Sour (Dough) Starters

I make bread quite often, in many forms. Flatbreads, pitta, pide, roti, pizza doughs, white loaves, rye and wholemeal loaves… I enjoy making all kinds of bread and love every aspect of the process because it’s hands on and you are dealing with a living thing with its own character. That goes double when dealing with sourdough, which uses a starter of water and flour energised by natural yeast in the atmosphere. A good sourdough loaf has a wide-open texture, with huge pockets of emptiness, a thick, chewy crust and a distinctly tangy flavour.

From time to time I have made and nurtured traditional sourdough starters – a process which, it has to be said, can be a bit of a faff – then I go away for a month or so, forget about it in the fridge, get engrossed in some other cookery (or DIY) project when I return, only to come back and find it has gone a bit horrible and beyond recovery.

Frustrated by my own inefficiency, I have tried various cheat’s sourdough recipes (all good, but most definitely NOT proper sourdough), and habitually start most of my doughs with a little flour and water and all of the sugar and yeast, and leave it for a couple of hours to allow it to develop a subtle tang that goes someway to replicating the special properties of sourdough. These are all things worth trying and developing as you become comfortable with using them. Lately though – the past six months or so – I have used a couple of halfway house starters that last in the fridge pretty well without turning bad, are dead simple to prepare, and only need occasional topping-up as they get used. The recipes are below, one each for a basic wheat starter and another for a rye starter.

We have homemade pizza every week, and I now always use one of these starters when I make the dough the night before, substituting the starter (which has the consistency of double cream) for around half of the water. It is impossible to give a precise measure of how much starter replaces how much water, it is just something you have to judge for yourself, which means this is a pizza dough that you have to mix by hand so you can judge when it has the correct balance. The same goes for regular loaves; no bread machines here, it’s time to work the dough by hand, and sweat. That’s what making bread is all about though, right?

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RECIPES 

Wheat Sourdough Starter – makes about 1 Litre

Day 1:

200ml lukewarm water

175g plain flour

1 tbsp honey

Day 3:

100ml lukewarm water

100g plain flour

Day 4:

100ml lukewarm water

100g plain flour


Rye Sourdough Starter – makes about 1 Litre

Day 1:

200ml lukewarm water

175g rye flour

1 tbsp honey

Day 3:

100ml lukewarm water

75g rye flour

Day 4:

100ml lukewarm water

75g rye flour


METHOD

To make either of the starters, on day one whisk the flour, honey and water in a large glass jar until it is a smooth mixture. Cover with clingfilm and let it stand at room temperature for two days.

On day 3 add the water and flour, whisk again until it is a smooth mixture and once again cover with clingfilm and let it stand at room temperature for another day.

On day 4 add the water and flour, whisk again until it is a smooth mixture and once again cover with clingfilm and let it stand at room temperature for one more day. After 24 hours you can now store it in the fridge where it seems to last pretty much indefinitely with the occasional stir to bring it all back together again (it will separate slightly over time).

When you have used around 2/3 of the jar, you can top it up by adding the appropriate quantities of the flour and water for whichever starter you are dealing with.

I told you it was dead simple…

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Harissa Paste

Harissa is predominant in Tunisian cuisine, adding a sharp, hot, smoky hit to tagines, stews and soups, and can also be used as a condiment for grilled meat and fish – you can also use it to perk up a Bloody Mary!

There are endless variations on the recipe, the version I use has a good balance of spice, heat and flavour. Though there are excellent versions that you can buy in a supermarket, and I have probably used them all, once I made my own there was no looking back.

I make a good jar full, then portion it into an ice cube tray and freeze it so it’s always there to be used. It will also keep in a jar, in the fridge, for a good month or more.

Adjust the number of chillies according to your taste, de-seeding them if necessary. Bear in mind though that Harissa is supposed to be hot! This is best with home-made roasted peppers, because the smoky flavour is more pronounced. You can use jarred roasted peppers if you wish though, you could introduce more of a smoky flavour using a half-teaspoon of liquid smoke and some smoked sea salt, which is now widely available.

