Karaage cauliflower (with plenty of garlic)

This is a new favourite. It doesn’t take too long, and it’s crispy, kinda rich, and implausibly moreish for what was once thought of as a deeply dull vegetable.

Cauliflower karaageFor years, the British have cooked cauliflower like it was the one vegetable they’d singled out as an example to the others. All flavour and structure boiled away, it was presented like a warning, lest anything else should get ideas above its station – say, providing vitamins, or tasting of something beyond anemically coloured water.

Lately, we’ve at least realised it doesn’t have to be that way. You can have fun with cauliflower, and one of the fun things you can do is to fry it crispy with just so much garlic.

Karaage is familiar to many as “Japanese fried chicken”, but it absolutely doesn’t have to be poultry, or even meat. I think the crux of it is a simple marinade before frying, and a light flour coating rather than dunking in batter. It’s a great appetiser or bar snack, and the idea to do it with cauliflower is shamelessly pinched from one of Cambridge’s street food vendors, the excellent Guerilla Kitchen.

Eat it there if you catch it on their rotation, but if not, well, you have to try this one.

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Tofu ginger banh mi

Of Cambridge’s many and interesting food vans, perhaps my favourite is Jalan Jalan. They do a few bits of Vietnamese street food, but for my money the star is the tofu and ginger banh mi.

It is just the best sandwich, and I had to make it at home.

Tofu banh mi

Banh mi – the gentrified current evolution of colonial food mingling – probably began life as light baguettes filled with fresh vegetables, over pâté and cold cuts. Being just super street food friendly, it’s got a bit more elaborate by now. There’s even a cookbook.

This means I don’t feel too bad about mine likely not being very authentic. It’s crunchy/sweet/fresh with crispy fried tofu and some zingy ginger. What more could you want in a sandwich.

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Kung pao chicken of the woods

This is about two things I’d not really tried before – a book and a fungus.

The fungus is chicken of the woods (or Laetiporus, or “sulphur shelf”). It’s a beautiful furled beast of a mushroom. It clings to the sides of trees, and delights a colleague of mine, Mark, who enjoys a spot of foraging. Very kindly, he brought me a stout lobe of the stuff, all earthy smell and vibrant colour. Thanks Mark!

“Butter, onion, garlic, white wine – don’t muck about!” he said. I never listen…

The book is Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice – one of the tour de force cookbooks of 2012. The kind that everyone buys, raves about, but then actually cooks stuff from. Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem was probably the biggest one of those for me, but for some reason I never got around to picking up Dunlop’s blockbuster. Since my partner moved in, I’ve been meaning to cook more stuff from his copy, so this seemed like a good time.

IMG_6003

 

In Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop gives two recipes for Gong Bao, the Chengdu precursor of that British takeout staple kung pao chicken. There’s a chicken and a mushroom version, and chickeny mushroom is what I had to hand. What follows is basically a simplified crash together of the two.

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Devilled mushrooms

Basing a sauce on English mustard always makes me think of Stoppard’s Arcadia. Frankly, I’d recommend seeing it regardless of what you do or do not propose to do with the ground seeds of sinapis alba,  but in particular I remember Thomasina’s exhortation:

“When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again.”

Devilled mushroomsThis is an extraordinarily round-about way of saying that you can proper fuck up balance with mustard, and you won’t be able to stir it back out again. Too little and it’s mild heat and boredom. Too much, and it’s an acrid horrorshow, like a mouthful of hops and wasabi.

For all that, I love devilled kidneys. My dad used to make them as a breakfast treat, quick and dirty the way he picked up in the army. He’d thicken with breadcrumbs and dump in a bucket of ketchup. The sauce was pulpy and fiery, perfect for the savoury of the offal.

Veguary precludes that a bit, but here’s a fine brunch of spicy mushrooms.

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Mushroom peposo

So, I’m doing “Veguary” again. It’s what it sounds like: a horrifying portmanteau, and 28 days off the meat. It’s great fun, more about shaking up my cooking habits than any kind of health-nut hand-wringing. I am, as a friend put it, “in it for the pies not the piety”.

Mushroom peposoAccordingly, I like to use Veguary to do two things: explore exciting vegetable flavours, and work up veggie hacks of meat dishes to see what I can get away with. This is the latter.

Peposo is a Tuscan beef stew I first had cooked from Jamie’s Italy years ago by a friend. It’s stuck with me – feisty and warming, and so satisfying. It takes balck pepper, and punches it up to curry levels of spicy impact.

But at its core, it’s a simple stew. You can do it with just wine, beef, pepper, and about four hours. There’s a pretty good recipe here. For the mushroom version, I’ve had to cheat a bit and nudge some flavors around for body.

