I’ve been working on several pieces for the Brixton Blog over the last few weeks about what different cultures and nationalities do for Christmas and my attention was particularly drawn to pastelles from Trinidad as these parcels of filled cornmeal steamed in a banana leaf sounded like the perfect way to try out my new electric steamer-slow cooker in style. I’ve also always wanted to use banana leaves and I’d never seen them until now to buy. If you can’t get them, then wrap your pastelles in greaseproof paper instead. These are traditionally eaten on Christmas Day but I think they’d be a great way to use leftovers in style so I’m publishing the recipe today so you can buy cornmeal alongside your Big Shop you’ll be doing later…
For me the best bit about bread (if you don’t make your own you can eat warm from the oven) is the fact it goes stale and allows you to use it for all kinds of things. I love croutons, I love schnitzel style meat, I love stuffing. All made possible by the power of stale bread.
But I have a particular love for Italian style stale bread dishes. We spent time on holiday in Tuscany when we were children and we used to go to sagras or festivals in the local town. These each specialised in certain dishes. There was frog and trout, there was wild boar. There was the Florentine beefsteak one that remains the moment I most regret of my teenage vegetarianism. And then there was something called zuppa Etrusca or Etruscan soup.
Basically a bowl of chilled soup filled with cabbage, beans and stale bread along with fabulously ripe tomatoes, it was amazing. It came served in a beautiful glazed blue and white bowl and I volunteered to take one for the team and have a second portion so we could have a full set of bowls for the house. We still use those bowls and I still dream about the soup.
But rather than ruin a good memory by trying my own version that might come up short, I tend to make panzanella instead in the summer. Basically bread meets Greek salad but with capers instead of olives, it’s a great warm weather meal. It’s a dish that suits a spot of improvisation for me so you can be sure this version isn’t wholly authentic.
Often panzanells is dressed with an abundance of oil and vinegar that can feel both sickly and astringent to me if you aren’t using the very best quality in both so I’ve adapted the dressing to reduce the need for as much oil or vinegar. I can also stick to Lidl quality instead this way. My dressing is a salsa verde of cucumber, basil, oil, vinegar and capers to give a light bright feel. Very quick and easy.
The one thing you can’t skimp on though is the bread. If you use sliced Kingsmill or Warburtons type bread, you’ll get wallpaper paste. You could use something more loaf like such as a farmhouse loaf or some sourdough. I used some Polish half wheat half rye chleb I’ve been buying recently that’s a bit more robust than a sliced pan.
When I was a child, I hadn’t yet discovered my high umami fascination. Olives didn’t tickle me, I only liked anchovies marinaded and one of the strongest memories of disliking a food in childhood came with one of the strongest flavours I tasted, in the shape of dulse. Dulse is a seaweed, very common around the coast of Ireland and particularly associated for us with the north coast town of Ballycastle and its famed Auld Lammas Fair. In an early adoption of the salt sweet craze, people bring Yellowman and dulse back from there as treats and it was this contrast that caused my long lasting reaction.
Yellowman is the sweetest crunchy thing you can imagine and dulse is intensely iron rich and seawater salty with a slightly rubbery texture and it is one extreme to the other for a five year old. I never eaten dulse since and the thought of it has always made me feel a bit queasy. But when I was back in Belfast last week, I went for lunch at the Belfast Barge and ordered their superb seafood platter and in with the spankingly fresh seafood and fish was a healthy sprinkling of dulse that would be hard to avoid.
Bravely loading up my fork with some dulse, a caper or two and a marinaded anchovy, I tried it again, hoping the flavours I liked would hide the one I didn’t. I was very very surprised when I loved it. The flavours all went together like nobody’s business and appealed to my umami addiction utterly. It was so good that before I had finished the plate, I was asking my mum where I could get some dulse to bring home.
I wanted to combine those fishy and salty and savoury flavours to the fullest extent and my mind immediately went to tapenade, loaded up with olives, anchovies and capers and dulse. It needed something fresh and clean on the side and Felicity Cloake solved my dilemma by posting a ceviche recipe this week. Not only do I now know how to liven up a sea bream, but I’d found my perfect partner for the ultimate umami paste!
Dulse Tapanade: makes enough for two people
- 20g dulse (mail order here or get from St George’s Market on a Saturday or the Bethany Fruit & Veg on the Cregagh Road)
- 20 black olives, stoned
- 2 anchovy fillets, chopped
- 1 tablespoon capers, drained
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- squirt lemon juice
- good handful parsley and fresh thyme
Check your dulse carefully for any small shells or crustaceans, then chop roughly. Add into a hand blender along with the olives, capers and anchovies, all of which should also been finely chopped. Blitz until mixed. (You could also use a pestle and mortar.)
Add the olive oil and lemon juice until you reach the desired consistency. Because this was a main course thing for me, I kept it drier and chunkier, but if you wanted to make it a dip add more until smooth. It’s super easy to make and should take about 5 minutes tops.
