from pasta sauce and would flatly refuse to even sit at the same table as someone eating prawns.

Thankfully, as I grew older and more interested in cooking, my sense of taste also developed and I got over my childhood food hang-ups, well most of them... There are still a few things that I'm not that keen on eating; For example, as much as I love the smell and flavour of mushrooms I still can't bring myself to bite into one, and even though lamb stews regularly make an appearance on our dinner table, I never eat the meat myself. I also included Indian curry dishes on this list. Although I am now a lot more adventurous, and willing to try everything at least once, for some reason I still clung to the idea that I do not like Indian cuisine. However, over a dinner of Thai green curry last week, my husband asked me why I don't ever prepare or eat Indian food. For the life of me I could not give him a decent answer and the more I thought about it, the more I wondered what's not to like. These dishes are so wonderfully fragrant and perfectly balanced in flavour, spice and seasoning, that it takes years to become an accomplished curry chef. This cuisine is so popular that there are entire streets lined with one curry house after another in the famous Brick Lane area of London, attracting millions of diners each year. England even declared it's national dish as Chicken Tikka Masala, as this is several times more popular than their own Fish and Chips.

Faced with these facts and resolved to move Indian cuisine from my "Dislike" column to my "Love It" column, I decided to make a Chicken Korma for dinner last night. Knowing that the recipe books on my shelves won't be of any use to me this time, I turned to the very useful World Wide Web for inspiration. After a good hour of Googling, trawling through countless recipe search engines, and reading pages upon pages of discussion forums, I soon found myself lost amongst all the different variates of recipes for this dish. Luckily, I'm not that easily discouraged, and after picking elements from a couple of recipes that did not include travelling to North India to roast your hand-picked spices on a flat hot-rock, I compiled my own recipe for a mild and creamy Korma to add to the millions already floating through cyberspace, and here it is:

For the marinade:
150g tub natural yoghurt
Pinch of rock salt
8 Whole cloves
Pinch of saffron
1 Cinnamon stick
6 Cardamom pods, crushed
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cayenne pepper

Mix everything together in a big bowl and add 450g diced chicken breast, and place in the fridge to marinade for at least 2-3 hours.

For the main sauce:
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed under a knife blade
3 cm piece of root ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp hot chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
75g creamed coconut
50g flaked, toasted almonds
100ml single cream

Put the onion, garlic and ginger into a hand blender, and blitz to a smooth paste, you might have to add a scant teaspoon of water to the mix. Heat a tbsp of veg oil or ghee in a cast iron pot or thick-bottomed pan. Once hot add all of the spices and fry for one minute to release the flavours. Next add the onion paste and fry for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly to stop it from burning. Once the mixture is nicely coloured and the onion paste is cooked, add the chicken pieces and the marinade to the pan, omitting the whole spices, and fry for a further 10 minutes until the chicken is lightly browned and cooked through. Lastly add the pieces of coconut and the almonds and pour over enough warm water to cover the chicken, stirring everything well until the coconut has completely dissolved. Cover the dish and let it cook on a medium to low heat for 35-40 minutes until the chicken is wonderfully tender. Taste the dish and adjust the seasoning if necessary, add the cream and let it boil down for about 10 minutes until the sauce starts to thicken.

Served with steamed basmati rice and a couple of Naan breads, this dish easily served 3 people for dinner. Most importantly, I am happy to report that I have officially knocked another item off my list, and can't wait to develop other recipes for Tikka Masala, Kashmiri, Tandoori, Vindaloo...

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

From the Frying Pan

This morning children and adults all over the UK were waking up to the sweet smell of frying pancakes, letting everyone know that today is Pancake Day!

Also named Shrove Tuesday, this day traditionally marks the last day before Lent, a time of abstinence and giving up luxuries and pleasures. During the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, Catholics historically - and still to this day - would give up eating things like fats, eggs and dairy products. Not wanting anything to go to waste, families would have a feast on Shrove Tuesday using up any foods that would not last the entirety of Lent.

As plenty of fats were used during these feasts, the day became known as Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday" in France, which in turn gave rise to Carnival in many famous cities all over the world, including Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and New Orleans in Louisiana.
Alternatively, in Poland the feast was traditionally held on the last Thursday before Lent and became known as Tłusty czwartek or "Fat Thursday". During the day families would eat Pączki (Polish Donuts), a tradition that is still celebrated by Polish communities all over the world.
Here in the UK however, pancakes became an integral part of this day, using up your eggs, milk and fats with only the addition of flour, and in time became known as Pancake Day.

In modern times, the religious connotations of this day might no longer be the main focus, and most people celebrate Pancake Day without partaking in Lent. However this day is still steeped in tradition and you can join in many activities such as Pancake Races, Pancake Flipping competitions, Mob Football games and the famous annual Pancake Grease, held by Westminster School.

