Couscous with Preserved Lemon and Harissa

Often, what you pair a dish with is every bit as important as the main element itself. You wouldn’t, for example, serve a steak and kidney pie with a bowl of steamed Basmati rice. Because we eat a lot of Middle-Eastern dishes, we get through a lot of couscous, but I have to be careful not to put the couscous on the table first, because my family love it so much they will just eat it all by itself.

If you are not familiar with it, couscous are small steamed balls of crushed durum wheat semolina that is traditionally served with a stew spooned on top. You can also use it as the basis for a salad: just add some salad leaves, perhaps some chick peas and always, always (in my house), a little harissa on the side to add spice and heat. You can use ready-made preserved lemon and harissa, but I always use home-made – the links are in the recipe below – and the results are incredible.

This has to be the easiest recipe I will ever put on this blog, in terms of both simplicity and speed. I make no apologies for that, great tasting food doesn’t have to be difficult.

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RECIPE 

75g of dry couscous per person

just boiled water, 1.5 times the weight of couscous (so 112g of water per 75g dry serving)

1/4 tsp bouillon powder per person

some preserved lemon peel

harissa, to stir through


METHOD

Weigh out the appropriate amount of dry couscous, depending how many people are eating. Put it into a saucepan for which you have a lid.

Chop up the peel of your preserved lemon, into 5mm dice. How much you use is entirely up to you, I tend to use the peel of half a lemon when feeding four.

Measure out the appropriate amount of bouillon powder (you can get vegan bouillon, if you need it) and stir it through the dry couscous. Add the chopped preserved lemon peel and stir it through thoroughly. Boil the kettle, and immediately after it has boiled add the appropriate weight of water to the pan. Stir thoroughly and vigorously and quickly put a lot on the pan. Set aside for at least ten minutes, the couscous will absorb the water and the flavours will mingle.

When ready to serve, fluff it up with a fork and transfer to a warmed serving dish if you like. We only ever do this if we have company, otherwise we dig in straight from the pan. Serve with whatever Middle-Eastern dish you fancy, with a jar of harissa ever-present alongside it.

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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.

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.

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.

Sea Bass in Acqua Pazza

Life has a habit of getting in the way, as I have been reminded these past few weeks. Much of my cooking has been quick and simple, and I haven’t found the time to write about it.

Just because you’re short on time doesn’t mean that you can’t eat well, as this simple, quick and elegant dish illustrates.

Acqua Pazza translates as crazy water, the fresh and zingy poaching liquid which perfectly complements, and enhances, the soft white flesh of sea bass. You can make this with small whole fish (as the recipe below), a larger single fish, or fillets. Only the cooking time will change, just keep an eye on the fish and serve it as soon as the thickest part of the fish begins to flake.

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RECIPE serves 4 

4 small whole seabass, gutted, cleaned and scaled

75ml olive oil

2 thick garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced

1 red chilli, finely chopped

500g cherry tomatoes, halved

120ml dry vermouth

a small handful of capers, rinsed

a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

a small handful of basil leaves, torn


METHOD

In a very large, high-sided pan (preferably one with a lid, if not you can use foil) heat the olive oil with the garlic, chilli and a pinch of salt over a medium heat and lay the fish in it side by side.

After four minutes, gently turn the fish over and add the tomatoes. Cook for another four minutes then add the vermouth and capers. Cover, simmer for a further four minutes or until the fish is just cooked.

Lay the fish onto warmed plates, add the parsley and basil to the pan, turn the heat up for a couple of minutes to reduce the sauce to a syrupy consistency, then spoon over the fish.

Serve with some steamed rice and a simple lemon-dressed rocket salad.

Pasta in Parchment with tuna, tomatoes and potatoes

Quite often, the deciding factor in my cooking a recipe I haven’t tried before is that it is in some way unusual, therefore offering a chance for me to learn something new. I spotted this recipe in Ursula Ferrigno’s ‘Truly, Madly, Pasta’ and the idea of cooking pasta in a paper bag was too intriguing to ignore.

You can’t really go wrong with Italian food, it is largely based on simplicity, using fresh ingredients and flavourful aromatic combinations. Pack all that into a paper bag, so all the flavours and aromas are locked in… well, how could it go wrong? Even if I did manage to somehow get it wrong, I would have a salvageable basis for another meal at the end of it.

My only real concern was the pasta. It is part-cooked before going into the paper, and once in the paper there is no way to test if it is done until you serve it, so I was totally reliant on the recipe-writer getting her timings right.

I needn’t have worried, the pasta was cooked perfectly, the only amendment I made to the original recipe was putting the tuna steaks in raw (Ursula Ferrigno pre-cooks those as well). As it stands now, this is a delicious, versatile, quick and easy midweek pasta recipe that also has the ‘wow!’ factor when you bring it to the table.