I served mine with boiled Charlotte potatoes (Sainsbury’s Basics Salad Potatoes are the less shapely Charlottes and are under a quid) and with the lime and salt rich ceviche on the side. This is not entry level umami. This is the equivalent of the 80s ads where the Tango man slaps you round the face with a salty fishy savoury explosion. It’s addictively good. I smothered my spuds in tapenade and when I ran out of carbs, ate it by dunking broccoli florets in it, revelling in every tantalisingly over the top mouthful, unable to get quite enough of it.
The sharp of tang of the soft fish (and Felicity’s recipe with sea bream was bang on) cuts through the oiliness of the tapenade perfectly while enhancing it completely. This was one of those meals that took less than 15 minutes to make, was utterly simple in its ingredients and was so good I could hardly believe it. Just perfect for these lingeringly warm autumnal days, I can hardly believe how much I’ve fallen for dulse. This must mean I’m a grown up now!
While this week might have felt like high summer, it is still only spring. But before you feel too downcast, that means it is asparagus season and although you probably don’t need any excuse to indulge in those gorgeous green spears, this lovely spring salad might introduce you to some vegetables you don’t know just as well.
When I first moved to Brixton, I kept seeing strange kermit-green items that looked like a pear crossed with a sock puppet’s mouth on the stalls in market and was unsure if they were to be eaten as a sweet thing like a fruit or more like a vegetable. In fact I wasn’t even sure what they were called until I was flicking through a Caribbean cookbook and spied a photo of them and discovered the Trinidadians call it christophene and other Caribbean cultures call it a cho cho. (Actually it’s the most named fruit I’ve ever seen…)
Usually served as a side dish, cho chos are unbelievably succulent yet firm fleshed, a little bit like a super-charged courgette. I served them blanched then fried off with a bit of chilli and garlic all last summer, which was delicious, but I made a mental note to branch out a bit this year. I thought their fresh feel would be perfect in a salad and here I’ve combined them with thinly sliced fennel, chargrilled asparagus and green beans all topped off with a parsley and caper salsa verde style dressing which served with some steamed new potatoes and some halloumi made a lovely vegetarian dinner dish, but it would also be perfect alongside some grilled fish.
Cho Cho and Asparagus Spring Salad
- 1 Cho cho (peeled, cored and quartered)
- 1 bunch asparagus
- 1/2 bulb fennel
- about the same amount of green beans as asparagus
- 1 bunch parsley
- zest of one lemon
- juice of two lemons
- 2 teaspoons drained capers
- small glug of olive oil
- splash of vinegar (anything except malt will do)
- mustard to combine
- salt and pepper
Don’t panic about the relaxed amounts above. This is a simple salad but it’s to your tastes so there’s no need to be precise to the gram or ounce.
Peel, core and quarter your cho cho and then boil for about 6 minutes or until it still has some give when poked with a knife. Add the green beans in about 4 minutes from the end and cook til still slightly squeaky and al dente. Drain both. Set the cho cho aside and put the green beans in cold water to keep them from cooking further.
Heat a griddle pan until smoking (or if you happen to have the barbecue going…) and then cook the cho cho until properly seared on each side, adding the asparagus when you turn the cho cho the first time. While that’s cooking away adding tonnes of flavour, slice the fennel as thin as possible with a knife or mandolin.
Then put everything for the dressing in a hand blender except the mustard and blitz until the parsley is finely shredded. See how liquid it is (this will vary with the size of the lemons) and then add as much mustard as you think will combine it into a fairly thick dressing. You could also add anchovies to the dressing if you like their saltiness or leave the capers out and put some mint and garlic in instead.
Once the cho cho is well grilled and the asparagus is smokily charred, add to the drained beans and sliced fennel and drizzle everything with as much dressing as you desire and serve for the freshest dish of the weekend. The cho cho is extremely refreshing and the dressing just explodes with flavour and everything is very healthy but without any sense of denying yourself. All the ingredients are easily available in Brixton market (you might struggle to get cho chos in Tesco) and this whole dish should take no more than 15 minutes to assemble leaving you plenty of time to get outside and enjoy the weather!
*This post was orginally featured on Brixton Blog, but it’s too perfect for this weather not to share it with you!
Fish has been a hot topic of debate for the past few weeks due to Channel 4’s collection of The Big Fish Fight programmes that looked at the issues around commercial fishing and fish farming today. I felt both guilty due to my love of anything fish or seafood related, and slightly smug since I have been avoiding cod for years, I didn’t watch any of it as I’m not a big celebrity chef fan.
Instead I took the opportunity to read up on the subject, finding both Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Tom Fort’s The Book of Eels, to be an excellent source of information without personality fighting the facts. I also took advantage of the fact that since the issue of fish was being talked about to try and see what types of fish are sustainable and where I could source them without having to get up and hit Billingsgate at 4am.