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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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West African Inspired Mussels and Chips…

 

West African inspired mussels and chips

Much and all as I love summer, the months without an ‘R’ in curb my ability to eat shellfish as much as I’d like. So thank goodness for the humble mussel which can be eaten all year round. I love them in the summer as a light simple supper that doesn’t need much standing over a hot stove (normally because of the high temperature outside, but this year so it doesn’t cut into my watching TV under a blanket time…)

The French style is most common with mussels and although I love it, I wanted something a bit fresher and punchier.  Some fat scarlet tomatoes from O Talho caught my eye on the way back from Dagon’s and I’d just picked up some picture perfect red chillis from the Wing Tai Asian Supermarket. But as well as the warmth from the capsicums, I wanted some tingle and my mind went to the pod of alligator pepper a friend had gifted me after we shopped in the Village one Saturday.

Alligator pepper pod

Highly prized in West Africa, especially Nigeria where the Yoruba incorporate it into naming ceremonies for babies, this pepper comes in a dry pod that looks like an alligator’s back and has a warm bite of pepper mixed with a slight hint of cardamom. I’ve mainly seen recipes for it involving fish and tomatoes so I knew it was likely to work with my mussels. I have no idea how authentic this might be though…

West African Inspired Mussels and Chips: serves 2 comfortably

  • 1kg bag mussels
  • 1/2 pod alligator pepper
  • 2 banana shallots or small onion
  • two handfuls of cherry tomatoes
  • 1 red chilli or 1 tsp hot sauce
  • 150ml water
  • 2 tsp oil
  • 4 sweet potatoes

First clean your mussels well. Pull the beards from them and discard any that are already open and that don’t close when tapped or that are broken. Leave them to soak in cold water to clean out any grit while you turn your attention elsewhere.

Heat the oven to 200℃ and then peel your sweet potatoes. I used orange fleshed ones from the supermarket. Cut them into chips, making sure that they are all roughly the same size and thickness so they cook evenly. Toss in a light coating of oil and then cook. I used a mesh tray like this which cuts the cooking time and washing up, but you are using an oven tray, they’ll take about 25 minutes.

About ten minutes before the chips are ready, finely dice your shallot and cook in a small amount of oil on a moderate heat until softened but not coloured. If using the chilli, cut finely and add to the shallot. Keep the seeds in if you want more heat. Then take the alligator pepper pod and scoop the seeds out and grind them in a pestle and mortar before adding to the shallot and chilli to cook out slightly. Cut your tomatoes in half and add to the pan. You don’t need any extra seasoning.

When the tomatoes start to collapse slightly round the edges, add in the cleaned wet mussels to the pan. Pour the water on top and put the lid on and cook for about 3-4 minutes or until the mussels have opened and the tomatoes are thickening the juices. Take off the heat and leave the lid on while you dish up the sweet potato fries on a separate plate. Then serve the steaming hot mussels in bowls with a good amount of the tomato rich liquor and then dig in.

The best way to eat mussels is to use the empty shell to pick the meat out of the next. Discard any mussels that haven’t opened and enjoy each flavoursome mouthful as the warmth of the chilli and alligator pepper builds a tingle on your lips and the pile of shells grows. Best eaten with a ice cold beer, a roll of kitchen paper and some non judgemental friends to hand!

 

This post first appeared over at Brixton Blog celebrating all our lovely local shops.

 

Pickles and Pizza

I like a bit of fine dining as much as anyone, but sometimes one’s tastes run a bit more on the casual side of things. I don’t mean I ever want to eat a Prawn Ring or kebab meat again and I believe ready meals to be a waste of calories. But I do have a soft spot for the kind of comfort food that borders on junk, especially that brand of Americana popularised by Nigella recently.

So when Mister North was down recently, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to indulge some homemade delights that would make a dietician weep. I’d been lusting after deep fried pickles ever since a Southern friend told me about them a few years back. Seeing Homesick Texan and Food Stories‘ recipes for them put them at the top of my to try list.

I dialled down the trashy vibe and put myself in the running for a pretentiousness award by growing my own gherkins and pickling them myself specially. (If this makes you eye roll at the sheer foodiness of it all, be comforted by the fact they didn’t taste that different to a Mrs Elswood.) Horticulturally experiments aside, these babies are super simple. I got cultured buttermilk in Sainsbury’s, but you could use yoghurt watered down instead. Do not feel tempted to substitute cream crackers for saltines. You’ll end up crying into your hot oil as all the moisture in your mouth evaporates. I used coarse cornmeal instead.