You can leave the potatoes out if you wish, they are primarily there to add textural interest, but with them left in this is a hearty dish indeed.

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RECIPE serves 4 

250g tuna steak, chopped into 2cm cubes

150ml dry vermouth

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

grated zest of one lemon

2 sprigs of rosemary, broken into pieces

8 new potatoes, peeled (or scrubbed) and cut into small dice

12 ripe plum tomatoes, deseeded and roughly chopped

handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped, plus more to serve

350g spaghetti

2 tbsp olive oil


METHOD

Place the tuna in a bowl with the vermouth, garlic, lemon zest, rosemary and some seasoning. Leave to marinate for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ Gas 6.

Towards the end of the marinating time, cook the diced potatoes in boiling salted water for approximately six minutes, until tender, and drain. Combine with the tomatoes and parsley.

At the same time, half-cook the spaghetti. Use just over half the time suggested on the packet, the brand I use is al dente in ten minutes, so I cooked it for six. Drain and set aside.

Also at the same as you cook the pasta, in a large frying pan, heat the oil until hot, remove the tuna from the marinade and set aside, and fry the marinade and its aromatic ingredients for a couple of minutes to burn off the alcohol and reduce slightly. Combine this sauce with the spaghetti, the raw marinated tuna, tomatoes and potato. Toss well.

Prepare four parcels with parchment paper, add one-quarter of the mixture to each and fold up loosely like an envelope. Fold in the edges and then fold over the top carefully to seal completely.

Place in the pre-heated oven for seven minutes. Serve at once, tearing open the bags at the table (while inhaling deeply!) and sprinkling with more chopped parsley.

Sweet Potato Saag Aloo

Saag aloo is usually made with regular potatoes but this sweet potato version from The Hairy Bikers is particularly luscious. The great thing about sweet potatoes is that they are richer in nutrients – particularly vitamin C – than white potatoes and lower in starch. They count towards your five a day too, while regular potatoes don’t.

This is a great meal if you are dieting, coming in at only 200 calories per serving and making you feel comfortably full. That means you can have a serving of rice and a couple of rotis with it, without bursting your waistband.

The secret to great flavour here is to use your own fresh curry powder mix. It’s not hard to make and my recipe is here.

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RECIPE serves 4 

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

20g fresh root ginger, grated

2 tbsp curry powder

2 medium sweet potatoes, diced

1 large ripe tomato, diced

300ml vegetable stock

a small bunch of coriander, stalks only, chopped

200g bag of baby spinach, picked over and thoroughly washed

To serve:

the zest and juice of a lemon

a few green chillies, sliced

a small bunch of coriander leaves, chopped


METHOD

Heat the oil in a large flameproof casserole dish or a deep frying pan. Add the onion and cook it quite briskly until it’s softened and very lightly browned. Add the garlic, ginger and curry powder and stir until combined.

Add the sweet potatoes to the pan and stir to coat them with the garlic, ginger and spices, then add the tomato and the vegetable stock. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the stock to the boil, then turn down the heat, cover the pan and simmer very gently until the sweet potato is just cooked. This should take no longer than 10 minutes, but check regularly from 5 minutes as you don’t want the sweet potato to go mushy – it should still have a little bite to it. Loosen the sauce with a little more stock or water if necessary.

Add the spinach and chopped coriander stalks to the pan and cover the pan again until the spinach has wilted down. Stir very carefully to combine without breaking up the sweet potatoes.

At this point you can turn the heat off and leave it for for a few hours or overnight, the flavours will only get better. If you are going to eat it immediately, garnish with the lemon zest and juice and a sprinkling of finely sliced green chillies and chopped coriander leaves.

Serve with basmati rice and roti.

Sri Lankan Coconut Dhal

We are a diverse family, encompassing unrepentant meat-eaters, pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans. When any combination of us gets together it can be tricky to come up with meals that will satisfy everyone’s needs while also being satisfying.

What that really means is that I need a good stock of vegan recipes, a thought that would drive my grandfather into a rant about lentils. Well, this is a vegan dish, and its made from lentils, and even my grandfather would approve. He always appreciates luscious food, and this has lusciousness in spades. It’s quick too, so if you walk in the door after a long hard day and don’t fancy a big work-up in the kitchen, this will feed everybody and anybody.

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RECIPE serves 4 

2 tsp sunflower oil

250g red split lentils, rinsed thoroughly

1 banana shallot, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a small handful of dried curry leaves

a small cinnamon stick

1 green chilli, finely chopped

4 tsp curry powder

1 400ml tin of coconut milk

a small bunch of coriander, leaves and stalks

the zest and juice of a lemon


METHOD

Gently fry the shallots, garlic, curry leaves, cinnamon stick and chilli in the oil, for around 5 minutes until softened and aromatic.

