Fact of the Week

Forced rhubarb in season now. Don't miss out!

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Street food suppers

This week my feet have barely touched the ground, or the inside of my flat.  Last week was the same.  With court hearings looming and understandably anxious clients, I have had a string of long days and late nights (and even two nine and a half hour meetings on consecutive days).  By the time I have reached the comfort of my front door at the end of the day, breakfast but a distant memory, I have needed dinner within minutes.

In weeks like these (they do not happen that often thank goodness), I sometimes make the mistake of substituting supper for cereal.  But even a bowl of my homemade, packed with nuts and fruit, muesli leaves me feeling dissatisfied, cheated of dinner and adds to the general malaise caused by long hours, stress of the work and lack of sleep (a feeling quite at odds with the satisfaction of an early morning bowl of the same muesli).

So this week, despite the long hours and tiredness levels hitting high on the lack of sleep scale (and a social life resigned to the shredder when the week began), I determined to cook properly.  Which is not to say I was expecting anything fancy, just fresh, homecooked food each night, in order to keep my spirits raised and prevent myself plunging into the depths of despair generally caused when deprived of dinner (or anything that can legitimately be called dinner) for an extended period of time (by which I mean more than one night). 

The answer was street food.  Food that could be put together quickly and easily with the minimum of fuss, but was packed with fresh ingredients and mouthfuls of flavour.  My recipes took me from south-east London to the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Marrakech and back to London again.  Stuffed pitta breads, a Thai noodle and prawn salad and the final recipe, which is my version of English street food, slow roast tomato pesto and poached egg on toast. 

The English do not have a strong culture of street food (unless you count hotdogs and they're American...).  We play host to a fine array of street food from all four corners of the globe (as is in evidence at The Rye pub on Peckham Rye Common this week and next, which is showcasing 16 days of fantastic street food courtesy of Eat Street.  I popped by on by way home on Wednesday when I was too speechlessly tired to cook and was treated to a delicious dinner of tacos laden with tender, juicy, sweet pork marinated in orange and achiote with tomato and chilli sauce, followed by the most wickedly wonderful chocolate brownie sundae - with nutella ice cream- thanks to Buen Provecho and Choc Star respectively) but we do not have our own signature brand of street food.  Below are the recipes I've cooked this week, including my inspiration for English street food - a big hunk of English bread, topped with slow roast tomato pesto and finished off with a poached egg (a sort of posh English breakfast adapted for street eating).  All of the recipes can be put together in minutes and will brighten even the hardest of working days. 

Enjoy x

Carrot, beetroot, radicchio and feta salad with a coriander and cumin dressing

1 carrot
1 beetroot, cooked
Radicchio leaves
1 lemon
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp sesame seeds
Olive oil
2 pitta breads

Grate the carrot and the beetroot and chop the radicchio finely.  Chop the feta into small chunks.
To make the dressing, crush the cumin seeds in a pestle and mortar and lightly dry fry them.  Crush the coriander seeds.  In a jar/jug/mug mix the cumin and coriander seeds with a squeeze of lemon juice and approximately three times as much olive oil.  Season.
Dry fry the sesame seeds.  Arrange the carrot, beetroot, radicchio and feta on a plate.  Pour over the dressing and top with the toasted sesame seeds.  Toast the pittas and serve.

Prawn and glass noodle salad

1 bundle glass noodles
1 carrot
Handful of baby spinach leaves
Handful of raw prawns

Zest and juice of 2 limes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 clove of garlic, crushed
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
A dribble of fish sauce

Zest and juice the limes.  Marinate the prawns in the zest and a tablespoon of juice (just while you are preparing the salad).
To make the dressing, mix 2 tablespons of lime juice with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, the sugar, garlic, chilli and a dribble of fish sauce.  Adjust the lime juice and olive oil to taste.

Slice the carrot into thin ribbons using a vegetable peeler.  Chop the cucumber into thin strips.  Finely chop the mint and coriander.

Cook the noodles according to the instructions.  Fry the prawns for a couple of minutes until pink.
Arrange the spinach, carrot, noodles and cucumber in a bowl.  Pour over the dressing.  Top with the cooked prawns, mint and coriander.

Slow roast tomato pesto and poached egg on toast
This recipe uses slow roasted tomatoes, which are best cooked in the oven on a very low heat for several hours.  This is obviously not practical after a long day so cook the tomatoes the weekend before.  They will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks. 

20 cherry tomatoes
Dried oregano
Olive oil

Parmesan, grated
1 garlic clove
Basil leaves
Olive oil
2 eggs
Bread for toast

Preheat the oven to 90 degrees C.  Half the cherry tomatoes and place, cut side up, on a baking tray lined with baking parchment.  Sprinkle over some dried oregano, a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper.  Cook for 4-5 hours until the tomatoes have dried and shrunk and have an intense and sweet tomatoey flavour.  Leave to cool and store in the fridge until needed.

To make the pesto blitz the tomatoes with a small handful of grated parmesan, 1 crushed clove of garlic and a few glugs of olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper and stir in some finely chopped basil. 

Bring a pan of water to the boil and add a splash of white wine vinegar.  Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting so the water is calm.  Break an egg into a ladle and then holding the ladle just above the surface of the water tip the egg very gently into the water.  Repeat with the second egg.  Leave the eggs until the white is set.

Toast the bread.  Top with the pesto and a poached egg.  Season.  Smile.  Sleep.

Zzz zzz zzz

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Here comes the sun, little darling?

Tulips in bloom
With a spring in its step, summer strode into our gardens weeks ahead of schedule at the beginning of April.  The daffodils were barely over, the tulips were still fresh faced, filling the garden with a spring song after winter's long lament.  And then overnight spring became summer.

