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A warm salad for warm summer nights

So, I’ve recently returned from a week’s holiday in the warmth and civilisation of Languedoc. It’s not a part of the world I was familiar with, and as well as good weather, my companions and I enjoyed a week of superb local food and wine. As they’d been to the area before I enjoyed some local delicacies under their guidance, and we made plenty of new discoveries too. We ate simply, and tried as much as the short timescale could allow (finally ticked bouillabaisse off my list of ‘to dos’, cooked superfresh whitebait, and gingerly tried freshwater clams which we’d sourced ourselves from Lac du Salagou). Plus freshly picked figs & plums everyday, moules et frites at the local village knees-up, and a host of other delights.

I’ve only warmed in recent years to classic French cooking – my reference point was always further south in Italy – and I associated French with more courtly and less rustic cooking. However there’s a healthy overlap between the high-end and the more accessible, so I’ve been expanding my repertoire and gaining more confidence talking mirepoix rather than soffritto. In part this helps when you’re in an area where the aroma of herbs hangs heavy in the air – wild thyme and mint nestling next to tall fennel plants in the verges – and bushes and trees are laden with fruits and nuts. Foraging and gathering becomes a daily constant, not an occasional novel experience.

I’d mentioned previously I was working on the forthcoming Parlour Café Cookbook: before going on hoilday I’d worked up several of these recipes into postcards, and one in particular stuck in my mind: a warm salad of Puy lentils and goats cheese. It’s one of the star recipes in the book and supposed to be a favourite with the regulars,  so I decided to give it a whirl.

We picked up most of the ingredients in the local supermarket before a trip up country to visit Roquefort and Millau – great cheese, rather dull tour of the caves, although I did pick up some sheep’s butter there – and on the way home had to make our respective ways through an enormous, spectacular and somewhat frightening electric storm. Everyone was a bit frazzled by the end of the trip, so it was rather relaxing to potter around in the kitchen, unwinding with a glass in one hand and a stirrer in the other, unwinding while knocking this oh-so-simple recipe up. Mind you, it’s always fun find your way round somebody else’s kitchen for the first time, making the most of what you find lurking in the cupboards.

It still makes me smile that this most Mediterranean of dishes actually comes via Dundee, but using local ingredients (and some great local wine) meant it was perfectly transposed to a more Gallic setting. Rather than rewritng this I’ll use Gillian’s words from the cookbook, annotated slightly.

Puy Lentil and Goats Cheese Salad

Serves 4

●200g Puy lentils [oddly they weren't labelled as Puy but verte]
●1 onion, chopped
●1 carrot, chopped
●2 stalks of celery, chopped [wonderful dark green celery, still with all the leaves]
●A handful of fresh thyme [straight from the local hills]
●1 bay leaf
●150ml extra virgin olive oil
●3 – 6 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped [I used the full six cloves, and it was extremely feisty… I guess due to the freshness of the garlic. No worries about being bitten that evening!]
●50ml red wine vinegar [I couldn't find any in the store cupboard so I used a mix of balsamic & some red vin du table instead]
●100g goats cheese [we used a local, strongly flavoured little number]
●a large handful of parsley, roughly chopped
●sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the lentils in boiling water for 20 minutes, until they are absolutely tender.

Meanwhile, fry the onions, carrots, celery, thyme and the bay leaf in a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil until soft and lightly coloured. In a food processor or with a hand blender, blend the garlic with the rest of the olive oil. With the motor still running, slowly pour in the vinegar and blend until it’s emulsified.

Drain the lentils and pour out onto a flattish dish. Smother in the garlicky dressing and turn gently so everything is glistening. Once the vegetables are cooked, gently mix them into the lentils and leave the salad to cool.

Then toss gently with the goats cheese, torn into chunks, and the parsley. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper if you think it needs it.

The only major change I made was that a couple of our party didn’t like goats cheese, so we served their portions first – they had comté instead – then crumbled the cheese in afterwards. We’d also picked up some smoked sausage to add some savoury notes to the dish. Otherwise we kept it simple – a hunk of fresh bread, a fresh green salad on the side, and some local wine to help everything go down.

This is such a good recipe: it doesn’t take long to make, tastes stunning, and it’s most evocative of warm summer nights and lazy times. I can see why it’s a favourite at the café, and I think it will be with you too. Delicious!