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RECIPE makes about 300ml

3 red peppers

1 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp caraway seeds

30ml olive oil

1 small red onion, roughly chopped

6 hot red chillies, seeds in, roughly chopped

3 fat garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1/2 tbsp tomato puree

the juice of a lemon

1/2 tsp sea salt


METHOD

First roast the red peppers, by placing under a very hot grill on some baking foil (otherwise it gets messy!) for around 25 minutes, turning as the skin blackens. Transfer to a bag, seal it and allow to cool. Peel the pepper and discard the seeds.

Meanwhile, place a dry pan on medium heat and gently toast the coriander, cumin and caraway seeds for a couple of minutes until aromatic. Transfer to a spice grinder (I use a coffee grinder reserved for spices) or a mortar and pestle, and grind to a powder.

While the peppers are roasting, heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat and fry the onion and chillies for around ten minutes until dark and almost caramelised, adding the garlic for the final minute or two.

Transfer the peppers, onion mix and spices to a blender or food processor, with the tomato puree, lemon juice and salt, and process to a paste.

Store in a sterilised jar in the fridge, or portion into an ice cube tray and freeze.

To sterilise your jar: 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.

Fattoush

My wife lived in the middle east for a while, but even she thought that the dressing for this delicious chopped salad was unusual. One bite and she was converted though, the combination of buttermilk, vinegar and oil is rich, unctuous and delicious. I’m on a roll with Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Jerusalem” at the moment, and food like this is the reason why.

You can use bought (or made) buttermilk for this recipe, or you can mix whole milk and Greek yogurt (as detailed below) for a similar, less sour, version. This recipe uses both fresh and dried mint; they have very different flavours and contribute to the dance that this salad does on your taste buds.

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Image credit: Jonathan Lovekin

RECIPE serves 6 

200g Greek yogurt and 200ml full-fat milk (or 400ml of buttermilk)

2 large stale Turkish flatbread or naan (250g in total)

3 large tomatoes (380g in total), cut into 1.5cm dice

100g radishes, thinly sliced

3 Lebanese or mini cucumbers (250g in total), peeled and chopped into 1.5cm dice

2 spring onions, thinly sliced

15g mint

a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

1 tbsp dried mint

2 garlic cloves, crushed

3 tbsp lemon juice

60ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle

2 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar

3/4 tsp coarsely ground black pepper

1 1/2 tsp salt

1 tbsp sumac or more according to taste, to garnish


METHOD

If using the yogurt and milk method, then at least three hours beforehand (or the day before, for a more rounded flavour) place both in a bowl and whisk well to combine. Cover, and leave in a cool place (or in the fridge) to develop. Little bubbles should eventually form on the surface.

Tear the bread into bite-sized pieces and place in a very large bowl with the yogurt/milk (or buttermilk) mixture, followed by the rest of the ingredients. Mix well and leave for between ten and thirty minutes at room temperature for the flavours to mingle.

To serve, drizzle over a little more extra-virgin olive oil and garnish generously with sumac.

Grilled Fish Skewers with Hawayej & Parsley

Another from Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Jerusalem”, this is a wonderful way to serve fish and is perfect for summer evenings in the garden.

Hawayej is a Yemeni spice mix which you will have to make yourself. It’s dead easy though, just a little grinding in a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. The marinading stage is essential, try to allow 6 to 12 hours, though if you decide to make it late in the day then an hour will do.

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Image credit: Dev Wijewardane


RECIPE serves 4 to 6 depending on what you serve it with

Hawayej spice mix:

1 tsp black peppercorns

1 tsp coriander seeds

1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds

4 whole cloves

1/2 tsp cardamom seeds

1 1/2 tsp ground turmeric

For the fish:

1kg firm-fleshed white fish (cod, hake, monkfish, tilapia etc)

two bunches of finely chopped flat leaf-parsley

2 large garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 tsp chilli flakes

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp fine sea salt

2 tbsp olive oil

lemon wedges to serve


METHOD

First, make the spice mix: place the whole spices in a spice grinder (I use a coffee grinder set aside for just this purpose) or a mortar and pestle, and work it until finely ground. Add the turmeric and mix well.

