Monday, 18 May 2015

Veggie Paella with Asparagus

Asparagus is the tease of the veg world - it needs heaps of growing space, takes three years from planting before you can harvest a few measly tips, and when it finally arrives the season is only 6 weeks long. I made the mistake, once, of trying out-of-season asparagus from Peru, and it did not taste good for its long journey. If you've only ever eaten out-of-season asparagus and decided you didn't like it then, I beg you, try UK asparagus now, while it's in season. It's sweet and tender and so, so much better than its poor, bitter, traveller cousin.

When asparagus season is on I use it as much as I can before it's all over for another year. One of my favourites is a vegetable and goat's cheese frittata, asparagus laid out on top like a wagon wheel, browned under the grill to finish the cooking and crisp the tips. It's also great steamed and tossed into a warm pasta salad with blackened peppers, sautéed mushrooms, olives and pan-fried halloumi. But, of course, the best way to eat it is the simplest: steamed or griddled asparagus with home-made oven chips, hollandaise sauce and poached eggs for dipping. Yum.

This paella is based on a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi, which you'll find in his wonderful book, Plenty, but it's gradually changed over the years until it's become a different beast. Last night it changed again as I discovered that I didn't have any white wine (which I always use in place of Ottolenghi's sherry) and decided to use Badger Beer's Poacher's Choice instead, because we've had a bottle sitting around for weeks, left over from a selection pack. It worked perfectly, but you could substitute it with any other berry-flavoured ale, or a sweet cider.

The first good cherry tomatoes are starting to appear in shops, and the plum-types work best for this because they tend to have slightly firmer, sweeter flesh than the round varieties (though if you can get your hands on Tesco's round Sugardrops, they're possibly the best supermarket cherry toms around). Whatever variety you go for, if they're not bright red and don't smell earthy and deeply tomatoey, then it might be worth leaving them out, because those sour, orangey, unripe chaps are no good here (or anywhere).

To prepare asparagus, hold it about halfway down the stem with one hand and, with the other, gently bend it from the bottom end until it snaps. Discard the bottom - this bit is usually woody and unpleasant.

                                                                   (c) Becca Thorne 2015

Vegetable 'Paella' with Asparagus

Serves 2 (or 4 with a big salad)

4 good-sized banana shallots, halved and finely sliced
1 aubergine, quartered and cut into roughly 0.5cm slices
approx 10 chestnut mushrooms, roughly sliced
1 red pepper, cored and cut into strips
1 large clove garlic, crushed and finely chopped
10 plum-type cherry tomatoes
10-12 pitted olives, halved
8 asparagus tips
1 cup paella rice (I often use arborio if it's all I've got)
1/3 bottle Badger Poacher's choice (or other fruity ruby beer)
1 pint hot veg stock, made with 2 tsp Bouillon powder, or 1 veg stock cube
2 generous tsp smoked paprika
sprinkling of cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1/3 tsp turmeric
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat approx 1tbsp olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed frying pan (or a paella pan, if you've got one - you lucky devil), over a low-medium heat. Add shallots and cook until softened and starting to brown.
2.Turn the heat up to medium and add the aubergines, with a pinch of salt, and cook for a few more minutes until just stating to soften and soak up oil, then add the mushrooms, pepper and garlic. Add more oil if the pan is starting to look too dry, and allow the veg to cook down, stirring every so often to prevent burning.
3. Once the veg is mostly cooked, tip in the rice and stir to combine and coat it in oil. Add the Poacher's Choice and allow to bubble and reduce away.
4. When the liquid is almost all gone, stir in the spices and pour in all the stock. Turn the heat down a little to prevent the stock boiling off too quickly, and check every couple of minutes to ensure the bottom's not burning.
5. After about 5 minutes the liquid should be thickened and the rice nearly cooked (to test the rice, bite one of the grains. It's at the right point when the rice is fat and swollen, soft on the outside but the inside is still just firm enough to get stuck in your teeth). Space the asparagus out evenly across the top of the paella. Sprinkle over the tomatoes and olives, turn the heat down and cover with a lid, a large plate or some foil. Leave for another 2-5 minutes or until the liquid is almost completely gone, the rice is soft and you can easily slide the point of a sharp knife into the asparagus stems.
6. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately, with lemon wedges if you wish, making sure everyone gets a fair share of asparagus.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Creamy Vegan Korma

