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fig salad

Crispy Caper and Polenta Salad

fig saladOk, let’s get the humour about Northern Irish and Scottish people not quite understanding salad out of the way. This one does contain fried things, but what do you think those lovely croutons in your Caesar salad are, huh? So let’s carry on with what is really a perfect early autumn lunch instead and celebrate crispy crunchy fried things in style.

This salad is built round polenta which is the other Italian staple carbohydrate in town.  Made from cornmeal cooked into a thick porridge, British people have never quite taken it to their hearts like they have with pasta. This is partly because we have little connection with eating corn in this country beyond the odd tin of Green Giant and partly because polenta can be quite bland.

In fact, the first time I had polenta as a child, I was actually quite repelled by its blandness. Almost offensive in its nothingness, it kept me away from eating it for years. Then I realised you should never ever buy precooked polenta and that like all the best foods on earth, it needs a liberal hand with the butter. Now I’m a regular polenta eater.

However, I’m not an authentic polenta maker. Firstly I usually make it in the slow cooker rather than stand around stirring slowly to make it smooth and creamy the old fashioned and energetic way and secondly, I add stock to mine. This is near sacrilege to a friend whose family are Northern Italian, but it’s the only way I can add enough flavour without bunging an entire block of Kerrygold in there and missing the point of peasant food.

polenta cubesI tend to make a big batch of polenta and eat half like a thick porridge to soak up ragus or stews (also usually done in the slow cooker) and then allow the other half to cool into blocks and eat it almost like a springier version of cornbread. This cooled polenta is especially good cubed and fried until crispy round the edges. Here I’ve scattered it over a salad but it works well as a breakfast dish with scrambled eggs and tomatoes too for a filling and gluten free start to the day. Read more

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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sorrel drink

Hibiscus Barley Water

sorrel drink

It’s Wimbledon fortnight and here in SW9, I am feeling the excitement building in my nearby borough. I’ve been sneaking a peek when Andy Murray is playing because I’m not sure I can take more tears this year, but I know others are glued to the screen all day everyday. So it seemed appropriate to create a drink that would capture that British tradition of this time of year and accidentally make dinner at the same time…

Barley water is just that. It’s the water in which pearl barley has been cooked, strained off and flavoured with something sharp or citrussy to refresh on humid summer days. Reputed to be as excellent for one’s system as cranberry juice, it’s a healthy and cheap thing to make from scratch. I’ve flavoured mine with hibiscus or as it’s known in Jamaica, sorrel for a scarlet twist on the more classic lemon version.

It also means you have delicious nutty barley cooked and ready to eat. I’ve made a fresh salad, stuffed full of grilled courgette, scallion and fennel, studded with emerald green broad beans and salty capers before being dressed with mint and olive oil. Make a big batch and keep it in the fridge for a tasty lunch or dinner when you can’t leave Centre Court for long. It’s fabulous as it is or with cold chicken or grilled halloumi on the side.

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Homemade Salad Cream

salad cream

Feel free to judge me (Mister North does) but I adore salad cream. I definitely prefer it to the kind of wobbling blobs of mayonnaise that come out of jars these days and if more places were like The Ham Corner in Todmorden market, I’d have it on my sandwiches every time.

I like the fact it reminds of those old fashioned salads with the one lettuce leaf, rolled piece of ham, half hard boiled egg and a tomato for a splash of colour. Such neat and orderly plates of food remind me of primary school days when the sun shone and I got to wear Clarks sandals and run around all day without a care in the world. That’s pretty good work from a condiment.

I know lots of people don’t care for the slightly astringent taste and associated memories of 70s and 80s food but I’m sure that trying a homemade version with a really good summer salad will change many minds. I made mine with duck eggs and buttermilk and served it with griddled asparagus, chicory and home cured treacle bacon and it was so simple and delicious.

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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!