As fresh as it gets.

Man cannot live on cake alone.  I’ve tried.  To keep things fresh and light for the summer, I’ve been mixing up the evening meals to include things that make use of the herbs in my garden.  Mint, lavender, parsley, sage, thyme, Greek oregano and lemon thyme are all bursting into life right now, so it would be silly not to take advantage.

The recipe I’m sharing with you today is a far cry from the chocolate craziness that I’ve thrown your way before.  It’s really delicious, a doddle to prepare and it goes well with so many things that you’ll easily be able to make it a part of at least one meal.  All you need are some fresh herbs and a few minutes to make this classic crowd pleaser!

Tabouleh

4 tblspoons fresh mint (finely chopped)

1 bunch fresh parsley (finely chopped)

100g cous cous

half a cucumber (chopped)

1 onion (finely chopped)

4 ripe tomatoes (chopped)

juice of half a lemon

4 tblspoons extra virgin olive oil

sea salt

black pepper

I used cous cous to make my tabouleh which is a deal-breaker for many people.  Bulgur wheat is used in a traditional tabouleh.  Cous cous was all that I had to hand on the day that I made this and I’ve no regrets.  I also added a little more olive oil than stated in my recipe, but it’s really up to you to season this beautiful salad how you like it.

I cooked the cous cous for a few minutes in boiling water until soft and set it aside to cool.  I then lined a bowl with mixed leaves.  In another bowl I added the cous cous and the rest of the ingredients.  I gave them a good mix and kept tasting as I seasoned everything.  A little more lemon juice here, a bit of oil there…it was fun getting a nice balance.

Once everything was nicely combined, I tipped the tabouleh carefully into the bowl lined with salad leaves.

You can serve the tabouleh immediately or cover it and leave it in the fridge for an hour or so like I did.  The flavours were wonderful.  This is a seriously uplifting dish and one that benefits from the use of ultra fresh ingredients.  I can’t wait to serve this with some grilled lamb and lots of pita.

And now for something completely different.

It had been a while since I had eaten something for the very first time.  Standing in the fish mongers’ with the baby screaming his head off, I spotted a small box of what I recognised as samphire.  This green and salty marsh plant has been something of a trendy ingredient in recent years and I’d seen it make appearances on food shows that visited coastal towns.  Apart from having what I think is a cool name, samphire really holds no other outward appeal to me.  Having said that, as I collected my change from a purchase of squid, the fish monger followed my gaze towards the samphire resting in a box on the gleaming ice.  “Samphire.  Wanna try some?”  Above the screams of my boy, I said, “Yes, please!” and picked a little to chew on.  Salt, fresh grassy notes, something nearing asparagus?  I quite liked it.  All it needed was butter.  “I’ll have that box too, please”, I shouted nodding at the green strands of something not quite sea and not quite land.

Samphire does not keep for long.  The pressure was on to make (good) use of it.  I had some nice basa fillets which I was sure would be a good starting point.  Basa is Vietnamese cat-fish and is sustainable.  I passed the boy (now quiet) to N and started to unpack my bags.  N was happy when she saw the squid.  She’d asked me to make some more spaghetti and squid, but she had a puzzled look on her face when I pulled out the box of samphire.  “What have you got there?” she said, frowning.  “Samphire!  It tastes of the sea and I’m gonna cook it for us tomorrow!”  N looked at me like I’d just exchanged our only cow for some magic beans.  Yup, the pressure was on to make very good use of the samphire.

Simple is best.  I made a samphire and lemon cream to pour over the basa fillets after I’d steamed them.  I fried the rest of the samphire in butter and served it all with some boiled vegetables.  Apart from the large amounts of butter, it was a well-balanced meal.  Samphire really does love butter.  N was very impressed with the samphire. Probably fearing it would be disgusting, she was pleasantly surprised.  I was quietly smug because the samphire and lemon cream had been perfect for the fish and my decision to make it up as I went along had really paid off.  Now all I need to do is figure out how to stop my son screaming in public and I’ll be living the dream.

Basa fillets with samphire & lemon cream

Basa fillets

150ml double cream

2 tblspoons finely chopped samphire

1 lemon

65g butter

sea salt

black pepper

Drizzle a little olive oil onto a piece of foil large enough to make a parcel around the basa fillet.  If you love olive oil as much as I do, place the fillet on the foil and drizzle a little more on it.  Grind a little black pepper on the fillet.  Place it on a baking tray in the centre of the oven at 200 degrees Celsius for twenty-five minutes.

Meanwhile, melt half of the butter in a milk pan and add the chopped samphire.  I’d already rinsed the samphire a couple of times in cold water before chopping it to make sure that there wasn’t any sand in it.  Cook the samphire for a few minutes before squeezing the juice of half the lemon into the pan.  Next, stir in the double cream and add some pepper.  Taste it.  Samphire can be very salty, so you may not need to add any salt.  I added a little salt because the cream was too bland at this point.  If you need more lemon, add that too.  A little at a time is best.  Taste it after each addition.  You can’t take it out once it is in, but you can always add more (I can hear my mum talking there).