Not one to let an opportunity to cook something special pass me buy, I was first one in the kitchen this morning. I already had the eggs cracked, the milk and oil whisked, the flour sifted and the thick, smooth, cream-coloured batter ready by the time the rest of the house started the process of getting out from under their warm duvets. Although English pancakes are usually very thin and served with caster sugar and lemon juice, I decided to brake the mould and do things my way. I used an American breakfast pancake recipe for the batter, which uses both self-raising flour and baking powder to give risen, fluffy pancakes to really sink your teeth into. After heating my frying pan with a tiny dash of oil, pouring the eggy-batter into it and giving it a swirl around, I threw caution to the wind and added a handful of blueberries. As I turned out one golden pancake after another, the delicious smells drifting throughout the flat soon brought everyone to the kitchen, tousle-haired and all. On the table I already had waiting, bowls of blueberries and sliced bananas, a pot of my orange sugar (caster sugar infused with orange rinds), a tub of runny honey and some whipped cream. As we all devoured the breakfast feast, my Polish husband not even caring that there weren't any Pączki, I knew why this tradition has lasted for so long :)

Friday, 20 February 2009

This little Piggy

In the wise words of Samuel Johnson, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" lies more truth than many people would believe. Even after living in this city for well over 5 years, there are still many places in London that will slap a massive, unstoppable smile on my face. One is walking across Waterloo bridge, from which you can see so many famous landmarks your head starts spinning to take it all in. Another is walking through the revolving door of the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, knowing that you are only a heartbeat away form some of the most amazing master pieces created in the history of art. But the place that gives me the biggest of thrills is coming out of London Bridge Station, crossing under the railway bridge and being hit by the noise and bustle of the London Borough Markets.

These markets recently celebrated 250 years of trading on its current site, and the history of the market can be traced back for almost 2000 years. Tucked under railway arches and flanked by the magnificent Southwark Cathedral, this market holds such an abundance of mouth-watering produce, it truly is a food-lover's heaven. Stalls upon stalls containing home-made breads, pastries and baked goods. Cheese and dairy products originating from all corners of the globe. Hand reared, free-range and organically fed fowl, pork, lamb and beef as well as game and venison. Variates of fresh fish and sea-food to make the jaws of even the most seasoned cooks drop in awe. Barrels filled with olives, pickles, nuts and dried fruits, dazzling all passers-by with their multi-coloured displays. Tasting glasses filled with home-pressed wines, ales and ciders, enticing all with their fragrant bouquets. Fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers in all sizes, shapes and colours. Here you will never be left wanting, as you can find anything your heart might desire, from the most extravagant truffles to the humblest of chicken eggs.This morning after a short telephone call from my sister, during which I exclaimed, "Of course I'll be home, I don't have anywhere to go!" I realised with a jolt that there is always somewhere to go on a Market day! So with the sun making it's appearance and finally turning the perma-grey sky of London to Periwinkle blue, I grabbed my trusty Nikon, a large shopping bag and made my way to London Bridge station. This little piggy was going to the Market :)

Before you can even see the market, you are met with the enticing smells of frying sausages and home-made burgers, North African spiced flat breads, stewing curries and many more amazing meals being served up by the traders. The crowds of people are something to be reckoned with, especially if you hit the market at lunch time, but it's good for the traders and therefore good for the market.

Walking around the stalls, talking to the friendly traders, sampling some of their fine produce and snapping away with my camera, I started seeing visions of a great big plate of Anti-Pasta as a special treat for our Friday dinner. Olives, pickled garlic and Dolmades were my first purchases, then I acquired a brilliantly purple aubergine, some vine-ripened plum tomatoes, sweet yellow bell peppers and a bag of chestnut mushrooms from the fruit and veg stalls. Next onto the cured meats and smoked sausages and finally a few hearty chunks of French, Dutch and Swiss cheese. It's so easy to get carried away here, and as I don't have a platinum card in my wallet, I thought it best to take my lovely purchases and start the journey home to prepare this magnificent meal.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Spread a Little Joy

This might seem like a strange thing for a self-confessed foodie to admit , but one of my favourite things to eat is jam on toast. Now, I have to add that this is no ordinary jam on toast, but rather my own home-made preserves on granary bread from my local family bakery. Just thinking about it makes me mouth water.

I usually make most of my preserves during the summer months when I have access to the glut of berries and soft fruits. Jars of strawberry jam, sour-cherry jelly and peach conserve, to name but a few, adorn the selves in my store cupboard. However, this morning I discovered that my stocks were starting to run low, and I immediately had to do something about it. Looking around my kitchen, I saw the basket of green apples that I had bought over the weekend and I knew that I wanted to make my favourite blackberry and apple jam. Certain that I won't find any plump, juicy berries in any of the fresh produce markets at this time of the year, I headed to my local Thornton's Budgens. This store is a little gem on our high street as it stocks lots of local products, foodie ingredients and organic produce. They also sell bags of frozen summer berries, with no added anything, which were just perfect for my jamming needs.

