June, 2009

Jun 09

Stop! Mojama time


Eating is a constant learning experience – and a perpetual giver of pleasure. For all the times we eat something and go yuck, there must be ten more when we try something new which makes us sit up and take notice.

Mojama is one of those things. The loins of tuna are cured for two days in salt, washed and then dried in the Spanish sunshine and wind for fifteen to twenty days. It is Phoenician in origin and is rumoured to come from their settlement in modern day Cadiz.
It may be a little strange sounding (wind-dried fish is not an appealing sounding thing), but in essence is quite close to a Spanish jamon in flavour and texture, with a slightly fishy edge. It’s meaty, delicious and savoury and a perfect addition to an alfresco lunch or anti-pasti platter. It is well worth seeking out in specialist delicatessens and Spanish stores.

I serve it dressed with some good quality virgin olive oil and a some finely diced tomato sprinkled over, alongside other nibbles like anchovies (try and find the Ortiz brand, a cut above), toasted almonds and the typical Spanish addition of bread sticks.

Food is an eternal adventure, with a world of undiscovered gems that we should seek out and try – even if it means a few funny faces on the way.

Jun 09

A Spanish summer soup


I’m a bit shameless when it comes to asking for recipes. If I’m in a restaurant or a cafe or even at someone’s house I will always ask for one to add to my collection. It’s a decidedly small contingent these days that endeavour to keep a recipe secret. After all, as my friend Jose said when I asked him for his delicious tortilla recipe, food is for sharing.

On this last visit to Spain I had a couple of delicious soups – both classics in the Spanish repertoire. Ajo Blanco is the first, a white, smooth almond and garlic soup sometimes made with grapes. The second, the recipe I have secured for your summer party enjoyment today, is for the inimitable gazpacho. Many recipes call for vinegar, some for bread, but this is a particularly tasty and light version, perfect to start an alfresco meal. This recipe comes from tapas bar El Molinon in Valencia.

Gazpacho El Molinon 

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 1 kg ripe tomatoes
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 red pepper
  • ½ a Spanish onion
  • 1 clove of garlic


Blend the ingredients together in a food processor or with a stick blender, adding a bit of oil and a bit of salt to taste. Once it’s all processed, if it seems too thick, add a bit of water to make it more liquid.

Serve with some home-made croutons.

Jun 09

Valencia: In the market for some sunshine


I’ve just returned from a few days eating my way round sunny Valencia. A much under-rated city, but a real charmer – I was sorely tempted to, ahem, lose my passport and extend my stay. The food was out of this world – as it always is in Spain if you have a nose for the right places. The Spanish have a passion for cuisine that is bordering on religious – you’d struggle to walk two streets without finding somewhere someone would recommend for mussels, jamon or croquettas.

Paella is the city’s most famous dish – causing divisions amongst many as to the proper ingredients. Although a fantastic eating experience, a hearty plate of rice with either seafood or rabbit, chicken and snails isn’t always what you want to be sitting down to. And even though the city isn’t famous for its tapas, if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself with a few hours there, El Molignon serves up perfect fare for the long warm evenings and is a great place to while away your time.

It is how you imagine a tapas bar should be – fantastic food, swift service, a buzzy crowd of happy Spaniards, free-flowing cold beer and a warm, approachable owner. 

The markets are another fabulous selling point for any foodie – the main Mercado is in a beautiful cavernous bright space, stalls laden with the most exquisite produce from cheeses to fruit to bacalao, meat and fish. This is a food paradise – with prices that seem surprisingly pedestrian. The fruit was some of the best I’ve tasted – bright, fat, dark, juicy cherries and peaches so sweet and juicy you’d need to wash your entire arm after eating them. It’s a real working market, a far cry from many of the markets that abound in the UK now. I wandered around it eating some incredible jamon feeling like the luckiest boy in the world.

