Mediterranean Stuffed Peppers – naturally vegan, naturally delicious

mediterranean stuffed peppers - veganThe stuffed vegetable needs no introduction, especially to anyone from around the Mediterranean or in the Middle East. The farcis, dolmades, yemista, mahashi/mehshi – all can be exquisite examples of a country’s cuisine. Heat-softened, spoonsful of tender herb-flecked grains pressed into the hollowed out spaces – humble, easily grown vegetables elevated to the centre of the plate.

Laid out on a long, well-scrubbed wooden table, underneath the only shade for miles around, who could wish for more than plates of stuffed vegetables, a chewy round of bread and a few friends with whom to share it all.

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Pan-fried Creole Cauliflower Fritters

cauliflower fritters I don’t often post anything that is fried, for the simple reason that I rarely fry anything. Sauteeing onions is usually as far as it goes at food to glow.

For the most part my digestion does not cope well with fried food. “Does not cope well” is a euphemism by the way. There are exceptions though.

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Beetroot and Cashew ‘Hummus’

beetroot & cashew hummusI probably really shouldn’t call this a hummus, but dip just sounded so tentative, so boring. And this faux hummus is anything but boring. How can anything this colour be boring? I ask you. It would be boring if I blathered on about how ridiculously healthy it is (although it is). Or how well it goes with any dipper, from lowly tortilla chips to freshly cut market veggies (it does). But it is not at all boring to hide in the kitchen and surreptitiously eat a saved back bit with a teaspoon, while simultaneously plating up a meal for 6 people (I have). Never-mind the telltale purple moustache. Hides the real one. Continue reading

Roasted Asparagus with Carrot-Miso Dressing

roasted asparagus with carrot-miso dressingPeeking shyly from sandy soil, these soldiers of Spring are a true April-May delicacy. Whether pale, undercover and interesting, exotic purple or (appropriately) spring-green, asparagus attracts us like no other vegetable. A few of you may  demure from its herbal charms, but for the rest of us the arrival of this short-lived crop is nothing short of sigh-inducing. It is one of the few vegetables that really is at its best nearly naked, save for a butter sauce, or something like this carrot-miso concoction. To be honest, I like it best  plainly roasted, then finished off with lemon and salt as it comes out of the oven. If I can be bothered it instead  gets tossed onto a griddle pan to get those pretty, restauranty charred bits, but the oven is fine.  I could eat it this way for days on end, only turning to ‘fancier stuff’ like this sauce when the sudden novelty wears off, or when just a heap of oddly-addictive vegetation – no matter how wonderful – won’t suffice. Continue reading

Spinach and Walnut Dip with Pomegranate (Spinach Pkhali)

spinach pkhaliLike you, I think I am pretty well up on world cuisines. This is despite being more of an armchair traveller these days – at least to on the pulse, exotic or slightly dangerous places.  My favourite holiday destination is Cornwall. Not quite cutting edge. Or dangerous. Unless you count being bitten by a crab while dangling a pole over the harbour wall at Padstow. Ouch!

I am lucky that, over the years, my adopted city of Edinburgh has transformed from a culinary backwater of scampi in a basket (if you were lucky), overdone salmon (again, if you were lucky), and truly awful Chinese takeaways, to a capital city hosting not only a clutch of Michelin-starred restaurants, but also many affordable eateries, showcasing stunning Scottish produce (write to me if you want some names). Continue reading

Tamarind Prawn Summer Rolls with Almond and Nam Chuoc Dipping Sauces

Today’s recipe (s) is one that I am really excited about sharing with you. I have had so much fun playing with/inhaling various versions over the past week. I really hope you want to try it. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though: poor Mr A has been pining for hot food (I think I heard him say ‘steak’ in his sleep), but he still cheerfully chomped his way through platters of rolls and sauces. What a trooper. Miss R is away in Geneva so has missed out on most of the concoctions. But because I’m a nice mum, I will make as many summer rolls as she can tackle -
if she brings back the black truffle brie that I asked for. Continue reading

Asparagus, Shiitake and Roquefort Pastries

I toyed with what to call these savoury pastries. I was going to call them by their Turkish name, bōrek, but was worried about confusion with the cringe-making, self-christened Kazakhstani, Borat. Can’t have that image popping up in your head when you are making these, now can I? Sorry, shouldn’t have mentioned it. And, then there’s the little matter of these being not in the slightest bit Middle Eastern. So I toyed harder.

Cigars? That would cause search engine confusion for some folks, I suppose. Although they do look like big fat stogies. Oozing, delicious ones. I can imagine Homer Simpson wanting to smoke one.

