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Panzanella-ish Bread Salad

bread salad dish

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.

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Oi muchim, courgette flowers & boiled rice

Heat me up, melt me down: cool Vietnamese & Korean chilli favourites

Oi muchim, courgette flowers & boiled rice

As you might’ve noticed, it’s been hot. Very hot. And when it gets hot, I want food which both heats me up and cools me down (as the Shirley Lites almost sang). You could plot a graph showing a direct correlation between outside temperature, and my yearnings for salads and chilli. When we were growing up (and unexposed to hot, spicy food) I didn’t fully understand the concept of hot food actually cooling you down. I’ve come to appreciate it more over the years, and now many of my favourite foods in hot, humid weather are liberally laced with chillies.

My first chilli experience was… instructive. When I was nine, I watched a chilli-eating contest on a BBC TV programme called ‘Zoo 2000‘*. They made it all look fun and easy, so I went to the fridge and took out a green chilli I’d previously spotted. Biting off a decent chunk in one go, my  reaction to the subsequent heat caused the rest of the family to dissolve with mirth.

What turned it from a minor distraction into a family legend, though, was our dad laughing in that slightly condescending way adults can do, then eating the other half in one go. He probably thought my young palate was overly sensitive… but when he turn scarlet and grabbed the milk bottle from my hands to douse the fire within, comedy reigned. I learned two things that day: to treat chilli with respect, and that milk tempers capsaicin better than water. One reason I prefer lassi to beer in a curry house.

Anyway, weather like this tends to suppress my appetite, so an array of light but spicy food is perfect to nibble on. Recently I’ve been enjoying two of my favourite different south-east Asian dishes, each with a bit of fire in them. Hope you enjoy trying them out.

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Sichuan Pepper Cured Mackerel

mackerel

The weather has warmed up just enough and the sun has come out long enough to make it feel like summer might be limbering up to actually do something. It’s making me crave fresh bright flavours after the long cold months that have only been coped with by eating lots of stodge and stews. I’ve particularly been enjoying fish recently, visiting my favourite fishmonger, Dagon’s in Brixton Village, to try as many sorts as possible including tilapia, snapper and butterfish.

Each has been delicious, but all that newness has given me a sudden urge for something familiar. I picked up a rainbow trout and grilled it with dill and lemon, but it was the mackerel that caught my eye. I think the most beautiful fish on the counter, that oily flesh is so versatile and flavoursome and allows for lots of experimentation. I had intended to barbecue it if the weather held and serve with salsa verde, but the skies were as grey as the fish skin and I decided against it.

Mister North’s love for Fuschia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice has revived my love of sichuan peppercorns with their fabulous fizzing flavour and I immediately thought of their floral tones with the fish. Not keen to grill oily fish indoors since I don’t have an extractor fan, I wondered if I could try a cured version instead to capture those light summery flavours. It turns out to be very easy and a perfect thing to do if you don’t want to heat the kitchen up…

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