Remove the skin and any pin-bones from the fish, and chop into regular 2.5cm cubes.

Place the fish, parsley, garlic, chilli flakes, lemon juice and salt in a large bowl with the spice mix. Mix well with your hands, massaging the fish with the mixture until everything is well coated. Cover the bowl and place in the fridge for a minimum of one hour and a maximum of twelve.

When it comes time to cook them, thread the fish chunks on to skewers (metal or wood, but if using wood then soak them for an hour beforehand to avoid them scorching) and brush each piece of fish lightly on all sides with a little olive oil.

To cook: either place on a very hot ridged griddle pan for around 90 seconds, before turning and cooking for 90 seconds on the other side, or: grill under a hot, pre-heated grill (broiler) for around 2 minutes each side until cooked through. You can also cook them on a barbecue, taking great care not to burn them.

Serve immediately with lemon wedges. These go brilliantly with fattoush, the creamy dressing of which tempers and complements the spice perfectly.

Barley Risotto with Marinated Feta

The first bite we had of this resulted in a collective “wow”. It comes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s superb book “Jerusalem”, and though he has called it a risotto it doesn’t require the constant watching and stirring of an Italian risotto, instead it’s an all-in, one-pot dish that cooks like a stew. It’s delicious, simple and quick to make, there is no excuse for you not to try this one.

The revelation here is the addition of strips of lemon rind. They soften and mellow as they cook, and provide a sharp counterpoint to the richness of the barley. Likewise, the marinated feta adds another taste and texture that elevates this from the merely great to the truly wonderful. If you don’t like feta then try it this way, I’ll wager it will convert you.

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RECIPE serves 4

200g pearl barley

30g unsalted butter

90ml olive oil

2 small celery stalks, cut into 5mm dice

2 small shallots, cut into 5mm dice

4 garlic cloves, cut into 2mm dice

4 thyme sprigs, leaves picked

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1 bay leaf

the rind of a whole lemon, cut into strips

1/4 tsp chilli flakes

400g tin chopped tomatoes

700ml vegetable stock

300ml passata

1 tbsp caraway seeds

300g feta, broken roughly into 2cm pieces

1 tbsp fresh oregano leaves


METHOD

Rinse the pearl barley well under cold water until the water is no longer cloudy, and leave to drain. You can substitute pearl barley for pearled spelt if you wish.

Melt the butter and two tablespoons of the olive oil in a very large frying pan, or risotto pan, and cook the celery, shallot and garlic on a gentle heat for around 5 minutes, until softened.

Add the barley, thyme , paprika, bay, lemon rind, chilli flakes, tomatoes, stock, passata and 1/2 tsp of fine sea salt. Stir to combine, bring to a boil then reduce to the gentlest simmer possible. Cook for around 45 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure it doesn’t catch on the pan. When the barley is ready it will be tender with a little ‘bite’ and most of the liquid will have been absorbed.

While the risotto is cooking, gently toast the caraway seeds in a dry pan for a couple of minutes until aromatic. Then, using a mortar and pestle, lightly crush them so that some whole seeds remain. Add them to the feta with the remaining olive oil, mix gently to combine thoroughly, and set aside.

When the risotto is ready, check the seasoning and divide it between four shallow bowls, topping each with the marinated feta (including the oil) and a sprinkling of fresh oregano leaves.

In this hot weather our thyme was in full flower so I picked some off and added small flower heads to each dish as well. They were also delicious and added even more flavour.

Sea Bass with Roasted Fennel and Tomato Agrodolce

I spotted this Italian sweet and sour dish in an old Jamie Oliver magazine a couple of weeks ago. It looked simple (it is), uses ingredients that I know work together, and looked like an interesting twist on tradition. If you know Italian food then you know, of course, that the sweet and sour agrodolce is indeed traditional. I looked it up and it is used in a similar way to a French gastrique, adding piquancy to a dish. 