Jun 09

The joys of a green balcony


I am lucky enough to have a particularly green-fingered mother, a dab hand in the garden, who manages to live for the greater part of the year off her allotment. I’m slightly green myself, with envy at the wonderful produce that comes off it, the tiny courgettes with their flowers, onions, potatoes, beans, beetroot, carrots, herbs, asparagus. They taste like vegetables should – fresh and deeply flavourful.

I live in London, which as you can imagine, creates something of a problem when it comes to having a garden. Fortunately, having moved recently, we opted for a flat with a balcony, just big enough to house a barbecue, a table and a few chairs, and more importantly some plants. Well ok, the barbecue might have taken priority…

We’re only growing a few things – tomatoes, herbs and salad but there is something distinctly satisfying with tending these things as they attempt to grow in Blighty.

But while the rain pours down outside, we’ll be eating a wonderfully simple lunch – some toasted sourdough, smoked anchovies and some salad leaves from our box, dressed with good balsamic, some very good olive oil and a sprinkle of grated parmesan – a little dose of sunshine.

Jun 09

Tip top tortilla

tort_560.jpgA properly made tortilla is a thing of beauty. Perfect as a light lunch with friends, a simple green salad on the side and a glass of crisp white wine to wash it down. I have a bit of an omelette phobia in general – for some reason they just never turn out right. We all have our Achilles’ heel, and I guess mine is this kitchen staple.
With tortilla, I tended to cheat somewhat. I just bought great slices of it from Brindisa and contented myself with these, safe in the knowledge that there was no way I could do any better at home.
And then, during a long glorious lunch there with Jose Pizarro, head chef of their three restaurants, I managed to wangle their tortilla recipe. He’s one to watch too – a creative, knowledgeable chef whose Spanish cooking is some of the best I’ve eaten. Keep an eye out for his book, which will be out later this year.
The secret, he says, for a perfect tortilla, is in the slow cooking of the onion – its sticky sweetness rounds out the flavour of the omelette. He recommends serving this with allioli.

Potato and chorizo tortilla

Ingredients (Serves 4)

•    7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
•    2 medium white Spanish onions, thinly sliced
•    fine salt
•    5 medium sized floury potatoes such as Maris Piper
•    6 large free-range eggs, beaten

For the chorizo mix

•    1 garlic clove, sliced
•    1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
•    1 small red pepper
•    1 small green pepper
•    125g cured spicy chorizo, diced


Heat the oil in a frying pan and sauté the garlic, peppers and chorizo until the peppers have softened and the chorizo is crispy. This will take about 8 minutes. Drain off any excess oil and set aside.

Heat 6 tablespoons olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the onions and season with salt. Gently fry the onions for 20 minutes or so until soft and brown, but not burnt.

Peel and halve the potatoes, and then finely slice the pieces. Add the potatoes to the onions and fry for 30 minutes until they completely cooked. Remove any excess oil with a spoon. Season and set aside.

Add the chorizo mix to the potatoes.
While the mixture is still warm, add the beaten eggs and stir everything well.

Heat a non-stick frying pan with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and add the potato mix. Stir it for 1 minute then smooth it down, and let it fry gently for at least 10 minutes until there’s a beautiful brown crust underneath.
Once it’s cooked on the frying pan side, take a flat lid or plate and place it over the tortilla. Clamp pan and lid together and twist both over together so that the tortilla is now on the lid.

Return the pan to the heat, and slide the tortilla back into the pan. It’s a bit scary to begin with, but practise makes perfect and it’s very easy to get the hang of the technique.

To serve, let the tortilla cool to room temperature. Ideally, leave it for a day before cutting it into wedges.

Jun 09

The most important meal of the day


I never used to eat breakfast. I’m not quite sure when I changed habits, but now I can’t live without it.

Scrambled or poached eggs are always welcome, but lately I’ve gone back to my childhood roots in more kitchen ways than one. The soft boiled egg is the current vogue in my house, sprinkled with salt and pepper and served with soldiers made from proper bread. 

