Wild Garlic Pesto

There is a large patch of wild garlic near where I live, about the size of a volleyball court. It is slightly hidden by a bush, but it isn’t tucked away, being just a few feet off a country path and yet nobody else seems to have discovered it. Or maybe they have, and just don’t know what it is…

More fool them, wild garlic is a highlight of spring for me, if only because it gives me the chance to make up a huge batch of wild garlic pesto.  I have made absolutely loads this year, which I have frozen in small quantities of a couple of tablespoonfuls each. It is absolutely divine mixed in with pasta with a little extra-virgin olive oil and a scraping of Parmesan, but it is also excellent for adding a mysterious, bright tang to soups and sauces, or just dilute it with extra-virgin olive oil and use as a dressing for salad.

It is so quick and easy to make there is absolutely no excuse for you not to try it, and it is one of those things that, once tasted, make you wonder why you ever bought pesto in a jar. The quantities given in the recipe make a large jar, if you want more just scale everything up in proportion.

Feel free to experiment with the nuts that you use, almost any nut will do the job – just make sure they are fresh otherwise their oils may be rancid, and make sure that the nuts that you use haven’t been coated or treated in any way, salty dry-roasted peanuts are delicious with a pint of beer but not so good in pesto.

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RECIPE – Makes a large jar

100g wild garlic

50g Parmesan, finely grated

50g hazelnuts, skinned & toasted

extra-virgin olive oil

lemon juice, to taste

sea salt & freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Wash the wild garlic thoroughly and pick out any foliage (and insects) that don’t belong. Place in a food processor and blitz until fairly well chopped. If you don’t have a food processor then you can do the job using a knife, and make the final paste using a mortar and pestle.

Add the Parmesan and blitz again, then add the hazelnuts. When the nuts are added you will need to have your olive oil handy; turn the machine back on, and add the olive oil while blitzing to your desired consistency.

Add salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste.

This will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge, and several months frozen.

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

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The first thing I consider whenever I cook something is: where is the flavour coming from? If it is a risotto the quality of the stock is crucial; if I am making a curry then the spices in the curry paste are the most important elements for flavour, and when making a tomato sauce the quality of the aromatics (not to mention the tomatoes) is key. Get that first consideration wrong, and it won’t matter what else you do, your dish won’t be as delicious as it could possibly be.

I long ago got into the habit of using fish sauce as a way of delivering ‘umami’, and if that isn’t appropriate then an anchovy fillet or two cooked in oil until it all-but dissolves will do the job. If you are making a dish for a vegan though, neither of these methods is appropriate, so I started using commercial sun-dried tomatoes to intensify flavours.

Anyone who knows me knows that I shy away from anything commercially processed, so will know what came next: of course, I started to dry my own tomatoes. It is a simple process, and delivers such intensity to any tomato-based sauce that you will never need to add tomato puree to anything ever again. I now use oven-dried tomatoes in all my tomato sauces, using one or two per tin of chopped tomatoes – so if a recipe calls for two tins of chopped tomatoes, I will augment it with two or four chopped dried tomatoes, depending on the intensity that I require.

They are also lovely spread on toasted bruschetta, with a little goat’s cheese as an antipasti.

To make oven-dried tomatoes:

Heat your oven to 140C/ gas 1.

Cut ripe tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds, toss the tomato flesh in a little olive oil (I put a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large freezer bag, add a kilo of seeded tomatoes and work the tomatoes around the bag so they are fully coated) then lay the tomatoes in a single layer on a rack, set over a baking tray.

Just pop them in the oven and leave them for 2 to 3 hours, until they are reduced in size by about a third. At this point they will still be quite plump, you can go even further and leave them in the oven for up to eight hours so they are fully dried out and leathery. Cooked this way they can be stored almost indefinitely in the fridge.

Pack a kilner jar (or similar) with the dried tomatoes, cover completely with olive oil and store them in the fridge. I have had a jar of plump-dried tomatoes in my fridge for months and they are still perfect, so I have no idea how long they will actually last – long enough, that’s for sure.

If you completely dry your tomatoes then in most cases they can be stored dry, but will need to be re-hydrated in water overnight before use.

The Joy of Fresh Turmeric

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I have a long and uneasy relationship with turmeric, though it is an essential ingredient in just about every curry recipe ever written. I have always struggled to detect any flavour at all in anything but the very freshest ground turmeric, and even then it is so subtle I have to wonder: what is the point? Beyond giving a vivid yellow colour to a dish, it seems to me to be about as useful as saffron.