All that sunshine last week tricked me into turning off the heating and had me seriously considering putting my slippers away for summer. These last couple of days though, I'm exceedingly glad I kept them out - my little tootsies are freezing! I'm rather worried about my poor tomato plants out there in the cold and rain too, but hopefully they've toughened up enough to cope (be strong, little guys!).

I've recently developed a very inconvenient intolerance to lactose that has to be ignored whenever there's halloumi around, but I'm being much more sensible with the rest of my diet and this korma is a prime example. Korma's traditionally made with yoghurt or cream, but this vegan version uses coconut milk instead. Not only is it far easier to make (no worrying about curdling) and healthier, but personally I think it creates a richer, deeper flavour too - hoorah!

                                                                                                                                                                   (c) Becca Thorne 2015

Many of these spices can be found in the 'world foods' sections of larger supermarkets, and you'll find the more common spices there too, at a cheaper price and larger quantity than in the regular herbs & spices aisles, but I've added substitutions for those things you might not be able to get hold of. Cassia, or Chinese cinnamon, is a larger, rougher, more obviously bark-like type of cinnamon than is commonly used in the UK. It smells like my late-grandad's old pipe cabinet - woody, a bit like an old spirit barrel and ever-so slightly tobacco-y. It's got a deeper, less sweet and less obvious flavour than true cinnamon, and if you've ever unwittingly bitten into a piece of bark in a South Indian meal, it was probably cassia. If you can't find it you can substitute regular cinnamon, but be aware that it's got a much stronger, sweeter flavour than cassia, so use less. You could replace the ground almonds with flaked, or with cashew nuts if you prefer, or omit them entirely, but I think they add a little extra depth and richness to the sauce.

Creamy Vegan Korma

serves 2-4

for tempering:
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds (use yellow if you can't find black)
3" stick cassia bark, broken (or a 1-2" stick regular cinnamon)
5 green cardamom pods

for the korma:
1 large onion, peeled, halved and finely sliced
1 cauliflower, chopped into florets
1 aubergine, diced into 1-2cm cubes
2 cloves garlic, crushed, peeled and finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp Bouillon powder (or half a veggie stock cube, crumbled)
1 tin coconut milk
2-3 tsp ground almonds
good handful fresh coriander, finely chopped
boiling water

In a large, heavy bottomed pan, heat approx 1 tbs oil (eg. olive, groundnut, coconut) over a med-high heat. Add the tempering ingredients and shake gently to distribute. Temper until the seeds start popping, then add the onion and cook until beginning to soften. Add the aubergine and cook for a few more minutes, stirring frequently, until it's obviously absorbing oil and changing colour. Add the cauliflower, garlic, ginger, chilli, turmeric and garam masala and continue cooking, stirring every so often, for a few more minutes until everything is well coated in the spices. Add a little more oil if necessary, to help create a very slight paste. Next add the Bouillon/stock and enough boiling water to reach about half way up the veg; don't completely cover it with water. Allow to bubble away vigorously for approx 5 mins, or until the cauliflower is becoming soft and the water is mostly gone, then add the coconut milk and ground almonds, turn down the heat a little, and cook until the sauce is thickened, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Remove the bark and as many of the cardamom pods as you can find. Season with salt to taste, stir in the chopped coriander and serve with brown basmati, pilau or some flatbreads to soak up all the lovely sauce.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Thai-Style Coconut Curry

I'd planned to post here a lot more frequently than I have been so far. Other projects, and a nasty case of illustrator's-block, have been getting the better of me. In the run-up to, and just after, Christmas, I was preparing new work for a joint-show with my brother at Dean Heritage Centre in the Forest of Dean. That work is now on sale at DUKKI in the Broadmarsh Centre here in Nottingham, along with my handprinted cotton totes and lots of mounted original prints. It's up there for one more week, so if you're in the area please do go and check it out. They also sell the work of local artist Ian Jones, and the shop is a treasure trove of Nottingham-themed fun. I've been trying to devote the rest of my time to getting my children's book going, but my brain seems to be shutting down on that right now, so I thought it might be time to do something a little different to get the old creative juices flowing. And that, of course, means food.