Salade Niçoise with guinea fowl eggs

Guinea eggs 6

To be honest; until I started writing this post I didn’t know very much about guinea fowl (or guinea-fowl), nevermind their eggs. I’ve bought guinea fowl on a few occasions, to make Ghanaian dishes like Nkatenkwan, as their flesh is almost gamey and really benefits from slow, moist, covered cooking methods. I also knew the bird originated in West African, hence their name, and have long been a favourite with chefs (Larousse suggests they’ve been domesticated since Roman times).

Guineafowl egg & duck egg

I’ve also spotted them pecking around farmyards on a few occasions, looking a little haughty and slightly out-of-place with their blue faces and wonderful op-art speckled plumage. Last week my friends from Porcus persuaded me to leave their farm with a selection of wonderful guinea fowl eggs (these are the same people who sated my quest to enjoy turkey eggs last year too)

Guinea fowl eggs

So I came home with six speckly guinea fowl eggs, undecided on how best to use them. I’d been warned they had thick shells, which could prove a bit of a challenge to break through, but I had an extra pair of hands in the form of our mum who was visiting. A quick search on the web threw up very few recipes specifically for guinea fowl eggs, but a friend suggested making a niçoise salad. This proved to be an inspired recommendation, as the diminutive hard-boiled eggs (sized somewhat between a quail and a bantam egg) looked gorgeous nestled against the other ingredients. Not that we needed an excuse to enjoy a classic summer salad (even when the sun is somewhat lacking) which manages to combine some of our favourite family ingredients.

In this case I followed an Antony Worrall Thompson recipe from the BBC website, deviating a little from some other versions, but ticked all the boxes in terms of fresh flavours. I started by marinating the tuna steaks for an hour or so in the vinaigrette mix while prepping the veg. These and the other ingredients filled a large salad bowl. Once the tuna was sufficiently soused it got seared on a very hot ridged griddle, then rested gently.

Meanwhile we boiled the guinea fowl eggs for six minutes, then cooled them off in cold water. They proved quite difficult to peel: the shell was indeed tough, and the inner membrane was equally resistant. Eventually we managed to de-shell and slice them, and were rewarded with sight of bright yellow yolks. They looked wonderfully pretty set against the rest of the salad. Once they were in place the tuna steaks were added, everything was drizzled with the vinaigrette, and we sat down to eat.

The whole thing looked and tasted wonderful: salty, smooth, crisp, sharp and rounded flavours contrasted just as you’d expect a salade niçoise to do. The eggs were creamy and more flavoured than hen’s eggs. The final verdict: great salad, and really tasty wee eggs. If you’re lucky enough to find guinea fowl eggs, don’t pass up on the opportunity to enjoy their delights. Cracking!

Slaw Food Movement

I’m picking up the slaw baton from Miss South, after last week’s delicious-sounding fennel slaw. Coincidentally I was busy making kohlrabi slaw here in the Pennines at the same time.

I’d clocked the distinctive and slightly alien shapes of kohlrabi last year when I was in Hungary, pottering around the markets. I knew what they were, but wasn’t sure I’d ever tasted them.

Here at North/South Food we’re both well-known for our love of all things brassica –  from roots like turnips; leaves like cabbage and kale; and flowers to cauliflower and broccoli – so of course I was keen to add these swollen stems to our checklist of brassica we’ve known and loved.

To my mind there’s something very mittel European about these light green orbs, so it was fitting I was introduced to their flavour by a friend who’d lived in Germany for many years, and had picked up a taste for them when she out there. This was one half of the dynamic duo behind Porcus, our local free-range pork producers (and general self-sufficiency experts).

We had some kohlrabi to accompany a fantastic spread of roast pork and other goodies, as part of a medley of vegetables, but while this was being prepared I was given a chance to sample a slice of the raw kohlrabi. It had a crisp and crunchy texture, and a ‘bright’ and fresh flavour, a little like celeriac with a hint of apple and a pinch of nuttiness. Very nice it was too.

So when I was given a couple of kohlrabi and some radishes, all freshly picked from their hilltop garden, I felt it was worth making the most of this flavour and texture. In the spirit of all things summer I knocked up a quick. light, refreshing slaw to accompany some other salad-y goodies.

I started by peeling and slicing a kohlrabi stem, before julienning it.


I did the same with a carrot, then grated the radishes (don’t you love the form and colour of grated radish?).