Ah, saffron. It may be heresy to some, but I don’t get saffron either. Again, it adds a lovely yellow hue to a dish, and it definitely has a flavour, but I just don’t like it. I’m not entirely convinced that anyone else really gets it either – I once saw a TV chef answer the question: “how much saffron should I use?”, with “how much can you afford?” I have a nagging suspicion that the very fact that it is so expensive is what attracts people to it. Like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, it has the aura of ‘status symbol’. Used in sufficient quantities to add flavour, to me it adds a medicinal edge to my cooking, while for my wife it brings to mind laundry that hasn’t been aired properly.

This isn’t about saffron though, it’s about turmeric, and to my joy (yes, joy, that is how easily pleased I am) I have recently been seeing fresh turmeric appearing on supermarket shelves alongside root ginger and chillies. Fresh turmeric is directly interchangeable with ground turmeric powder, and when used fresh it adds an earthy, bright and peppery – sometimes, almost fruity – flavour. For me, the first goal of a successful dish is its flavour, and fresh turmeric adds it in spades. My joy was doubled when I realised that fresh turmeric is the ideal replacement for saffron, adding colour, flavour and what can only be called ‘deliciousness’.

Ground turmeric still has its uses in my kitchen, mainly for its colour and ease of use when roasting vegetables and making rice pilafs. But now I have the choice I will always prefer punchy, fresh turmeric in sautés, sauces and smoothies.

Fresh turmeric is a rhizome (a fancy word for a root) that looks similar to ginger, which is a close relative. Like ginger, fresh rhizomes have a much livelier flavor than dried. Turmeric’s bright orange flesh is earthy, peppery, and slightly bitter. Depending on how old or tender it is, you may want to scrape off the peel before using it. Like ginger though, in 99% of cases I will leave the skin on and use a microplane or fine cheese grater before use.

As with all fruit and vegetables, always choose the freshest, firmest rhizomes and avoid soft, dried, or shrivelled ones. It can be stored in a fridge in a plastic bag or airtight container for a week or two, or you can freeze it, where it will last for several months.

The key question with any unfamiliar ingredient is: how much to use?

As a general rule of thumb:

1 inch of fresh turmeric, as thick as your forefinger = 1 tablespoon of freshly grated turmeric = 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

So when adapting a recipe, grate an inch of fresh turmeric to replace each teaspoon of dried specified in the recipe, and prepare to be amazed.

Yellow Curry Paste

Curry paste is ridiculously easy to make, yet is unimaginably better than anything you can buy from a supermarket. It freezes well and will last for months, so you can make a batch as in the recipe below, divide it into portions of 2 tablespoons each, put into a freezer bag and you’ll always have the makings of a fast and delicious mild Thai curry.

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RECIPE – Makes approximately 5 servings

1 tsp white peppercorns

1 tsp coriander seeds

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp coarse sea salt

2 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp curry powder

1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, chopped

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

1 yellow pepper, de-seeded and chopped

1 small red onion, peeled and chopped

5 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a 3cm knob of fresh ginger, finely chopped

2 tbsp groundnut oil


METHOD

Heat a small saucepan over a medium heat (NOT a non-stick pan), add the peppercorns, coriander and cumin seeds and dry-toast for a couple of minutes until fragrant. Be very careful not to burn them, turn them out onto a plate to cool before grinding to a powder in a coffee grinder reserved for that purpose, or in a mortar and pestle.

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until you have a thick, bright yellow paste. Easy!

Masala Paste

If you look through this blog you will notice that I make quite a lot of spicy food, I can’t help myself, I love it. Some find working with spice quite scary, as if it is a dark art, or they look at the ingredients list for an authentic curry and move on because it is so long. Actually, if you follow a trusted recipe exactly then spice is extremely easy to cook with, and of course the more you cook with it the more you will understand it.

To cut out some of the preparation I always have a stock of pre-made pastes in the freezer. They freeze extremely well and the flavours intensify the longer you leave them. This is one of my favourites, a flavour-packed, vibrant paste that isn’t too hot. It is great used anywhere a recipe specifies a store-bought masala or balti paste.

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RECIPE – Makes 8 tbsp

1 tsp cumin seeds, dry-fried and ground

1 tsp coriander seeds, dry-fried and ground

2 tsp garam masala

2 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 tsp sweet smoked paprika

a big thumb of fresh ginger, finely chopped, or 2 tbsp minced ginger

1 tbsp groundnut oil

2 tbsp tomato puree

a handful of fresh coriander, leaves and stalks

sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper


METHOD

First, dry-fry the cumin and coriander seeds in a heavy bottomed pan for a minute or so until they give off a delicious aroma, allow to cool then grind well using a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder reserved just for grinding spices.

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blitz until you have a smooth puree. The coriander won’t chop up finely enough to disappear but that’s no problem.

Chaat Masala

The one ingredient that most Indian snacks, street foods, roasted and fried food and salads rely on for their instant zing and spicy sparkle is Chaat Masala. This spice mix is a blend of spicy, salty and tart flavours and is usually added to the food after cooking and right before serving. It is one of the secret weapons of your local Indian restaurant.