Mix a little water into the curry powder – please use either my own recipe for curry powder, or (if you really must) a top quality, fresh off the shelf supermarket version – to make a paste, and add it to the pan. Cook the spices out for a few minutes, then add 400ml of water, the coconut milk and the lentils.

Simmer for around 20 minutes until the lentils are soft and plump. Finely chop the coriander stalks and add them to the dhal, stir them in thoroughly.

At this point you can turn the heat off and leave it for for a few hours or overnight, the flavours will only get better. If you are going to eat it immediately, garlish with the lemon zest and juice and sprinkling of chopped coriander leaves.

Serve with basmati rice and roti.

Red Lentil and Harissa Soup

I hate ‘punish-yourself-January’. So many people eschewing alcohol and meat, going on diets that will never succeed and buying gym memberships they will never use. Here’s my highly opinionated tip: if you’re going to change anything about anything, then you need to make changes that will be permanent. Permanent means life-long, so you’d better make sure that you love the changes that you do make.

It doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t have to be punishing. With people like The Hairy Bikers around, low-fat, no-sugar, delicious food is easy to make. This gorgeous soup of their devising takes a mere ten minutes or so to put together, from what are likely to be store-cupboard ingredients. It is also vegan, so whatever you are putting yourself through this January, this dish ticks every box.

The ‘gremolata’ lifts this from the everyday lovely to the out-of-this-world, so don’t leave it out. Frightened of raw garlic? Don’t go and breathe on people afterward; that’s all I can say.

Don’t be thinking that this is a dish suitable only for January, you can eat this as a summer supper, meaning you can make those lifestyle changes permanent.

If serving 6 (this is a filling dish), the calories come in at 166 per portion. If serving 4 it is 249 per portion, and you’ll be full.

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RECIPE serves 4 – 6 

1 tbsp olive oil

2 large onion, finely chopped

3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

a small bunch of finely-chopped fresh coriander stalks

2 tbsp harissa paste

200g red lentils, rinsed

1 litre vegetable stock

1 400g tin of chopped tomatoes

the juice of half a lemon

‘Gremolata’

the finely grated zest of a lemon

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

a small bunch of finely-chopped fresh coriander leaves


METHOD

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat, add the onions with a pinch of salt and cook gently for five to ten minutes until softened. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for a further minute, then add the coriander stalks and harissa paste. Stir thoroughly then add the lentils, stir thoroughly again until everything is coated in the harissa, then add the stock and bring to the boil.

Reduce to a simmer for ten minutes, then add the tomatoes and simmer for a further ten minutes. The lentils should be soft by this time, so test and adjust the seasoning, and add lemon juice to thin the soup and add liveliness.

To make the ‘gremolata’ (a real gremolata uses parsley, but the coriander used here is splendid) chop the ingredients together and spoon over each serving once it has been put into bowls.

Microwave-Steamed Sponge Pudding

For every ten times that I fancy a steamed pudding, I probably act on it once. It’s just such a colossal faff, all that wrapping, and string, and steam, and forgetting to top up the water…

The results are always worth it, but sometimes life is just too busy. Imagine my delight then when I spotted Rose Elliot’s foolproof method for cooking a steamed pudding in a microwave. I have made this successfully with golden syrup and maple syrup, but the method lends itself to experimenting with all kinds of steamed puddings – including Christmas pudding. We have missed the boat on that one, but this year I’ll be testing it in the run-up to Christmas.

In general, it is a truth that in life every shortcut has a cost. Not this time; this shortcut saves hours of time and a load of energy, and the results are exactly the same as if you had done it the long, traditional way.

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RECIPE 

175g unsalted butter, room temperature

175g golden caster sugar

175g self-raising flour

100ml whole milk

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

3 medium hens eggs, or 2 duck eggs

5 tbsp (approx) syrup


METHOD

Put the butter, sugar, flour, milk, baking powder, eggs and 1 tbsp of the syrup into a mixing bowl and beat together until light, fluffy and creamy. If you don’t have a mixer you can achieve great results with a wooden spoon and elbow-grease.

Pour the remaining syrup into the bottom of a lightly-greased plastic or Pyrex microwaveable pudding bowl, then spoon the sponge batter carefully on top.

Put the bowl in to the microwave, uncovered, and cook on full power until the sponge has risen and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. The time it takes will vary, depending on the power of your microwave. Anything between 10 minutes for a 600W machine, down to around 5 minutes for an 850W machine. There’s no need to worry, you can cook it for a few minutes, have a look, cook it a bit longer and have another look and continue until it is ready. It won’t ruin it.

Allow the pudding to stand for a few minutes then turn it out onto a warmed serving plate so that the syrupy top is uppermost. You can add a little more syrup if you want to be really indulgent.