Posts

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!

 

Pasta & cheese part 1: return of the mac(aroni)…

Mmmm, pasta and cheese. Such perfect bedfellows, and the basis for two of my most favourite, comforting and fail-safe meals. After all, it’s hard to beat the double whammy of carbs and dairy products on a cold day. As it feels like winter is knocking on the front door, it’s time to share them with you. this first one is easy, the next is even easier: so there’s no excuse not to try these out for yourself!

Here’s the first of these… it’s macaroni cheese. Perhaps not haute cuisine, but one of my all-time favourites. And to any of our North American readers, I apologise in advance to you: this is the exact opposite of a Kraft Dinner. Miss South was braver than I, and last year experienced boxed Kraft & Mac. Made from powdered cheese: two words which should never be used in the same sentence. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t a fan. I shuddered at the very thought of it… but then my macaroni cheese has become a signature, sloppy, safe dish; something I can always fall back on when feeling cold or blue. So it’s time to redress the balance and serve up some proper North/South mac!

Half-eaten macaroni cheese with tomatoes

Firstly, let’s drop the ‘and’. On this side of the pond, it’s always just been ‘macaroni cheese’. I was heartened to find it’s been a favourite in the UK since Victorian times, no doubt because it’s simple to make, and almost universally appealing. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten macaroni any other way apart from with cheese. If ever there was a typecast pasta, it’s macaroni. Whole packs must sit at the back of the cupboard, dreaming of being partnered with a cacciatore or arrabbiata sauce. Macaroni wants to be treated like an adult, and I’d like to think I know how to show it a good, grown-up time. There must be something to this: over the years I’ve found none of my guests has turned down my offer of seconds. Or thirds, come to think of it…

So let’s start with the basics… you’ve got to make a white sauce. I’ve got a bit more classical in the last few years, making a proper béchamel by letting the warm milk infuse with a clove and bay-studded onion, before adding it to a roux of butter and flour. But you can keep it simple and just trickle the milk in gently once you’ve stirred the butter and flour together into a smooth paste. The secret is to keep stirring at all times… I’ve been known to walk around the kitchen, stirring the pan as I go, just to keep everything perfect. This might seem excessive (or obsessive), but this is the cornerstone to the whole dish: a superbly glossy, silky, smooth and savoury sauce. And, if like me, you learn how to make this most classic kitchen sauces as a by-product of knocking up a bit of dirty comfort food, all the better. Without a badass sauce of the right consistency, this dish fails, so give it some love and attention. Once you’re confident in doing it properly, you’ll be able to do it with your eyes shut.

Three cheeses for macaroni

Obviously cheese is the other fundamental to this dish. Apart from the time, still celebrated in our family lore, when our dad managed to omit it altogether (cue whole family confusedly chewing pasta in white sauce, waiting in vain for the flavour to kick in). Generally our mum used to make a killer macaroni cheese, always using mature cheddar to up the umami stakes, giving every bite a good savoury tang. I used to do the same, but over time have settled on a broader range of complimentary flavours. So now you’ll find the sweet nuttiness of Parmesan paired with the kind of tangy Cheddar which makes one’s mouth pucker involuntarily, and a creamily lactic Lancashire to soften everything out. Sometimes a wee bit of pecorino will get added instead of the Parmigiano, or I’ll substitute some local Pike’s Delight for the normal mature cheddar; but the rich elegance of the sauce is best based on a range of cheeses. After all this lactic love, I tend to go heavy on the quantities. My rule of thumb is to grate a bowlful of roughly the same volume of cheese as the volume of dry pasta I’m going to use. Seems like a lot, but you need a decent amount for the topping. As the cheese gets stirred slowly into the béchamel, it’s time to get the macaroni going in a pot of boiling water. Drop in, return to the boil, then reduce to a simmer.

