The game isn’t played on paper.

Some things just don’t look right on paper.  Some partnerships shouldn’t work, but they do.  Unlikely pairings and new combinations keep cooking interesting.  In life, however, we can find surprises in the people we meet.

Take my wife.  Heehee!  Joking aside, we are so different.  So different that it’s scary sometimes.  My spontaneity balanced by her need to plan ahead.  My love of the summer heat.  Her joy in the cosiness of winter.  My love of dark chocolate and her taste for white chocolate.  It’s all there.  The differences stack up whenever I think about our personalities and tastes.  Of course, balance is everything and many a sentimental word has been written about the complimentary nature of opposites.

You’ll be glad to hear that I’m not too sentimental and that my train of thought is actually chugging towards nothing soppier than a salad dressing.

When I buy a butternut squash, I always plan two dishes.  One of the dishes I’d decided to make recently was a roasted butternut squash and rocket salad.  For someone who insists they aren’t into salad, I sure am making enough of them.  This is one that I tried before, but I made a dressing with far too much vinegar and I wasn’t happy with it.  This recipe is my attempt to right that earlier wrong.  You didn’t taste it, but believe me, I need to make things right and share the outcome with you.

Butternut squash adds beautiful colour to dishes and though some criticise it for being on the bland side, I think it lends itself well to dishes with bigger flavours.  This salad is so easy to make.  You may not have thought to pair squash with rocket, but in fact, my dressing for the salad is what I find most unusual.  It’s an odd combination of ingredients.  It just doesn’t look right on paper; on screen.  It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Roasted butternut squash & rocket salad 

Half of a butternut squash (cubed)

70g rocket (arugula)

1 sweet pointed pepper (sliced)

1 red onion (quartered)

1 tspoon dried chilli flakes

sea salt

black pepper

(For the dressing)

3 tblspoons olive oil

2 tblspoons cider vinegar

1 tblspoon light soy sauce

1 tblspoon balsamic cream (or balsamic vinegar)

To roast the squash.  Spread it out on a baking tray with the onion and drizzle olive oil over.  Sprinkle plenty of sea salt on and add the chilli flakes and toss to coat the cubes.  Roast in the centre of the oven on the highest heat until the squash is beginning to colour and soften.  This may be about fifteen minutes, but keep checking on it and tossing the squash to ensure even cooking.  The squash should maintain its shape.  We don’t want it to turn to mush.

Meanwhile, prepare the dressing.  Put all the ingredients in a small bowl stir continuously until emulsified.  Adjust to taste.  It shouldn’t be too sharp.  When the squash is out of the oven and has cooled slightly, add to the rocket with the sweet pepper and toss.  Dress the salad, add more seasoning to taste and toss gently before serving.  Try not to break the cubes of squash when you are mixing the salad leaves.  A nice touch would be to serve this with some toasted pine nuts thrown in.  It works!

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.