This Thai style curry is incredibly simple and very quick to make and can be quite convenient too, if you keep the staple ingredients on-hand. Ginger and chillies, for example, can be bought in bulk from the market (you can often find bowlsful for £1 each) and then frozen. Ginger should be broken or cut into thumb-size pieces before freezing, so you don't need to defrost it before use; the skin slices off easily and much more thinly than from fresh, and the naked root can then be grated finely. Chilli juice gets onto your fingers far less when the fruit is cut frozen, so there's much less risk of rubbing it into your eyes, and the seeds are easier to remove that way too, if that's your bag. Lemongrass is quite easy to come by these days, but for convenience you can buy it as a puree in jars, which can then be kept in the fridge. My top-tip for coconut milk? Buy it from the 'world foods' section of the supermarket (or from a specialist Asian-food shop), where you'll often see it far cheaper than on the 'standard' aisles. The same goes for spices, rice, lentils, tinned pulses, noodles and non-wheat flours like gram and rice.

                                                                                                                                                                   (c) Becca Thorne 2015

The veg I've used here are just what I had on hand the other night, but you can use pretty much anything depending on what's available or what you want to use up. Other veg that work: Celeriac, finely sliced; frozen peas (add these with the coconut milk towards the end); sugar snap or mange touts; french beans; carrots, julienned; courgette; pretty much any brassica..... I wouldn't recommend tomatoes or parsnips, but if you can stir-fry it you can chuck it in here. If you're not using a 'harder' veg, like sprouts/cauli/broccoli that might require a bit of extra cooking, you can skip the water.

Thai-Style Coconut Curry

Serves 2-3

For the puree
2 stalks lemongrass, outer leaves discarded, stalks roughly chopped (or 2 heaped teaspoons lemongrass puree)
1 red chilli, roughly chopped (pick the right spice level for you. I use medium hot and leave the seeds in)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
Stalks and half the leaves of 1 bunch coriander (standard supermarket pack)
Juice and zest of 1 lime
Tablespoon light soy sauce

For the curry
1 aubergine, cubed
approx 1/2 pack chestnut mushrooms, halved
8-10 sprouts, halved
Half a cauliflower, cut into small florets
1 red pepper, cored, quartered and finely sliced
4 spring onions, white and green parts, finely chopped
1 tin coconut milk

Place all puree ingredients in a bowl, along with a little of the coconut milk (liquid only, but reserve the cream) and blitz to a smooth paste. Set aside.

In a good-sized wok, heat approx 1 tablespoon oil (I used olive, you could use any other oil of not-too strong a flavour - groundnut, rapeseed, coconut) and add the cauliflower and sprouts. Fry on a high heat, tossing frequently, for a couple of minutes until they start to brown a little, then add water to about 1cm deep. Keep over a high heat and allow the water to vigorously boil off until the veg is almost soft. Pour off any left-over water, add a little extra oil if needed and throw in all the rest of the veg except the spring onions. Toss or stir frequently until everything is just cooked and then turn down the heat to med-low and stir in the puree. Allow to cook briefly, stirring frequently to prevent burning, and then pour in the remaining coconut milk, including any solid cream, and the spring onions. Allow to bubble gently for a few minutes while you finely chop the remaining coriander leaves, then stir that in too. Remove from the heat. It should still be quite wet and very fragrant. Taste the sauce and add a touch more soy sauce if you feel it's necessary, but maintain the freshness of the puree flavours.

Serve immediately over noodles.