With my purchases in hand, I headed home to start the peeling, coring and slicing of the apples, washing and defrosting of the berries and weighing out of the sugar. The dark purple juice that cooks out of these beautiful berries quickly filled the whole flat with it's amazing fragrance, and it wasn't long before I could spoon the sticky jam into the warm sterilized jars. After all my hard work, I thought it only fair that I treat myself to a slice or two of toast with some warm jam spread all over it. Pure Joy!

Monday, 9 February 2009

A Fine Pair of Pears

Growing up in South Africa, I was always spoilt for choice by the abundance of fruit growing throughout the year. The Summer months produced mangoes, lychees, papayas, watermelons, peaches, plums, bananas and many more mouth-watering varieties. The Winter months in turn gave us apricots, apples, avocados and citrus of all shapes, sizes and tastes. In our house, dessert was more often than not a massive bowl of fresh fruit salad, and often I would even forego the meal and just eat the fruit.

As you can imagine, moving to the UK was a massive adjustment for me and my fruit addiction. I still remember the first time I found mangoes in my local supermarket, I could not believe my luck! I picked the best looking one from the pile, paid more than I ever thought possible for the fruit and took it home in a state of euphoria. Only my happiness was short-lived as I discovered that after being flown halfway across the globe, stacked, packed and refrigerated this little mango had lost its identity and no longer tasted of the South African sun or anything else for that matter. I did not let this incident get the better of me however, and have tried and tried again with many other fruits and markets, and am pleased to say that there have been some victories amongst the losses.

One of my best discoveries so far has been that local and in-season is still the best, no matter where in the world you are. I am not saying that I don't still occasionally get drawn in by a gloriously red and yellow mango and try my luck once more. I just now know that if I want to be guaranteed of fruit that will be fresh and bursting with flavour, then a locally grown and seasonal fruit will be the wisest choice.

When I was struck by a fruit craving yesterday morning, I headed to my nearest green-grocer to see what I could find. With the above knowledge in mind, I bought a big bag of conference pears grown on a nearby Hertfordshire farm, passing-by all of the exotic, imported fruits. When I got home, I fished out one of the perfectly ripe fruits and immediately bit into the soft, sweet and juicy flesh. I was not disappointed.

Wanting to make the most of these delicious fruits before they became over-ripe, I once again turned to my recipe book collection for inspiration. After an hour of happy reading, I decided on a dreamily light and delicately sweet pear and almond flan. After pealing, coring and slicing the beautiful pears, I sprinkled a couple of spoons of Amaretto over them to infuse them with almond flavour, while I whisked the egg whites to soft peaks and folded in the ground almonds.

After dinner, as I cut into the golden dessert with it's rows of sliced pears sitting on-top, I knew that it could not replace my childhood favourite of fresh fruit salad, but right here, right now, there was no getting better than this :)

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Love in a bowl

London has been covered under a record breaking blanket of snow since Monday, and for most us of that means spending time outside in the cold. After either playfully enjoying the powdery white snow in a park or slipping and sliding back from the tube station, we all return home with glowing red cheeks and numb fingers, looking for a respite from the cold. In my opinion the best possible way to warm up after a snowy day, is with a bowl of steaming, home-made soup.

When it comes to making soup, the possibilities are endless and is only limited by the boundaries of your own imagination. From thick and creamy broths to clear and rich consommés, they can serve to whet the appetite or stave off hunger, playing a vast variety of roles in kitchens and dining rooms all over the world.

My earliest memories of this versatile dish is my mother's chicken soup, made with patience and love in her pressure cooker. A glorious broth of fresh chicken portions, colourful vegetables, gleaming lentils and stock, this was always something special we shared as a family on cold and rainy days.

Coming home yesterday evening after an icy walk through the woods, I knew that there was no other option for me but to make a big pot of soup. I started running all of my favourites through my head; I could make a quick and easy, vibrantly green pea soup, or should I make my mother-in-law's amazing Borscsz, a traditional Polish beetroot soup. Maybe a classic broccoli and Stilton soup or I could always go French with a thick and beautiful onion soup. I thought that I would never be able to choose just one, when I remembered that I had been to the Farmers market on Sunday and had a basket full of glorious fresh winter vegetables.

I immediately heated the oven, chopped the carrots, sweet potatoes and parsnips and tossed them together with whole garlic gloves and knobs of butter into a roasting tray. When the veggies were tender and just starting to be slightly caramelised I added a few handfuls of fine green beans and gave them all another few minutes in the oven. After frying a finely chopped onion in some melted butter and spices, I added all of the lovely roasted vegetables, stirred them around the stock-pot for a minute or two and then added my flavourburst stock. Letting it simmer for another few minutes, I cut thick slices of granery bread and took out the tub of double cream, then quickly blended the soup to become a thick, ocre coloured bowl of love.