Keep the heat gentle and stir the cream until you’re happy with the taste.  Add the other half of the butter to the sauce and stir it until completely melted.  You can add more butter if you like, but your arteries may not thank you.

The creamy sauce is actually quite light and doesn’t overpower the flavour of the basa.  I served the fish with some samphire lightly fried in butter for two or three minutes.  Yesterday, I read a post over at kidandkitchen about samphire and egg which was great.  I think I might pair it with egg next time.  What do you think?  Have you tried samphire before?

The Curse of Boredom or: Why I have to create.

The sun has got his hat on.  In fact, he’s had it on all day and promoted numerous gardening activities in the neighbourhood and general lethargy in our household.  The heat coaxes you into slowing down and the brightness makes it much easier to just let those eyelids drop.  Summer sure can be pleasant, no doubt.  Left to my own devices while N and the baby napped, I was going to be able to soak up every generous ray of sun and have a few chilled drinks.  Settling into a hot garden chair and kicking off my flip flops, there was only one thing that could possibly spoil this blissful peace.  Me.

No matter how idyllic the beach, forest, mountain or garden, there’s no keeping me still for very long.  I need to do stuff.  I need to be active.  I need to be making things.  There are exceptions to this rule and I’m incredibly lazy when I wish to be.  Today, however, I could not sit still.  I crept into the kitchen to see what was in the fridge/cupboard/freezer/fridge again.  Nothing jumped out.  Sigh.  I flopped down at the PC and had a quick browse on the internet.  Then, suddenly, I spotted something that I had all of the ingredients for.  A quick glance over my shoulder to check the fruit bowl and yup, there was a solitary lemon available.  Great!  Former pastry chef and now citizen of Paris, David Lebovitz was about to provide me with my entertainment for the next hour.

Of course, I couldn’t resist messing around with the recipe and adding my own bits and bobs.  The main ingredient, however, was not going to change.  A single lemon.  Not just the juice.  All of it!  I added blueberries and some mace and ginger to the recipe for my own taste, but kept most things the same including the timings.  I quite enjoyed making these lemon and blueberry slices.  I think they’d work well as tartlets.

What to do with a solitary lemon?

Lemon & blueberry slices (adapted from David Lebovitz)

For the base-

140g plain flour

120g melted butter

50g caster sugar

1/2 tspoon vanilla extract

1/4 tspoon ginger powder (optional)

1/4 tspoon powdered mace (optional)

1/4 tspoon salt

For the topping-

1 lemon

200g caster sugar

3 eggs

4 tspoons corn flour

45g melted butter

1/4 tspoon salt

handful of fresh blueberries

After lining a small, rectangular tin with foil, I began making the base for the slices.  First, I combined all of the ingredients in a bowl to form a sandy coloured dough.  I pressed this into the lined tin and baked it for twenty-five minutes at 180 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, I prepared the lemon topping using a hand blender.  I cut the lemon into chunks and blended it with the sugar, eggs, vanilla, corn flour, butter and salt until smooth.  There were still some bits of lemon that would add plenty of what Lebovitz calls “zing”.

When the base was golden, I pulled it out of the oven and poured the yellow lemon mixture over it all. I then dotted it with the fresh blueberries. I turned the oven down to 150 degrees and baked the mixture for another twenty-five minutes until it wouldn’t wobble.

After that, I went for a stroll along the beach with the dog, the baby and N, who was wondering why I hadn’t spent the afternoon sunbathing.  When we got back, everything had cooled and was ready to be cut and dusted with way too much icing sugar!

Upon tasting the slices, I was quite impressed, but being completely honest, they weren’t sweet enough for me.  I agree that using the entire lemon is a stroke of genius (nice one, Mr. Lebovitz), but they were a little tart- pun definitely intended.  I’m a big fan of mace, but again, I don’t think it’s for everyone.  This is definitely a recipe that I’ll return to this summer and perhaps update with something new.

Respect for garlic.

Backpacking brings with it numerous food atrocities and experiences worth sharing if only to warn would-be adventurers.  Each trip is filled with moments to savour and moments to forget about, but each is unique and I guess that’s one of the many attractions of independent travel.  Last year, me and my intrepid wife returned to Eastern Europe to visit new countries and enjoy the rich culture of towns and cities we’d read about.  On the final leg of our journey, we stopped for a couple of days in Bar, Montenegro.  This coastal town had some great seafood and wonderful wine.  It was on a balmy night, at a rather basic-looking eaterie, that we sampled the best squid we’d ever eaten.  Grilled over an open fire and dressed in oil, lemon and garlic.  It was served with a potato salad and was one of the food highlights of our entire three-week trip.