These were all combined with a wholegrain mustard mayonnaise (Hellmanns, rather than anything made by my own fair hand… I was far too hungry to go through all that palaver)

Finally, in what proved to be a mildly inspired flourish, I added some sliced chives and a few mint leaves from my windowboxes. These added a touch of clean coolness to the dish which really played off the other ingredients.

A few minutes later I was sitting in the sunlight, eating hardboiled sliced duck eggs, some tomato & feta salad, and a massive dollop of the coarse-cut kohlrabi-slaw. Gorgeous. Kohrabi’s not terribly well-known in the UK, but it you spot some at a farmer’s market, or if you fancy growing some yourself, I think it may become a firm favourite for you. It’s certainly got a place in my kitchen any time…

The March of the Irish

After the local food delights of February’s Guestrant at Electrik with local chef Deanna Thomas, my appetite has been whetted at the prospect of more pop-up restaurant action. So when Deanna casually mentioned on Twitter she was cooking a St Patrick’s night dinner at the lovely North Star Deli in Chorlton it seemed like a no brainer to make a beeline for the event. My companions and I arrived at North Star Deli on the night to find ourselves warmly welcomed and shown our seats. Adam, the deli owner and Deanna’s brother, set the scene as we met a selection of the other attendees, an interesting and diverse selection of fellow food lovers. I’d never been to the deli before even during normal hours, having moved out of Manchester around the time it opened, and was taken by its individual charms and how well suited it seemed to intimate after-hours dining.

As this was the inaugural session of the pop-up restaurant evening not all the tables were filled, but the conversation was lively and the anticipation grew heady before the chef came out to introduce the starter. The venue itself has an open kitchen behind the counter, perfect for peeking over to see what’s going on. Not that I did so much, I’d tried hard to avoid finding out what was on the menu as I wanted to be surprised by what was on offer at this ‘Irish inspired feast’.

Irish food has historically reflected the fruits of the land, rivers and sea; whether simple working food, or a more grandiose country house style. However to many people Irish food is perceived as plain and indistinguished. Thankfully over the past few decades a generation of producers, writers, chefs and general food lovers have challenged the standard, simple stereotypes of ‘everything with potatoes and cabbage’, instead introducing or rediscovering more artisanal flavours, combinations and techniques. As a result Irish food in the twenty-first century is as dynamic, exciting and experimental as anything in the UK, hopefully continuing to develop despite the recent economic crisis.

A cursory glance on the ‘net around St. Paddy’s Day throws up a pretty frightening selection of green-dyed beer and leprechaun-themed gubbins (predominantly from our American cousins who seem to have a somewhat confused take on their culinary heritage from the Emerald Isle). Don’t forget the impressive marketing muscle of Guinness either,: they’ve managed to turn St Patrick’s Night into an event synonymous with their most famous dark drink. I was hoping tonight’s fare would be more exciting than a dodgy Irish Stew, a pint of the black stuff, and a Lucky Charms-themed dessert though.

The starter bode well. We started with wheaten bread and beautifully formed little star-shaped butter pats being brought to our tables. The wheaten bread was the foil to a deceptively simple crisp green salad studded with wonderful bacon, surrounded by roasted beetroot, and finished with a Cashel Blue dressing and a chive garnish. Cashel Blue is one of my favourite blue cheeses, and internationally acclaimed too so I’m not being overly biased with my recommendation of how good this Irish farmhouse blue is. It makes for a sophisticated blue cheese dressing with a selection of complimentary ingredients which left one wanting more. Earthy beet, tangy cheese, fresh leaves, sweet salted bacon proved to be amicable and perfectly partnered bedfellows.

When the chef came out to introduce the first course, explaining that the recipe was based on Richard Corrigan’s version of this favourite bread, she was unsure of the reaction from the diners. She had nothing to fear: this was wonderfully good wheaten bread, and I speak as a lifetime fan! Generally wheaten bread is a wholemeal soda bread, and owes much of its character and flavour to the use of baking soda as a raising agent (rather than yeast, so good for those who are yeast intolerant) and use of tangy buttermilk. It’s straightforward to make and doesn’t require too much hard work: in fact it’s one of the few breads I can confidently make. I once flew to the Netherlands with a freshly baked loaf, just so I could present it to friends as an accompaniment for a shared meal. We’re serious about bread in our part of the world. Side note: a slice or two of decent wild smoked salmon, served on some buttered wheaten bread with a squeeze of lemon juice is one of Ireland’s great food pleasures and most satisfying starters… at least in our family.