That’s just one more thing that I love about cooking: there’s always something new to learn. More than that, every new thing I discover takes me off down other hitherto uncharted avenues.

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RECIPE serves 2

1 medium fennel bulb (around 200g after trimming), finely sliced

2 tbsp olive oil

150g very ripe cherry tomatoes

3 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped

6 tbsp red wine vinegar

1 tbsp runny honey

50g fresh pine nuts

2 sea bass fillets, pin-boned

2 tbsp raisins


METHOD

Heat your oven to 220C/ 200C fan/ gas 7.

Remove the tough core from the fennel, trim off and reserve any fronds and slice it very finely, using a mandolin if you have one.

In a roasting pan. toss the sliced fennel in the oil with a little seasoning. Spread in a single layer in the roasting pan and roast for ten minutes.

Mix the vinegar and honey together, remove the pan from the oven and drizzle the vinegar over the fennel. Add the tomatoes, garlic and pine nuts, toss everything together and return to the oven for a further ten minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven again and switch the grill to high.

Using a very sharp knife, score the skin of the fish 4 or 5 times each, rub a little oil over the skin and season it lightly with sea salt. Toss the raisins into the roasting pan, lay the fish on top – skin side up – and grill for four or five minutes until the fish is just cooked through.

Take the roasting pan to the table and serve from it, alongside some crusty bread and a simple rocket salad.

Keralan Seafood Biryani

The list of ingredients for this delicious seafood biryani, from ‘Rick Stein’s India’, looks terrifying. Don’t be intimidated, everything required is easily available – if it isn’t already in your pantry – or is easily substituted. Also, there are only four basic processes to consider: make a spice paste; marinade some seafood; boil some rice and, finally, assemble and bake.

It’s the kind of dish you can bring out at a dinner party, or plonk on the table for a family meal, and everyone will think you’re a culinary genius.

It does take a little time, but if you have an hour free it’s no problem at all, and you’ll love it.

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RECIPE serves 4

For the spice paste:

3 dried Kashmiri chillies, whole with seeds (or ordinary dried chillies)

1 star anise

2 tsp fennel seeds

2 tsp poppy seeds

1/2 tsp whole black peppercorns

5cm piece of cinnamon stick

10 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

5cm fresh root ginger, finely chopped

2 tbsp creamed coconut , grated from a block

4 tbsp ghee, or coconut oil, or vegetable oil

3 medium onions, finely sliced

a small handful of fresh or frozen curry leaves

1 tsp garam masala

1 tsp fine sea salt

3 tomatoes, roughly chopped

For the seafood:

400g large, raw, tail-on king prawns

150g firm white fish (cod, haddock, sea bass, tilapia etc)

75g squid, cut into rings

the zest and juice of a lime

1/2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder, or 1/2 tsp regular hot chilli powder

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

1/2 tsp salt

For the rice:

350g basmati rice, soaked in cold water for an hour

6 green cardamom pods

2 bay leaves

To assemble and serve:

the juice of a lime

25g butter

a small bunch of mint leaves, chopped

a small bunch of coriander leaves, chopped

2 tbsp cashew nuts, dry-toasted


METHOD

First make the spice paste. You can do this well ahead of time if you wish, it makes the rest of the recipe much easier.

Heat a large, NOT non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and add the dried chillies, star anise, fennel seeds, poppy seeds, peppercorns and cinnamon stick. Dry toast for a minute or two until aromatic, then tip onto a plate and allow to cool for a minute or so before grinding to a powder. I use an electric coffee grinder to do this, but you can use a mortar and pestle.

Put the garlic, ginger and coconut into a food processor with the ground spice powder and 100ml of water. Process to a smooth paste.

