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Cho Cho and Asparagus Spring Salad

Chayote salad or cho cho

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!

 

Brixton Ginger Cake

Ginger cake

One of the few branded foods that I have a soft spot for is McVities Jamaican Ginger Cake. Squishy, sticky and so good smeared with butter, I occasionally sneak one into my trolley on the odd occasion I’m in a supermarket. But since I live in a area with a big Jamaican population I feel a bit guilty buying something that is probably highly inauthentic and mass produced. I decided it was time to try making my own version.

But how to get that almost difficult to eat super sticky feeling in a cake without the use of commercial levels of oil and played about with sorts of sugars? I always find that adding vegetables to a cake really up the moisture levels and adds a depth that sugar and fat alone cannot achieve. But what you achieve in moisture can often be overwhelmed by a vegetal taste that jars somewhat with me. Even the sweeter veg like beetroot and carrot can be cloying.

Independently of this cake dilemma, I kept seeing strange kermit-green items that looked like a pear crossed with a sock puppet’s mouth on the stalls in Brixton Market, but never known what they were. Having had my head bitten off once or twice for asking questions at the market, I’m now reluctant to buy unknown items. So when I flicked through a beautiful Caribbean cookbook and finally realised they were Christophenes or cho chos, I picked a couple up immediately and following a recipe, blanched and fried them with chilli and garlic. As a side dish they were odd. Incredibly crisp and fresh like a Chinese Pear but fried, they were incredibly succulent but didn’t taste of much.

Instead of being disappointed, I realised I had found the perfect vegetable to add to a cake. Especially a ginger cake where one can’t risk a clash of flavours without a risk of your baked goods coming up more like a curry when in fact you want a dark, sticky and grown up cake. I looked around for a recipe to fit the bill and couldn’t find one, so for the first time I decided to bake fairly freehand.

I did take some tips from this Ginger Cake at The Caked Crusader, but completely omitted the evaporated milk, fresh ginger and the icing and added in the cho cho to give some serious squish. I boiled it until tender, mashed it and left to drain with a weight on top to get rid of excess water and got on with winging the rest of it. One whole cho cho is about 200 grammes raw.

To make this cake you need:

225g plain flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground ginger
180g unsalted butter
100g light brown sugar
half a jar of stem ginger in syrup
a cooked and mashed cho cho or christophene
125g black treacle (or molasses)
2 eggs

100g plain flour
100g cold butter
50g sugar
cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 180°C and prep a loaf tin (preferably a 2lb or 900g one. But if like me you’ve forgotten what size it is, prep it anyway.)

Boil and mash the christophene (also known as chayote or mirlitons) and drain well. If you can’t get a cho cho, use some mashed courgette instead.

Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, allspice, nutmeg and the ground ginger into a bowl and mix together. I would use half the amount of baking powder as the original. Mine exploded like a my hair on a drizzly day with double.

Blitz the stem ginger, the entire jar’s worth of syrup and the treacle together to make a heavenly smelling puree. If you’ve not got any syrup left in the jar, make your own with dark sugar, water and double the ground ginger or add some freshly grated ginger root.

Beat the butter into the dry ingredient until well combined. Beat in the sugar. Pour in the elixir of ginger and treacle and beat in the eggs with a folding motion. It’s actually much easier than the usual all in one sponge method, saves on washing up and creates an amazing light fluffy puffy batter that smells divine. I didn’t find mine runny at all, quite robust in fact, but The Caked Crusader warns that ginger cake can be a thinner batter.

Mix the remaining cold butter, plain flour and sugar to make a crumble crumb and line the base of the loaf tin with it. I decided I didn’t want an icing or I feared the cake would be teeth itchingly sweet, but this would hopefully make it look more exciting than a bit lump of loaf.

Pour the batter into the tin and bake for approximately 45-50 minutes or until a skewer comes out cleanly. But bear in mind that this cake is so moist, even when it’s perfectly cooked the skewer might still be sticky. I turned the oven off and left it for 5 minutes more to be sure.

Leave to cool in the tin for 30 minutes or until you can be bothered to take it out of the tin. i was so overcome with having baked off the cuff for once (I am usually rigid on anything involving flour) that I couldn’t face the fear it wouldn’t come out and left it for any hour. I inverted it and it slid out beautifully. I’m glad I’d been warned it might dip in the middle or I’d have panicked. I let it cool completely and then wrapped tightly in a tea towel overnight.

It was so moist, it crumbled a bit when I unwrapped it and it was a slightly bedraggled looking loaf cake. But this one is all about the taste not the looks. But I could forgive its shabby exterior when I tasted the spicy ginger flavour and enjoyed the sponge pudding like texture. It was as sticky and moreish as I had hoped and went down well with others who tried it. I felt the crumb added nothing to it in the end except a vaguely greasy aftertaste so I’d skip that again.

But for a great sticky treat that would go with any cup of tea (and keep well) you can’t beat this cake. Perfect to bake on a Sunday. It means you can bring back the much missed tradition of elevenses this week!