Once you’ve added a good proportion of the cheese (perhaps three quarters of the bowl), and the consistency of the sauce is like a thick custard, it’s time to season. If I was a purist, like the excellent Simon Hopkinson, I’d insist on using white pepper to keep the delicate shade of the béchamel consistent. However I normally add a tablespoon or so of wholegrain mustard at this stage, so some freshly ground black pepper just adds to the speckled appearance, and gives a touch more warmth to the dish. Taste will tell what’s right for you… I like it with a decent amount of poke. A few minutes stirring, ensuring the sauce is rich, flavoursome and thick, and the pasta should be about ready. For God’s sake, don’t overcook it: we’re finishing the dish off under the grill (and in a bed of molten sauce), so slightly al dente macaroni is better then flaccid and overdone any day.

Drained macaroni in colander

Drain the macaroni, take the sauce off the heat, and pour the pasta into an ovenproof dish. Slowly pour over the sauce, stirring well to ensure everything is coated properly, then finish the dish off with a generous topping of cheese. This’ll brown perfectly under the grill, adding a bit more bite and chew to the finished affair.

Mixing up the sauce with the macaroni

It was only a few years ago I weened myself off my childhood delight of a good squirt of Heinz’s Tomato Ketchup on my macaroni: as I was upping the ante with ever more posh ingredients. However our mum always used to put sliced tomatoes on the top to brown. I hated this at the time (sorry mum) but as I’ve got older, I’ve appreciated how the tart and sweet flavour of tomatoes complements the savoury nature of the cheese; so now I’m fully signed up to the tomato garnish. You can make the whole thing look as pretty or as lazy as you like, before bunging it under the grill/broiler until everything bubbles and browns, and you can’t resist any longer.

You’ll only need 25 minutes to knock this up; you can feel good as you’re applying some proper chef skills. Yes, the calorie count is on the high side, but this is winter comfort food, not something for a healthy regime. Don’t even think of skimping on the fat: skimmed milk or lo-fat cheese is wrong on so many levels, and just won’t deliver the big, warming flavours you want. I sometimes add a bit of double (heavy) cream to the sauce for a splash more decadence. Once you finish your portion (and seconds too, because this is one dish I can guarantee you’ll not be able to resist more of) you can always do something wholesome and virtuous, like taking a long walk in the park, or climbing a hill. You’ll be ready for anything. Except, perhaps, dessert.

A Brazilian Barbeque in London

Meat fest!

The recent Whitsun Bank Holiday was in fact such a grey and sunless day that it required a certain something to perk it up. The perfect antidote to a drab London day was to visit a small corner of Brazil in London in the shape of the traditional barbeque restaurant Rodizo Rico

I went with my friend G who is the only other person I know in London with such carnivorous tastes as myself, because let’s face it a churrascaria de rodizio is a disappointing night out for a non meat eater. The appeal lies in the unlimited quantities of freshly grilled meats that arrive at your table every few minutes and much as I love grilled vegetables, they simply wouldn’t cut the mustard here!

Read more

Jack Sprat…

May I introduce you to the perfect light spring lunch? Grilled sprats with a chunk of fresh ciabatta on a sunny April afternoon…

Sprattus Sprattus are small herring-like oily fish, a little bit bigger than whitebait. Small and perfectly formed, their stocks are abundant and are an excellent sustainable option on the fishmongers’ counter. They also happen to be cheaper than chips…a pound weight of these little beauties cost me 98p in Brixton Market. In fact the ciabatta roll I bought to accompany them was more expensive…

Sprats are also extremely easy to cook. A quick rinse and a few minutes snipping out the innards, then seasoned well and straight under a super hot grill for 2-3 minutes each side, giving you just enough time to cut some bread, chop some parsley and find a lemon. When the skin is blistered and crunchy, you are ready for a proper feast.

Piled high on a plate, doused in lemon juice and a good pinch of smoked sea salt, these are delicious eaten with your fingers or mashed onto bread. I tend to leave the heads and eat the tails, but you can eat them whole too. They are surprisingly unfishy with a rich flavour similar to mackerel and even grilling them whole left my kitchen smelling more of the seaside than anything else!

I ate half the amount I bought for lunch and was surprisingly full. They were fresh and tasty and a lovely change from my usual oily fish fix of a can of sardines on toast. They also felt like a real lunchtime treat, so if you aren’t squeamish about heads or tails, I recommend you get down to your local fishmonger as soon as possible!