And whilst there have been significant national and international events gracing the front pages in recent weeks - the Royal wedding, the death of Osama bin Laden, the referendum on the Alternative Vote to name but a few - the unseasonal sunshine has given us the excuse to indulge in that perenially British preoccupation of talking about the weather.  And rightly so.

For whilst the sunny weather has been gleefully soaked up by beachgoers, picnicers, street party organisers and Waitrose shareholders over the glut of Bank Holiday weekends for which this period shall no doubt be first and foremost remembered (Waitrose sales were up 23.1% as compared to last year's Easter break, with the sale of plastic spoons(!) up 900% on last year), it also prompts uncomfortable questions about climate change which affect us all.  Are the soaring April temperatures yet another manifestation of the impact global warming is having on our precious planet?  And the lack of rain?  Presumably we are on course for a hosepipe ban long before most of us would have normally even thought about getting our shorts out of the cupboard?  Farmers too have voiced concern that the lack of rain (the south east has been hardest hit receiving only 10% of the rainfall usually expected at this time of year) risks dramatically reducing harvests and may cause a shortage of crops needed to feed livestock.

The first sweet pea
On a more micro level, the sunny weather and lack of rain has caused confusion in my corner of south-east London (where temperatures reached a staggering 27.8 degrees celcius on 23 April 2011): my white sprouting broccoli bolted at the first sign of summer's early arrival; the nuptial sweet peas (which I offered to grow for my friends', Paul and Ellie's, very English wedding on 21 May) have reached the tops of their wigwams and against all the odds (and everyone else's pessimistic predictions) I picked their first flower yesterday (the task of producing flowering sweet peas by 21 May seeming much less ambitious/unrealistic after the sunshine of the last few weeks) (admittedly I have picked the first and only flower but with 2 weeks still to go I am hopeful that I will still be vindicated); and whilst mowing has already become a regular weekend commitment, the grass is looking parched, its ragged, browning leaves more usually associated with August rather than April.

Strawberries and flowers
And in my vegetable garden, the warm weather has given rise to unreasonable expectations.  We are in fact on the brink between winter and summer when the winter crops are over and the summer ones are yet to fill their space.  And yet I feel disappointed that I cannot subsist entirely from what I grow.  I have to remind myself that it is only April (now May) and I have to give the garden a chance to grow.

And the early signs are looking good (subject to getting rain): I have a steady supply of rocket, lettuce, mizuna, spinach and chard, sown inside in window boxes at the beginning of the year and planted out as soon as the seedlings were big enough to handle the still cold nights; my basil and parsley are thriving in the greenhouse and are a very welcome summery addition to the hardier herbs in the garden (oregano, thyme, sage, chives, marjoram and rosemary) and to my cooking; the peas are looking promising and are already in flower; the french beans germinated indoors and are now outside enjoying steady growth (so long as they are protected from the nightly ravages of the marauding snails from my neighbour's garden who march across our border under cover of darkness); the rhubarb continues to keep me in compote and cake; the strawberries are pert and showy wth a tantalising display of flowers and green fruit; and the beetroot, tomatoes and chicory all seem to be en route to summer glory.

Pea flowers
Lettuce and chard

The other unparalled joy of this time of year, for gardeners lucky enough to have the space for a bed and for the rest of us who are lucky enough to get our hands of some of their tender, green spears, is the arrival of British asparagus.  With only a few short weeks to indulge in its divine goodness (the season only lasts from May to mid-June), I have been taking every opportunity I can to cook with it.  Equally good steamed, boiled, grilled, fried or roasted, below are a couple of the recipes I have been cooking, using what's in the garden to complement this wonderfully British vegetable (there are lots more fantastic recipes ideas at http://www.british-asparagus.co.uk/).

Soft boiled egg with asparagus soldiers
(makes a cheeky starter or a wonderfully easy week night supper)


Place the eggs in a pan of boiling water (use eggs at room temperature if possible to prevent their shells from cracking in the hot water) and simmer for 6 minutes. 
Trim the woody ends off the asparagus.  Steam the stems for 2-3 minutes until just tender. 
 Place the eggs in egg cups.  Take off the tops and season the yolk.  Dunk your asparagus spears!
Use buttered (sourdough) toast to mop up any leftover eggy, asparagus mess.

Grilled asparagus with olive oil, lemon juice and parmesan shavings

Mix 1 part lemon juice to 3 parts olive oil.
Griddle or fry the asparagus spears until tender.  Whilst warm pour over the dressing and season with salt and pepper.  Top with parmesan shavings.

Summer couscous

Rocket, roughly chopped.
Broad beans
Mint, finely chopped
Parsley, finely chopped
Lemon juice
Olive oil

Zest the lemons with a lemon zester (so you have curled strips of zest).  Juice the lemons and mix 1 part lemon juice and 3 parts olive oil (you will need quite a lot of dressing for this recipe as the couscous will absorb it).  Add the strips of zest and season.
Trim the woody ends of the aspargus and discard.  Remove the tips (about 5cm) and put to one side.  Chop the remaining section of the spears into 1cm pieces.  Boil or steam until just tender.  Drain and refresh in cold water (to stop the cooking process). 
Cook the broad beans in boiling water.  Drain and refresh under cold water.  Pod the beans (if you can't be bothered or have not got time, it will taste equally good with unpodded beans).
Cook the couscous according to the instructions.
In a bowl, mix the couscous, rocket, cooked asparagus, broad beans mint and parsley and pour over the dressing. 
Griddle or fry the asparagus tips in olive oil until just tender and serve on top of the couscous.

3 of the 8 pots of nuptial sweet peas