Usually a good sprinkling of a tablespoonful (or more, experiment with it) over the prepared dish and a good stir through to combine is all that is needed. Chaat Masala adds an unbelievable edge to the flavour. Some of the ingredients are a little esoteric, like the ground black salt, but are well worth tracking down online if you cannot find them in your nearest international food store.

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RECIPE – makes a small jarful

3 teaspoons toasted cumin seeds, ground

1 teaspoon toasted coriander seed, ground

1⁄2 teaspoon toasted fennel seeds, ground

4 teaspoons amchoor powder (powdered dried mango)

3 teaspoons ground black salt (or ordinary salt if you really can’t get it)

1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 pinch asafoetida powder

1 teaspoon garam masala

1⁄2 teaspoon ground ginger

1⁄2 teaspoon Carom seeds

1⁄4 teaspoon ground dried mint

1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1⁄4 teaspoon paprika


METHOD

First, dry-toast the cumin, coriander, fennel and carom seeds in a heavy bottomed pan for a minute or so until they give off a delicious aroma, allow to cool then grind well using a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder reserved just for grinding spices.

Combine all ingredients, and store in an airtight container in a cool dark place.

Simple as that!

Preserved Lemons

I love middle-eastern food, it is fast becoming my go-to cuisine when I’m not sure what to cook. It’s the intense bursts of flavour coming from unfamiliar ingredients that keeps on drawing me back: the dark smokiness of dried limes; the sharp intensity of barberries; the intoxicating aromas of dukkah and za’atar, and the sunshine brightness of preserved lemons.

I had been buying preserved lemons for years, until I discovered just how easy it was to do at home. Is there any point to making your own rather than just buying them in? Not really, except for the satisfaction of having yet another thing in the pantry that you have made yourself. It’s a good feeling.

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RECIPE 

Lots of ripe unwaxed lemons

120g fine sea salt per 1kg of lemons


METHOD

First, sterilise your chosen jar and its lid: heat the oven to 140C/ gas 1 and wash your jar and lid in hot soapy water, rinse and let them dry out in the warmed oven. When you take them out to use them, keep your grubby fingers away from the insides of the lid and jar or you will undo your good work.

Wash the lemons well, trim off the pointed end and cut through the lemons so you have four segments, still attached together at the stem end. Sprinkle the salt into each lemon, then push the lemons down into the jar, as hard as you can so they are under pressure. When you cannot fit any more lemons into the jar, fill the spaces with more freshly squeezed lemon juice so the lemons are completely covered. The quantity of salt that you will need is determined by the total weight of the lemons that you used, including those that you only used the juice from.

Seal the jar and leave in a cool dark place for a month, at which point the lemons will be ready to use. You can use the flesh, though it is the peel that is used more often – chopped finely and sprinkled into salads, stews, soups, tagines… anywhere a burst of citrus is required. You can also use the briny juice as a seasoning.

Be sure to keep the preserved lemons in the jar covered in juice at all times, adding more freshly squeezed lemon juice if necessary, and these will last for as long as you need them.

Home-Made Chilli Oil

I am always looking for ways to get more flavour into my food, one of the easiest ways is to carefully choose which oil you cook with. That subject deserves an essay all its own, suffice to say that when cooking anything spicy – whether it is from Italy, Thailand or anywhere in-between – chilli oil can add even more zing to your meals.

I have always found store-bought flavoured oils to be either insipid or rough, whereas what I need from a flavoured oil is character with subtlety. Beware though: this chilli oil can be fierce, nothing subtle here! It is easily diluted though, so if you want the character that it brings but aren’t too keen on obvious heat just add a few drops to the pan with your regular oil.

I find this works extremely well as a drizzle on a pizza straight from the oven, tossed through drained pasta, or used on its own as a cooking oil in place of regular oil. When you cook, make the first question you ask yourself: ‘which oil shall I use?’ and you will soon find endless ways to use this oil.

The quantities used in the recipe are extremely flexible; I tend to make this in 200ml batches and store it in a cool, dark cupboard. It will keep for ages if you follow the instructions, and as it ages it develops more heat and, bizarrely, more subtlety.

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RECIPE 

150ml olive oil

30 red birds-eye chillies, finely sliced, seeds left in

1 tbsp dried chilli flakes


METHOD

First, sterilise your chosen jar or bottle, and its lid: heat the oven to 140C/ gas 1 and wash your jar and lid in hot soapy water, rinse and let them dry out in the warmed oven. When you take them out to use them, keep your grubby fingers away from the insides of the lid and jar or you will undo your good work.