The main course, a beef & Guinness stew with potato pastry crust, was a wee bit more of a nod to ‘traditional’ Irish cooking whilst maintaining a modern character. First came bowls with healthy portions of fine chunky beef, glistening with rich dark gravy. These were topped with a triangle of light pastry. This in its own right was very good, two different cuts of meat in a beer gravy working well in that time-honoured combination of ox and stout, but more so when paired with the diminutive carrots and mash. Especially the mash – a hybrid colcannon/champ mix which prompted both an audience participation game on what best to call it (champannon, colchamp) and also a full-scale rush to clean the bowls it came in. You have to go far to beat the pleasures of good mashed potato with a rich stew… and I was pleased to hear a previous post of ours had influenced the introduction of scallions to the mix. By the time the course was over it was a potato-free zone on our table and elsewhere.

Dessert, as we’d expected after last month’s stunning chocolate torte from a chef with a serious track record in pastry, was a cracker*. A beautiful slice of apple and almond tart, served with Irish cream and a Guinness caramel sauce. The tart was perfectly light, the sweet and sharpness of the apples playing off against the pastry and almonds. The Irish cream, whipped up with Baileys, sat decadently with an rather tongue-in-cheek bright green shamrock candy astride it. Meanwhile elbows were sharpened and fingers utilised so everyone could enjoy the caramel sauce to the maximum. Seriously good, and provoking debate and discussion around the tables as to what gave it such a deep range of flavours. If memory serves me correctly the mystery ingredient turn out to be cassis: I hope I don’t get in trouble for spilling the beans!

The evening was hugely enjoyable: superb food, lovely setting and a great selection of diners. It was great to meet so many interesting folk with a shared interest in food. Thanks to Adam and the staff at North Star Deli for their enthusiasm and service, and of course to Deanna Thomas for a great Celtic-inspired menu. Let’s hope there’ll be more of these events in the future.

* With thanks to Frank Carson… it’s the way I tell ‘em!

Do-Re-Mi-So-Fa-ttoush!

After the hale and hearty (but somewhat heavy) dishes of central Europe it’s been good to eat lighter and ostensibly more healthy food back home. Good weather, joint birthdays and football fever (sigh) all created the excuse for a barbecue this weekend. There are certain dishes I tend to fall back on for barbecue fare: for me East Mediterranean / Middle Eastern flavours are so redolent of summer, with their cooling, fresh flavours. In the last year I’ve raided the Leon cookbook for inspiration (their sweet potato falafels and sesame chicken wings have become firm favourites) but deeper in the pantry of culinary influences is another inspirational character, Claudia Roden.

There was always something very exotic and other-worldly about her recipes in the cookbook on our parent’s kitchen shelf: unfamiliar ingredients sat cheek by jowl against old favourites. Later I learned about more about her extensive writings around the Med, but it was the Middle Eastern recipes which captured my imagination the most. Her recipe for fattoush, from her book ‘Tamarind and Saffron‘, can be found on the Waitrose website, and is the template I tend to use when making this stunning salad.

The first time I had fattoush was revelatory: clean, sharp, distinct and delicious flavours jostling for attention. I think it was probably in the Cedar Tree, a Lebanese restaurant in the Northern Quarter in Manchester, and I was intrigued by the banality of the description as a ‘bread salad’. Sounds rather dull, I thought, but my assumption was duly blown out of the water on the first mouthful. The citrus-y notes of the lemon and sumac dressing enhance the cooling qualities of the leaves, cucumber and mint, and the toasted bread provides texture and crispness. Can you tell I like this dish :-) ?

Making fattoush isn’t challenging, but it is reasonably time-consuming. I tend to associate it with standing in a sun-drenched kitchen, radio on in the background as I get engrossed in comforting routine of washing, slicing and dicing the ingredients. Wonderfully relaxing. A note though, it really is worth tracking down some real sumac, to give this salad the necessary ‘zing’. You should be able to get it in most shops in cities which cater for Middle Eastern/Persian/Arabic customers, or buy online. I’m lucky enough to be able to buy from the inimitable Alex Med in Todmorden Market, whose imported and home-prepared mixes are quite wonderful. His sumac is Syrian, and perfectly piquant.

Stir it up…