Parcels? I picture a bubble wrapped, leaden looking something or other delivered by chaps in a brown uniform. Maybe that’s just me. Lots of lovely foods have the word parcel in the title though, most of which involve filo pastry. That’s it, pastry. Job done. You may think of sugar-dusted puffy bits when you see the word pastry, but seeing as this is my blog I hope you’ll let me call them pastries. Naughty, but seasonal pastries. Continue reading

Lebanese-style Broad Bean Hummus

I will let you in on something: I am typing this while eating pink peppercorn dark chocolate. Yes, little miss eat-your-greens is merrily chowing down on some delectable chocolate noir au poivre rose, to give it its proper name. I discovered it in the impulse buy section by the tills at good old TK Maxx. Normally I am immune to the lure of the well-thumbed packets of oddly flavoured liquorice and jelly beans that are the usual checkout fodder at said retail emporium, but my trash-o-meter must have been out of whack. It does have pretty pink packaging, so I can just about blame the buy on grounds of physical attraction rather than greed. But we know better. If you are interested, it is from quality Belgian brand Dolfin, who have a beautiful website that helpfully offers convincing health information to lessen the guilt. For more about benefits of chocolate and why not to feel guilty about it, see my earlier post. I subsequently saw ‘my’ chocolate in the posh chocolate section of Tesco  (no, I didn’t know they had a posh section either, let alone a chocolate one) but have resisted buying a job lot. Just to leave some for you. I’m not normally that nice. It’s well-balanced, not too bitter and comes in a petite 70g size – enough for two to share, or not…

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Sushi Made Simple

sushi on plate

Miss R LOVES sushi. She had her first encounter with raw fish and sticky rice at the tender age of three, gleefully pressing the pink and white parcel into her little mouth with the relish other three year olds might have for a chocolate bar or burger. Unfortunately, when she was young, Scotland might as well have been Mars when it came to finding Japanese food, so we were rarely able to indulge her. Even fish shops very rarely stocked the quality of fish with which to make your own sushi and sashimi. But gradually over the years the restaurant and fishmonger situation has improved and we can now make sushi as often as we like – or as often as the purse allows. For one of Miss R’s birthdays we even had a sushi making party, which was great fun even if I was picking rice out of the carpet for days afterward. Five years later I still vividly remember one bold boy sucking down the contents of the wasabi tube and trying desperately hard not to cry.

I can’t pretend to be an expert on sushi. As I am self-taught in this art, my efforts would probably appall a 10-year apprenticed sushi chef. But I can’t afford to frequent sushi bars very often, so Miss R and I make do by rolling it ourselves with the freshest ingredients. Even though Mr A is the only one in our house to have visited Japan we all love sushi, sashimi, miso and all the other delicacies of this most refined of cuisines. I love the ‘clean’ flavours, precision and attention to the tastes – sweet, salty, bitter, sour, spicy (many will debate this one) and umami.

This last taste – denoting meaty, savoury, yeasty flavours – is a Japanese word that roughly translates as ‘savouriness’ or ‘deliciousness’. This word and concept covers the often indefinable tastes we sense in some foods, and has filtered into British culinary thinking by chef Heston Blumenthal and in the US by David and Anna Kasabian - see the Umami Information Center for more about this subject. You can even buy umami paste to add to dishes. I used to think I liked salty things but I now realise that umami, which often pairs up with salt in savoury foods, such as Marmite, is really what I like. It’s only taken 40 something years to figure that out. It explains why I love parmesan cheese, tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, fish sauce and black olives – all high in free glutamate acid – an amino acid that is the hallmark of umami.

With sushi, you can play with taste elements to great effect emphasising, say, salty and umami (smoked eel + sushi seaweed/nori) or sweet and spicy (mayonnaise and peppered mackerel). I like to add in hot, sour and bitter garnishes such mustard-hot wasabi, pickled sushi ginger, spicy togarashi (here’s my recipe) powder and salty-sour umeboshi paste to satisfy my craving for taste contrast. But even a slug of Kikkoman makes a brilliant partner for sushi.

I have always thought that the two keys to good sushi are super fresh fish and   properly cooked sushi rice. Well, I have amended this slightly to also include properly cooked quinoa. Yep, quinoa. My friend Niki gave me the idea after she wanted to make the first recipe that I posted, smoked mackerel and quinoa fishcakes, but didn’t have all the ingredients, so made a sort of sushi thing instead. I don’t know what she ended up putting in this invention but I’m positive it was delicious. This was a stunning revelation as, although sushi is super healthy, it isn’t all that low in carbohydrates. We need carbohydrates and I don’t have any truck with the lingering fad for high protein-low carb diets that may end up wrecking your kidneys, but I do believe that we should include more unprocessed, ‘brown’ carbohydrates.  You can of course use brown sushi rice to lower the GI rating, but I can never get it to work as well as the white stuff. So the near-sacrilegious substitution of rice for quinoa struck me as rather genius. And it worked, beautifully.