To ensure that you make exactly the right amount, put the sliced birds-eye chillies and dried chillies in your chosen jar, then top up with regular olive oil until the jar is very nearly full. Empty the entire contents of the jar into a small saucepan and gently warm the oil for a few minutes until the pan is too hot to touch. Leave it to cool for ten minutes or so, then put the chilli oil back into your jar. You can use it immediately, but when it has been infusing for a couple of weeks it is an absolute knockout.

Vanilla Extract

First, a word of warning: never, Never, NEVER buy vanilla essence. It’s a nasty chemical substitute for the real thing.

Second: make your own vanilla extract. It is ridiculously simple and involves nothing more than two ingredients. Even the most pure and expensive commercially-produced vanilla extract contains a number of additional elements, including sugar. You don’t need them in your life. What you DO need are two kinds of vanilla extract: made with vodka for a clean vanilla taste, and made with dark rum for a darker, more complex caramel flavour. Experiment with both kinds in your baking and you will soon be turning out cakes so good you would swear they had been made by Mary Berry.

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RECIPE – makes 100ml

1 vanilla pod, split lengthways

100ml of vodka or dark rum


METHOD 

It doesn’t get any easier than this: put both halves of the split vanilla pod into a 100ml bottle (the exact size is largely immaterial, anything between 50ml and 120ml will produce perfect vanilla extract). Top up with the vodka or rum, then put the lid on and set it aside for at least a month. It will last for as long as you need it to, but if my experience is anything to go by you will use it up pretty quickly once you discover just how good it is.

Vegetable Stock

There really is no secret to creating great-tasting dishes; if you use good-quality ingredients and cook them well, then finish with a sympathetic garnish, you are already 80% of the way there. To raise a dish from the great to the fantastic you will need to find the final 20% though, and that’s where getting the basics right really counts.

If you start your dish with a great home-made tomato sauce or stock the results can be unbelievable. Suddenly, restaurant-quality food will start to emerge from your kitchen. There is a reason that professional chefs of any quality never use stock cubes or powders and it is for this reason that this, of all the recipes I will ever publish, is without a doubt the most useful and most important.

Sure, it takes a little time to make a great stock, but apart from the five minutes it takes to roughly chop the ingredients you can spend all that time doing something else – like sitting down with a cuppa and reading a book.

Try and find some dried limes in the international section of your local supermarket, they are as cheap as chips and add another dimension entirely. Drop them in whole or crumble them in your hands.

I make two versions of this stock, a dark stock for use with heavier, darker stews and soups, and a light version for use making soups such as minestrone and tomato, and risottos, where a dark coloured stock would adversely affect the look of the finished dish. To make the lighter version simply omit the mushrooms and make sure you remove the skin from the onion.


RECIPE – makes approximately 1.5 litres

3 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried thyme

2 bay leaves

1 large onion, unpeeled, roughly chopped

1 leek, well rinsed, chopped

5 medium organic carrots, unpeeled, chopped

1 large orange sweet potato, unpeeled, roughly chopped

3 celery stalks, chopped

5 dried shiitake mushrooms

3 litres water

1 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)

2 dried limes (optional, but awesome)


METHOD 

Heat the oil in a large stock pot and add the dried herbs and bay leaves while you start chopping the veg. As you chop each ingredient, toss it straight into the pot and agitate it to get the oil and herbs coating everything. Add the shiitake mushrooms whole, then cover the whole thing with a cartouche and cook over a gentle heat for twenty minutes.

The smaller you chop your vegetables the more flavour you will generally be able to extract; don’t overdo it though, root vegetables only need to go as small as 1/2 cm cubes while the leek, onion and celery only need to be 5mm thick at a minimum. Take as long as you have, and if you’re in a hurry don’t worry about it.

*Tip: Sweating vegetables under a piece of parchment is known as using a cartouche. It is a way of cooking that simultaneously sweats and steams the vegetables, extracting maximum flavour in minimum time.

Cut a square of baking parchment that is slightly larger than the surface area of your pan, push it down so it sits on top of your sweating vegetables and then tuck the sides down so the vegetables are completely covered. Keep the heat low and after a few minutes check to see that nothing is catching on the bottom of the pan, then re-cover and continue to sweat them until they are as soft as you need them to be and the aroma is filling your kitchen.

After twenty minutes remove the cartouche, add the water and fish sauce and bring to the boil, then simmer very gently for between 60 and 90 minutes. The long, slow cooking is crucial to extract maximum flavour and nutrients from the vegetables.

Strain and remove all the vegetable matter and you now have a basic vegetable stock; the real test is that it should make a delicious broth when seasoned with salt – good enough to drink out of a mug and leave you wanting more. At this point you can use it as it is in any recipe that calls for stock, or you can reduce it further, concentrating the flavour and storing it in the fridge for later use.