A cooked breakfast is a thing of pleasure, and leisure, and generally much more enjoyable when someone else cooks it for you. Somehow a breakfast spread seems the right way to start the day, particularly on holiday or at the weekend. It’s a meal to celebrate, rather than a chore to get through. Even at seven on a grey mid-week morning, I will still make an effort to eat something delicious – porridge with summer berries and honey perhaps, or toast with homemade whisky marmalade.

On a recent break away in Berkshire at The Queen’s Arms breakfast was proper – little pots of fruit compote with vanilla flecked yogurt, a real cooked breakfast and a range of jams and conserves to rival my own collection (which takes some doing – I am a condiment collector!).

Pleasant surprise of the morning went to granola bars – which sound far too healthy to be so delicious. Chewy and dense with fruit and oats, these are a treat, and the chef was kind enough to let me steal the recipe, after I became somewhat addicted to them!

Granola Bars


•    500g rolled oats
•    125g pitted prunes, quartered
•    125g dried apricots, quartered
•    100g pecans, quartered
•    90g sunflower seeds
•    90g pumpkin seeds
•    125g sesame seeds
•    ½ dessert spoon mixed spice
•    ½ dessert spoon cinnamon
•    ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
•    350g runny honey
•    125g light brown sugar
•    340g butter
•    1 lemon, juice & zest


Weigh out the dry ingredients together, chopping the apricots and pecans roughly.

Melt the honey, butter, sugar and lemon juice and zest in a pan over a low heat.

Mix all the ingredients together and place into a tray lined with silicon paper, smooth over the top and sprinkle with a little more sesame seeds.

Bake at 170°C for 15 minutes then remove and allow to cool.

When cooled cut into bars 3cm x 8cm.

Jun 09

Easy like sundae morning


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I love the recent trends towards old puddings. You can barely move for these luxurious, decadent classics. Trifles, summer puddings and arctic rolls seem to be cropping up on the menus of fine-dining restaurants and pubs alike.

Just the other day I popped round to a friend’s house and we had banana split for afters – a refreshing reminder about how delicious this simple dessert can be. Ice cream, bananas, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, maraschino cherries and toasted, chopped pecans sprinkled over the top. Does life get more pleasurable than that?

Nostalgia plays such an important part in the food we eat – both smell and taste are especially evocative and can transport us instantly to another time or place. The current trend to revisit our childhood classics can only be a good thing, taking modern techniques and subtleties and creating dinner party-worthy fare.

My most recent effort was a peanut butter and chocolate sundae – a trip down memory lane for some, a twist on a retro classic for others. This recipe encompasses the best in salty and sweet. Large scoops of ice cream, salted peanuts rolled in chocolate and dusted with sugar combined with a deep chocolate and a rich butterscotch sauce, topped off with a peanut butter brownie cookie. Over-the-top, but utterly delicious.

Peanut butter and chocolate sundae (makes 8)

For the chocolate peanuts

  •     50g salted peanuts (not roasted)
  •     50 g dark chocolate
  •     1 tsp sugar
For the butterscotch sauce

  •    70g sugar
  •    50g butter
  •    150ml double cream
  •    Large pinch of sea salt flakes
For the chocolate sauce

  •   100ml double cream
  •   1 tbs sugar
  •   50g dark chocolate
  •   1 tbs golden syrup
For the peanut butter brownie cookies

  •   200g dark chocolate
  •   60g butter
  •   35g flour
  •   2 medium eggs
  •   150g caster sugar
  •   4 tbs crunchy peanut butter
  •   Pinch of salt
  •   8 scoops vanilla ice cream
  •   8 scoops chocolate ice cream

First, make the cookies. Break chocolate up into pieces and melt with butter over a low heat. Once melted, remove from heat. In a bowl whisk eggs with sugar until light and pale. Add salt and melted chocolate and butter mixture. Mix thoroughly and add peanut butter, beating it to incorporate thoroughly. Sift in flour and mix again.