Heat the ghee or oil in a large ovenproof casserole over a medium heat. Add the onions and fry gently for around 15 minutes until well-coloured, golden and just starting to catch here and there. Stir in the curry leaves, garam masala, salt and tomatoes. Cook for a further five minutes or so until the tomatoes have softened then add the spice paste. Fry for around 5 minutes until the sauce has darkened noticeably and the oil beings to separate, at this point the spices have ‘cooked out’ and are at their best. Add another 100ml of water and stir and scrape the bottom of the pan to reintegrate any bits that are stuck.

At this point you can leave it for a few hours, or overnight – re-heating it with a splash of water – or you can carry straight on…

Heat the oven to 160C/ 140C fan/ gas 3.

Cut the fish into rough squares and put into a large dish with the prawns and squid. Zest the lime over everything, then drizzle over the lime juice, than evenly scatter the chilli powder, turmeric and salt. The lime juice will start to ‘cook’ the fish, so don’t do this in advance.

Bring a large pan of lightly-salted water to the boil. Rinse the soaked basmati rice and add to the boiling water with the cardamom and bay. Cook at a stern simmer for between 2 and 6 minutes – the soaking will have softened the rice so it cooks very quickly. The rice should be soft at the edges, with the middle still being firm. Drain the rice – you can leave the cardamom and bay in it – and now start to assemble the dish.

Spoon the hot spice paste out of the casserole and into a bowl and, without cleaning the casserole, spoon half the rice into it. Put the spice paste back in on top of the rice, then put the seafood with all of the juice on top of the spice paste. Do not mix it through, this is a layered dish. Spoon the remainder of the rice over the top of the fish, squeeze over the lime juice, dot with the butter and cover the casserole with foil, followed by the lid.

Bake for 20 minutes, by which time the rice will have completed cooking and the seafood will be perfectly cooked. While it is cooking, put the cashews into a pan and dry-toast over a medium-high heat for a couple of minutes until they are golden.

Scatter over the chopped leaves and cooked cashews, and serve at the table in the casserole. Dig a big serving spoon in to get at all the layers, and serve alongside carrot salad.

Pea, Courgette and Basil Soup

This is another brilliant way to use a glut of herbs and vegetables, this time making use of our courgette and basil mountains. We are not growing peas this year, but we are fortunate to have a greengrocer who stocks peas in their pods so I bought a massive bag full.

It’s very quick, simple and heavenly, testament to the magic of just-harvested ingredients.

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RECIPE serves 6

30g unsalted butter

1 medium onion, chopped

2 large courgettes (or 3 medium) diced

1 fat garlic clove, crushed

1 litre of hot chicken or vegetable stock

1kg of peas in the pod, or around 400g shelled peas

a few sprigs of fresh basil


METHOD

Melt the butter in a large pan over a low heat, add the onion with a good pinch of salt, cover and soften gently for around 15 minutes.

Add the diced courgette and garlic, stir well and cook for a couple of minutes more before adding the stock and most of the peas – save a handful to put in whole at the end – with the basil.

Bring to the boil then cover and simmer for around ten minutes until the courgette and peas are tender.

Blitz using a hand blender – or in batches in a worktop blender – until smooth, season, then add the remaining peas. Bring back to the boil then simmer gently for a few minutes until the whole peas are cooked but retain their crispness.

Serve in bowls with a light drizzle of olive oil, or a swirl of double cream, alongside some toasted ciabatta or rustic bread.

Courgette Lemon Cake with Lemon Icing

We made a real effort this year to stock our garden with as many herbs and vegetables as we possibly could. As any gardener will tell you, this can lead to periods of glut, where suddenly you have piles of vegetables and herbs that all need to be used. At this time of year courgettes are threatening to overrun us, so now is the obvious time to make a courgette cake, something I have been intending to make for years but never got around to.

This beauty – courtesy of my fellow-blogger Kate Hackworthy – came out of the oven literally two hours ago, and is already decimated, so I’ve had to make do with the picture I took when it came out of the oven, before I glazed it. It’s delicious; moist, zingy and with its flecks of courgette skin it is absolutely beautiful. I’ve got loads of courgettes, I might make this again tomorrow!