Heat your oil while you do the flour, egg, dip thing with the pickles. Fry for about a minute each side and then serve piping hot on the side of something delicious. In our case it was some leftover rollmops, a zingy homemade ranch style dressing with buttermilk, tarragon and garlic and a beer on the side. It was a heavenly plate of tanginess, crunch and sheer gluttony. I want to eat all gherkins in a crunchy coating now.

You’d think that plateful would have quelled our cravings for pig-out style food for the day, but you’d be wrong. About an hour later, we started getting ready to make a serious pizza for dinner. We used Marcella Hazan’s pizza dough recipe, leaving it to prove for several hours and turned our attention to the mozzarella. And I don’t just mean jiggling it about the bag in a slightly smutty fashion, I mean making it from scratch

Using some non-homogenised cow’s milk from Alham Wood Farms at Brixton Farmers’ Market, my fledgling cheese making skills, some citric acid that we explored all of Brixton for* and my trusty bottle of rennet, we created mozzarella magic. Surprisingly easy, especially if you have asbestos hands like Mister North for dipping the curds into the hot whey, we ended up with two beautiful bouncing balls of mozzarella in no time at all.

Buoyed by this, we turned to the pizza bases, lovingly dressing them with homemade sauce courtesy of Mister North and a glut of Blackpool tomatoes and an umami hit of anchovies, green olives, some of my home grown plum tomatoes and a finishing sprinkle of ham salt from Comfort and Spice. Unfortunately made giddy by the cheese achievement, we forgot to dust the worksurfaces with semolina as instructed and the bases stuck somewhat, leading to some creativity with a fishslice and a slightly concertina style pizza.

The pizza might have lacked finesse, but it was loaded with flavour. The tomatoes tasted of summer and the mozzarella was so soft and fresh I could have eaten the whole ball like an apple to fully enjoy the texture. It needed a touch more salt and I think it would have been even better with buffalo milk, but for a first go, it was pretty amazing.

We devoured the pizzas like kids at a sleepover, both wishing we’d had more of the mozzarella to do a tomato salad with or go retro and deep fry in a crispy coating like the gherkins. Instead we rounded off a day of gluttony with a cheeky bowl of Veda bread ice cream and a glass of wine or two, proving that sometimes the taste of home is all you need. Your own kitchen provides the greatest comfort.

*Try the Nour Cash and Carry if you need it Monday to Saturday and the Low Price Food & Wine on the corner of Brixton Road and Loughborough Road on a Sunday. We did the walking round so you don’t have to.

Homemade Buffalo Curd Cheese…

I’m going to confess something. You’ll either nod sagely at my bravery or recoil in horror and never speak to me again. I’m just not that into cheese…

That’s not to say I don’t ever eat it. I’m partial to a nice slice of Jarlsberg (the holes make it taste better). I keep Parmesan in the house to add some extra umami to everything. And I’ll eat cheese at other people’s houses, but I never think to buy it and I never crave it. It just doesn’t tickle my fancy the same way a nice salami does. So I’m as surprised as you are that I made my own cheese last night.

My eye was caught by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s column in the Guardian the other week explaining that making certain types of cheese at home is a walk in the park. I imagine cheese to be a combination of dairy and witchcraft so this intrigued me. And then I happened to come across a bottle of rennet in Waitrose* the very next day and the spell was cast. I was going to make my own curd cheese!

It is ridiculously simple. You need some non-homogenised milk, some rennet, a pinch of salt and some muslin or ahem, cheesecloth and then you can get going with a few small pieces of attention to detail. You should be able to get non-homogenised milk at a Farmers’ Market but if you want to do raw or unpasteurised milk for whatever reason, then source yours through Duchy Originals at most major supermarkets or try some of the suggestions here. And while you’re at the supermarket, follow this excellent tip from the comments on the original article and pick up a pack of muslin squares from the baby aisle. Much larger than the trendy facecloths around, you’ll get about 5 for a fiver and can use them for cheese making or the forthcoming preserves season. Just iron before use to sterilise it.

I was using raw buffalo milk from Alham Wood Farms and I was surprised to see just how creamy it looked in colour and texture. Much more like the milk when I was a kid and most appetising looking. I heated it to 38° with the aid of a thermometer and then added the rennet. I think I used a touch too much, around a quarter of a teaspoon to a pint of milk, but a little bit extra splashed in so I suggest you measure carefully and not above the milk itself if your hand isn’t too steady. I stirred it in well and then left it for 15 minutes to separate into curds and whey while I got on with a batch of lemon curd.