Since then, I’ve been looking for ways to recreate what we’d enjoyed so much.  Part of that experience has found its way into a really simple pasta dish that I made tonight.  The dish includes king prawns, squid, lemon and chilli, but without doubt, the most important ingredient is the garlic.  Now I for one am a sucker for any dishes that feature large amounts of the stuff.  Used appropriately, garlic can really make a meal.  However, garlic is not something that everyone treats with respect in the kitchen and I have to say that my feelings on this are perfectly expressed by Anthony Bourdain when he writes, “Garlic is divine. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago,  garlic that has been smashed through one of those  abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting.” 

I stopped buying garlic from supermarkets a long time ago.  generally overpriced and anorexic, the specimens available for consumers is pretty embarrassing.  One trip to your local green grocer will confirm the disparity between the quality in supermarkets and what local veggie shops stock.  In fairness, the food miles clocked up for this quality produce is huge because I buy Chinese garlic.  Despite this, the sheer size and wonderful taste mean there’s no contest.  It’s the same with lemons, which again, are some of the poorest quality fruit on offer at supermarkets.  The insatiable urge to wipe out local independent stores by providing the widest range of produce possible, is not matched by well-sourced, high quality food.  This means that at some point in the near future, consumers will be left with no choice, but to buy all their  fresh fruit and vegetables from supermarkets because their choices locally have been reduced so much.  While some will be happy to part with their cash for bottom of the barrel produce, many will be disappointed unless they demand quality now.  I’m voting with my feet and supporting local suppliers.  It’s the only way to guarantee decent food!

Spaghetti with rocket, garlic, chilli and squid

150g dried spaghetti

4 squid

200g raw peeled king prawns

rocket leaves

1 red chilli

1 lemon

3 cloves garlic (finely chopped)

2 tblspoons fresh parsley (finely chopped)

olive oil

sea salt

pepper

Cook the spaghetti according to the instructions.  Meanwhile, prepare the seafood.  Cut the squid into thin rings and make sure that the beak has been removed by your fish monger.  Butterfly the king prawns by carefully running a sharp knife along the back of each one.  Grind plenty of pepper over the prawns and squid and set aside.

Next, heat some oil in a frying pan and add the chilli and garlic for a minute.  Throw in the seafood and toss to coat it all in the garlic.  Add the zest of the lemon and the juice of half of it.  The seafood needs to be cooked on a high heat for a short time to prevent it from becoming chewy.  Once cooked, add the parsley and make sure that everything is coated evenly.  You may need to add a little more oil at this point.  You don’t want it to be too dry.  Add the cooked spaghetti and fresh rocket leaves and season with sea salt and more pepper if you like it.  Make sure that the pasta and seafood are mixed well and add more lemon and oil to taste.  Serve immediately.  White wine’s a winner with this!

The simplicity of this dish is obvious. The flavours? Full on.

Rainbow bright.

The marinated pork is roasting as we speak.  Just got enough time to throw in a simple rainbow trout recipe from last week.  My skills with fish are limited, but I make an effort to buy fresh fish once a week to keep everyone in good health and prevent myself defaulting to pizza.  Last week I spotted some really fresh rainbow trout that stood out from the display of ocean delights.  The eyes were really bright and clear which is a good indication of freshness.  Don’t bother checking the gills as everyone tells you.  They can be cleaned and don’t really guarantee a fresh catch.  There’s no disguising a milky, lack-lustre eye.  I decided to buy a whole trout and use fresh herbs from the garden to flavour it.  We enjoyed it with salad and baby new potatoes.

Fresh as it comes.

Steamed rainbow trout with lemon & fresh herbs.

1 whole rainbow trout (cleaned with head removed)

2 lavender stems with buds

1 handful fresh scented thyme

1 handful fresh Greek oregano leaves

1 handful fresh parsley

3 garlic cloves (halved)

1 lemon (sliced)

butter

olive oil

sea salt

pepper

After cleaning the trout and making sure that the cavity was clear, I simply arranged slices of lemon and garlic inside.  I washed and drained all of the herbs because they were straight from the garden and I didn’t fancy enjoying the nuances of our mini ecosystem on my tongue.  With that done, I kept all of the herbs in tact and stuffed them firmly into the trout.  I was tempted to tie the fish to prevent the herbs falling out, but this was supposed to be a quick meal with no fuss so I put a knob of butter on top, seasoned the fish and drizzled some olive oil over it and wrapped it in foil.  I find it easier to lay the fish on the foil at the very start so that I can just bring up the edges to form a parcel without having to move the fish.

Into the oven (middle shelf) at 180 degrees for 25-30 minutes.  By sealing the fish within foil, the water and lemon juice evaporates, but can’t escape.  This effectively steams the fish giving it a very soft texture and mellow flavour.  The skin comes away easily once cooked and all that needs to be done is to remove the herbs and pour the juice over the fish before serving.  Almost any herbs will work and I’ve had good results with salmon fillets too.  Definitely one for summer.  I think a few of these in separate foil parcels could easily be served up with bowls of salad and potatoes for folk to dig into.  One trout can serve two which again, means less effort.