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RECIPE serves 10  

a little butter, to grease the tin

350g courgettes (1 or 2 medium size), washed, skin left on

125ml vegetable oil

2 large eggs

100g golden caster sugar

the zest and juice of a lemon

300g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

for the lemon drizzle:

85g icing sugar

1 tbsp lemon juice

the grated zest of a lemon


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 180C/ gas 4. I don’t like to use the fan oven for cakes as I find it cooks them too quickly and fiercely.

Grease a 900g loaf tin and line it with baking parchment.

Grate the washed courgettes, with their skins still on, on the coarse side of a box grater into a clean tea towel. Lightly squeeze the towel to drain off excess moisture, then set aside for a moment.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the oil, eggs, sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice until smooth, then stir the grated courgette through it.

Sift the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into the mixture and gently fold the mixture with a metal spoon until it is just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf tin and bake for between 60 and 75 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Leave it in the tin on a cooling rack, to completely cool.

To make the lemon drizzle, mix the icing sugar and lemon juice together until smooth, then spoon, spatter or drizzle it over the cake. Sprinkle the lemon zest over the top and watch it disappear!

Vindaloo Sauce

As an unashamed curry addict, I have spent a lot of time over the years tweaking and refining the standard curry sauces and pastes. My benchmark for vindaloo is the amazing sauce used by the head chef in my local Indian restaurant; it is only in the last six months that I have managed to refine my own version into a reasonable approximation of his.

Contrary to what you may believe, a good vindaloo isn’t defined by its heat, it is defined by being spicy while allowing the base flavours to shine through. The essential flavour element in a vindaloo sauce is vinegar, not the brash smack-in-the-face of raw malt vinegar, rather the smooth sourness of properly cooked-out white wine vinegar. This sauce delivers in spades.

As with all spiced dishes, allowing this sauce time to develop just makes it better, so make it the night before you intend to use it, make a reasonable batch, freeze some for later and just add chicken, lamb, beef, prawns… whatever you feel like eating on the day.

Don’t be daunted by the length of the ingredients list, this is quick to make and most of the ingredients will be in any well-stocked pantry. Jaggery is hard cane sugar, widely available in larger supermarkets and international food stores.

I haven’t specified potatoes in the recipe, but the ‘aloo’ part of vindaloo implies that a vindaloo curry will have potatoes in it. Truth is, it’s entirely optional and might be a bit odd if, for example, you made a prawn vindaloo.

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RECIPE makes enough for 6-8 portions

For the paste:

1 heaped tsp ground cumin

1 heaped tsp ground turmeric

2 heaped tsp garam masala

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp English mustard powder

1 heaped tsp ground coriander

1 tsp cayenne pepper

a big fat thumb of fresh ginger, grated

3 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 tsp grated jaggery (or light brown muscovado sugar)

For the base:

150ml rapeseed or sunflower oil

8 fat garlic cloves, crushed

3 large red onions, chopped

For the body:

6 red chillies, seeds in, finely chopped

1 400g tin of chopped tomatoes

2 tbsp tomato puree

1-4 tsp hot chilli powder, depending on your tolerance and taste

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Mix the paste ingredients together in a small bowl. If it is a little stiff and dry just add a little water. Set aside.

Prepare the base ingredients then, in a blender or food processor, process to a smooth consistency. In a large pan, cook the base over a gentle heat for ten minutes until aromatic but not coloured – the sauce will start out pink from the red onions, and should stay that way.

Add the paste that you made earlier, and cook it out for about five minutes before adding the red chillies, tomatoes, tomato puree and chilli powder. Bring to the gentlest simmer that you can – a plop every now and again – and leave it on the heat, uncovered, for an hour then check and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

If you find that it is not quite spicy enough for you, don’t add more chilli powder once you have cooked it, the rawness of the powder will spoil it. Instead, heat a couple of tablespoons of oil and add a tsp (or more) of dried chilli flakes to it. Let it spit for a minute or so then leave the oil to infuse for ten minutes, before stirring the oil and chilli into the sauce.

When adding meat to the sauce, it always pays to brown the meat separately first before adding it to the sauce.