And when I came back, it really was like magic. What had been thick creamy milk was now a slightly unappealing layer of watery liquid and something that did look quite cheese like already. I scooped the curds out with a slotted spoon into the muslin and tied onto the kitchen tap to drain and set for around three hours, dispensing with the whey completely. This is all you need to do. I won’t judge you though if like me you keep going in and staring at it as if hoping to catch a glimpse of the alchemy as it happens.

About three hours later, when I could wait no more, I unwrapped my little milky miracle. And it looked like real, honest to goodness cheese! Possibly a little bit firmer than it was meant to be due to the extra splash of rennet, it looked like cottage cheese with the firmness of mozzarella. I served it crumbled on some green lentils and homegrown tomatoes and it was stunning. Slightly bouncy, with a touch of saltiness while rich and creamy, it turned some placid pulses into something rather racy as it melted slightly and soaked up the juice from the tomatoes.

I couldn’t get over how delicious it was and how unlike the shop bought equivalent in flavour and depth. That’s probably the buffalo milk but I like to think it’s my natural cheesemaking skills. On an effort to taste ratio, it scores maximum points. I enjoyed it so much I had exactly the same dinner the next night as well and probably would have done so a third night had I not run out of cheese. Had I been able to get my hands on some more milk, I’d have made more and served it on my favourite black pepper infused crackers from Ryvita. I might even have remembered to photograph the meal instead of gorging myself. I think it’s safe to say I finally get the cheese obsession. I’ve come over the dark side of dairy…

*which happened to be vegetarian on closer inspection.

Meatball stuffed tomatoes

There are somethings I never tire of and could eat for all eternity and one of those things is meatballs. I just adore them. Served with spaghetti, stuffed into a sandwich, as a canapé or just on their own, I can’t get enough of them. I usually use Allegra McEvedy’s failsafe recipe from the first Leon cookbook, but as the sun slowly came out over London a few weeks ago, I fancied something lighter and more summery. A chance encounter with some veal mince at Waitrose helped focus the mind and the next thing I knew, I had a plateful of veal, black olive and parmesan meatballs chilling in the fridge.

Pan-fried until well sealed and then steamed with stock until fully cooked through, I served them with some grilled courgettes and the pan juices for a treat of a Friday night dinner after a long week. And they were good. The sweet meatiness of the veal was enhanced utterly by the umaminess of the parmesan and the olives. I scraped the plate clean in record time and even recommended the combo to the little loaf on Twitter. But something was missing. It needed something to take it from good to amazing.

It had to be tomatoes. The July sun and heavy rains of the past few months mean that everything is better with a British tomato right now. Bursting with flavour and warmed up naturally by the flickering sun, they add a note to every dish that lifts it beyond just good. But even having decided on the welcome addition of tomatoes, it still needed something beyond just a sauce. And flicking through some stored up summer recipes, I saw an idea for stuffed beef tomatoes and it all fell into place. Meatball stuffed cherry tomatoes…

As I’ve mentioned before, my life is never too short to stuff anything. Not when everything is more delicious filled with something else. Taking the tops off and scooping out the middles of the cherry tomatoes is in fact no more time consuming than rolling individual meatballs and chilling them into shape. It’s almost as relaxing in fact.

I used about 200g of veal mince, a handful of fresh oregano, about 75g of parmesan and about ten black olives finely chopped and bound together with an egg yolk. I didn’t bother with the usual milk soaked breadcrumbs as I didn’t need the mixture to form such distinct shapes and then I stuffed the tomatoes nice and full. They then got baked for around 35 minutes until soft and collapsed and intensely tomatoey. This was longer than I thought they’d need and when I checked them about 20 minutes in, I added a splash of tomato juice to help steam them quicker. I then served them along with the pan juices on a big plate of pasta.

And they had gone up a notch from tasty to terrific. The tomato was exactly what they needed to set off the flavours perfectly and despite my intentions to only have half the meatballs for dinner, I found myself wolfing down the other portion immediately because let’s face it, there was never really any chance of me saying no to two of my favourite things combined. I enjoyed every single scrap and wished I had twice as many. I did miss the sticky cruncy crust that you get on a fried meatball, but I might just put them in upside down, pan sear them and go from there in future. But really these are the perfect summer supper. Stuff one immediately!