Chill mixture for an hour or. Preheat oven to 180°C. Place a sheet of greaseproof on a baking sheet or in a tin. Divide mixture into 8-10 balls, rolling them in your hands to make spheres. Spread them out evenly on the greaseproof, leaving a few centimetres around each. Bake for around 12 minutes – you may have to do this in batches. They will be very squidgy when they come out. Leave them to cool.

Make the sauces. For the butterscotch, melt ingredients – bar the salt – together in a pan and cook for five or so minutes on a medium heat. The mixture should thicken. Add salt, stir and then set aside to cool. For the chocolate sauce, melt ingredients together in a pan. You may need to add a few tablespoons of water to get the right consistency. Set aside.

Next make the chocolate peanuts – break chocolate into pieces and melt in a bowl over a saucepan of water. Roll peanuts in the chocolate and spread onto a non-stick tray or on a lightly oiled plate. When they have cooled slightly but not set, sprinkle over the sugar and refrigerate.

To serve, take eight large glasses or bowls. Put a ball of each ice cream into the bowl. Crumble the peanuts slightly and sprinkle over. Spoon over some of each sauce, then break a cookie into three or four, placing it around. 

Jun 09

A dal recipe to soothe the soul

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Dal is deeply comforting. It deserves a place next to our favourite comfort foods – Somehow eating a bowl of the bubbling, unctuous yellow dish is warming for the soul. Its bobbly surface is glossy and inviting, ripe for dunking chapati or naan. Maybe it’s the mixture of nourishing split peas and spices or maybe it’s the ease with which it is eaten.

The masala is what gives dal its heart. A mixture that varies from house to house across India I’m sure, it normally starts off with the cornerstones of Indian cookery – onion, ginger, chilli and garlic – to which spices are added giving depth and warmth to the dal.
The masala is mixed into the cooked split peas and the lot stirred together – indeed whisked to add a certain smoothness. At this point I suppose you could add coconut milk for some extra richness, but this would be gilding the lily, for dal is also easy on the tummy as long as one doesn’t over-eat.

Satisfying and nourishing and child’s play to boot, this dish is best described as a warm hug, perfect for a rainy day. This recipe is based on one that comes from the charming Cooking with my Indian Mother-in-law, with the addition of some spinach for a little contrast and a nod towards virtuous eating.

Despite the name of the recipe, it tastes far from basic. Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients – most of them will probably be in your store cupboard.

Basic dal

Ingredients (serves 4 with rice)

•    175g yellow split peas
•    50g red split peas
•    4 green finger chillies
•    1 fat clove garlic
•    A thumb size piece of ginger
•    1 ½ tsp salt
•    2 tomatoes
•    1 tbs groundnut or other flavourless oil
•    ½ tsp mustard seeds
•    1 small onion, finely chopped
•    ½ tbs butter
•    ½ tsp dhana jiru (see instructions)
•    ¼ tsp turmeric
•    ½ tbs finely chopped coriander stems
•    Lemon or lime juice to taste
•    A small bunch of coriander leaves, roughly chopped
•    2 handfuls of spinach


Make the dhana jiru – toast a quarter of a tsp cumin seeds and the same of coriander seeds until fragrant. Pound in a pestle and mortar to a powder.

Wash the peas in water until it gets clear. Drain and put in a large pot with 2 litres of water and bring to the boil without a lid. Skim the scum that rises and cook for around 40 minutes or until the dal is soft.

While this is cooking, make the masala – top and tail two of the chillies and cut into short lengths.  Add to a small blender with the garlic, ginger and salt and tomatoes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the mustard seeds and onion. Fry until lightly golden. Add the butter and when melted add the spices. Cook for a few minutes before adding the tomato mixture and coriander stems. Increase the heat and simmer for ten to fifteen minutes.

When the dal is cooked, use a whisk to beat it until as smooth as possible. Add the masala and the remaining two chillies, left whole. Bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes until quite thick – traditionally it should be thin but it’s much nicer when like this.

Taste and season with lime or lemon juice and salt until the balance is right. Scatter over the coriander leaves and serve with rice and chapatti, if desired.

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