Sushi doesn’t have to involve raw fish. By all means use just the smoked mackerel, or maybe try some smoked salmon, quality tinned or jarred tuna, chicken, cooked prawns,  crabsticks (which are a complete misnomer but perfect here) or keep it veggie. This is made for ‘free-styling’ so put in what you like and what you can neatly roll up. Kids are sometimes a bit funny about the look of the seaweed, so get round that issue by rolling it up as inside-out rolls, with the seaweed safely curlicued up inside the rice. It takes a little more skill, but only just a little. I will guide you through the steps but there are plenty of on-line videos to help too. Here’s one on California rolls.

Once you have the hang of rolling sushi, increase the chances of your children trying this healthy nibble by getting them to have a go as well. Have plenty of counter space, a bowl of water for keeping hands clean and damp and be prepared for plenty of giggles. Apparently this is National Parenting Week here in the UK. Prime Minister David Cameron, a father of three young children, was asked on Radio 2′s ‘Jeremy Vine Show’ for his top parenting tips. First on his list was for parents and children to cook together, making a lot of mess and having fun in the process. I think sushi making fits this bill perfectly. Give it a go, but don’t blame me if you are picking up rice for the forseeable future…

Sushi Made Simple

285g/10 oz sushi rice

360ml/12.5 oz water

3 tbsp rice vinegar

1 tbsp caster sugar

3/4 tsp salt

4 sheets toasted nori (sushi seaweed)

100g/4 oz super fresh salmon, cut into long strips (you may not need all)

100g/4 oz smoked mackerel, torn

Good quality mayonnaise, mixed with a little wasabi paste if you like (we like) – optional

Black sesame seeds, optional

Vegetable fillings: thin strips of cucumber, avocado, carrot, beetroot, spring onion/scallions – but use any vegetables that you like such as shiitake mushrooms, peppers or mooli.

You Also Need: a bamboo sushi rolling mat, Japanese condiments such as togarashi, umeboshi, pickled ginger, soy sauce/shoyu sauce and wasabi – get all of these in Oriental supermarkets, some mainstream supermarkets or online; bowl of clean water, sharp knife, cutting board, cling film, foil or large baking tray.

The rice is the only bit that you kind of need to get right as the rest is just to your taste. Wash the rice in cold water until the water runs clear: I do this in a sieve. Pop it into a lidded saucepan and add in the 360 ml water. Leave it to soak for 15 minutes then bring to the boil. Cover and lower the heat to simmer for 10-12 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Remove from the heat and leave, covered, for 10 minutes. You can do all of this ahead of time and bring up to room temperature before making your sushi, but I find it is best if you use freshly made rice. While the rice is cooking and waiting you can get on with sorting your fillings and work space. Mix together the vinegar, sugar and salt until dissolved. When the rice has rested spread it out onto a long sheet of foil or onto a large baking sheet, sprinkle generously all over with the the vinegar mix. Fork the rice  around to mix the vinegar solution. Experts say to fan the rice as it makes it glossier.                                                  

Now you are ready to roll! Place your rolling mat on  your work space, lay one piece of nori  on the edge closest to you. If you are having a shot at the inside-out rolls then trim off the top quarter with a pair of scissors. Spread some rice onto 3/4 of the nori, leaving the top quarter bare, or up to the edge for inside-out rolls. Dip your hands in water and clap to remove excess. Doing this regularly while smoothing on your rice will keep it from sticking to your hands too much.

For regular maki sushi lay your fillings in a line, one-quarter from the bottom edge (see photo), starting with the mayo or umeboshi, if you like. Don’t be tempted to pile on too much or it will be trickier to roll up. I usually use about four fillings at a time. Once all of your toppings are on start rolling from the bottom edge, using your fingertips to guide and contain the filling as you roll away from you. Take your time, gently squeezing as you roll, using the mat to push the seaweed roll forward. You will hopefully end up with a neat, tight sushi roll. Trim away any filling peeking from the ends and set aside while you set up another roll. When they are all completed cut each roll into 6-8 pieces and place cut side up on a platter along with your condiments. 

For inside-out rolls place your nori on the worktop next to the rolling mat and press on your rice, as instructed above but taking the rice all the way to the trimmed top edge. Now, if you are brave, carefully grab the two bottom corners and flip the rice-laden nori over onto the mat, aiming for the bottom edge to line up. If you are less brave, press a piece of clingfilm over the sushi, lining up the bottoms and then flip. Doing it this way is trickier for rolling up as you need to ensure that you pull away the clingfilm as you roll, but some may find this easier to begin with. Now carry on with the filling but laying it directly onto the nori. Roll up tightly, roll in sesame seeds if you like, and cut to your desire thickness. Now, attack with chopsticks!

Quinoa option: Rinse 200 grams of quinoa in running water and bring to the boil in 400ml of water. Turn the heat to simmer, pop on the lid and cook until the water is absorbed. Cool and season as above.

quinoa sushi (foreground) + rice sushi

Makes a great, healthy snack for school too!