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Mexican style smoky corn soup

Winter isn’t the most fun, and the foods that get you through it tend to attract words like “hearty”. Big one-pot stews, heaps of potatoes. It’s pretty great. But sometimes you want something with all the warming body, but a bit less of the stodgy heft. Vegetable soups, you’re up.

IMG_5754One of my favourites is the Mexican bean soup from the River Cottage veg book. You can squint at that and just about see the heritage for this I suppose. But it’s been on a little trip via Authentic Mexican, my enthusiasm for sweet corn, and the fact that I really really hate photographing soup.

Seriously, it’s just no fun. Which is probably why this goes in quite so hard on the corn, roasted corn, and peppers. Quite apart from tasting nice, that gives us something to look at, and a nice mix of colours. So yes, it’s both a little sweet and a little focused on corn. It’s like a nursery-tastes remix of a classic pozole soup, I suppose, and it won’t be for everyone. I  do like the hot sweet and sour of it, and the bit of bite.

 

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Fava with butternut squash

Fava is a greek dip or appetiser, somewhere between dal and hummus, and two weeks ago I had some at The Olive Grove. I’d forgotten how tasty it was: thick and soft and simple and savoury. So of course I wanted to make some. It’s dead easy, after all – just yellow split peas (not broad beans, ignore the name) boiled with some onion and herbs for flavour. A bit of oil to serve.

Then last week my friend Niall made a rather excellent lentil and squash dip for a party. It was quite rich, a bit sweet, and heavily loaded with smoked paprika.

Butternut fava

What a good idea.

Now, I haven’t just nicked it, despite having morals only fractionally more robust than a carrion crow. But if you can cook and you’ve read the intro, you may not actually need a recipe.

Meh. Here’s a fava recipe anyway.

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Gazpacho soup

This weekend was glorious – a welcome little heatwave after a dingy May and June. So much so that on the train back from Brighton, all I could think about was making a batch of cooling, fresh gazpacho.

Gazpacho soup

It’s perfect. It’s like having an enormous Bloody Mary for dinner, but without the nagging risk that your friends will stage an intervention.

Tomatoes, cucumber, a little pepper, plenty of garlic, and some old bread are the core of it. Of course, being peasant food, everything – including the tomatoes – is subject to debate.

As is often the case, Felicity Cloake has done the hard work of untangling all of this so I don’t have to. I more or less just made her recipe.

I won’t give mine in full here – you can check it out online or pick up her book. But I will point up a few little tweaks. My tomatoes, for instance, weren’t quite ripe enough. They were a touch over acid, so I switched out the sherry vinegar for a heavy slug of actual fino sherry. I fucking love sherry.

At this point, of course, I practically was making a bloody mary, so I also added a stick of celery. The freshness of it works, and a single stick doesn’t overpower. The bread was rye, because that’s what I had. But I don’t think it really mattered much. If anything, it darkened the colour, and maybe sweetened a touch. Naturally, I stepped up the garlic.

The garnish is a little chorizo, fried with garlic and slivers of chilli. This is probably overkill, and can entirely be skipped.

Pressing everything through the sieve is a bit of a pain in the cock, but it’s worth it. The gazpacho is perfect for summer evenings with a little bread and wine. Or just the rest of the sherry.

Lentil and green bean salad with garlic and capers

There’s a great salad near the beginning of Jerusalem that uses green and yellow beans with capers, red peppers, and loads of garlic. This is basically that with a stripped-down dressing and loads of lentils.

Why? Because I wanted something more substantial to go with the lamb and lemon stew, and because lentils are bloody marvellous. Especially puy lentils – the earthy taste and mottled colour is just the best.

Lentil salad with peppers, beans and capers

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Baingan bartha – smoky mashed aubergines

Baingan bartha (bharta?) is a dish I first had from Inder’s Kitchen. At least, I think it’s called baingan bartha, and Google vaguely corroborates that. Anyway, Inder’s is probably the best Indian food in Cambridge – their menu riffs on home cooking and regional authenticity. It’s not the parade of stumbling-out-of-the-pub curry house generics it’s so easy to associate with Indian food, and when they do put on a cliché/classic it tends to reflect a real respect for quality ingredients.

They’re also lovely people. And they’re lovely people who make a mean smoked aubergine mash.

Smoky aubergine mash
Baingan bartha – my attempt

I’ve been trying to replicate it for some time, with a variety of techniques, and just not nailed it. The simple explanation is that you really need a tandoor. I don’t have one, but I have managed to come up with a passable impersonation of Baingan bartha.

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