30 January 2012

Sweet Potato Parcels

Like the bhajis mentioned in this blog some time ago these little parcels make a deliciously sweet/savoury and surprisingly light snack. Slightly more substantial than a canape, they can be stuffed with a variety of fillings such as mushroom, feta cheese and spinach. In this case however, we strongly recommend using sweet potatoes that much underrated root. They are great value, easy to prepare but more importantly they are full of enzymes and extremely healthy. Originating in Central and South America sweet potatoes have been domestically cultivated for at least 5,000 years and have spread throughout the world. They are an amazing source of Vitamin A, C, B6 and iron and calcium and their cultivation is heavily promoted in Africa and other developing areas where a nutritional diet is crucial. All this sounds rather worthy but don't let this put you off. Although not widely grown in Europe they are becoming more and more popular in our cuisine and work particularly well in this dish. Their sweetness being deliciously counterpointed by the salt and chilli.

Ingredients (40 parcels)
2 or 3 sweet potatoes
1 red onion finely chopped
2 cms of chopped ginger
Tsp chilli flakes
Celery salt
Crushed pepper
Handfull of chopped cashew nuts.
1 Packet Filo pastry
200 g melted butter
Cinnamon powder

Soften the un-peeled sweet potatoes. (An easy way to do this is to pierce the potatoes skins and put them in a supermarket shopping bag in the microwave for about 5 minutes or until soft). In the meantime fry the onion in a little olive oil with the chilli flakes. When the potatoes are soft enough scrape out the potato flesh and discard the skins and allow to cool before adding to the onions. Prepare the pastry by dividing the filo sheets into 4 equal strips lengthwise. Brush each strip with butter. Place a table spoon of the mixture at one end and then fold up in a triangle from side to side using all the pastry strip so the filling is completely sealed in. Brush the parcels with butter and place on a baking tray in the oven at 200 C for about 20 minutes or until they have turned golden. Sprinkle with cinnamon powder and serve hot or cold.

26 January 2012

Spanish Tortilla....Ole!!

Spanish Tortilla is a wonderful standby. It's ingredients are inexpensive, tasty, easily available and apart from a base of eggs and potatoes almost infinitely variable. But come to think of it even the potatoes are negotiable. A large tortilla can be kept in the fridge for several days to be sliced up in small or large portions as and when the need arises. Last year when we made a king size one on a skiing trip in Baquera in the Pyrenees it proved incredibly popular at 4 pm when every one came home more than a little peckish and fancied a little apres ski nibble while they waited for their turn in the shower. It should be pointed out that it also seemed to disappear at breakfast and for that matter at lunch time as well. In fact so popular was it that a second had to be russled up but this time we substituted spaghetti for the potatoes.

Made in Baquera

I suppose you could describe Spanish tortilla (not to be confused with Mexican tortilla - a type of flat bread) as a thick omelette which is cooked in a skillet but not turned over. The ingredients which usually include potatoes (waxy varieties are best) are arranged and then covered with whisked eggs. Spaghetti also makes a lovely tortilla, just cook the pasta, drain, allow to cool and press into the pan with any other ingredients and continue as normal. Tortillas can be plain but extra flavour and interest can be added by ingredients such as onion, garlic, pancetta, chorizo, chilli or tabasco, cheeses, vegetables such as peppers, asparagus or peas or even fish such as flaked mackerel or prawns. Below are the basic ingredients but feel free to choose your own or use up whatever is in the fridge.

Use a non-stick pan. Slice the onion and fry in the oil with garlic, chilli flakes, chorizo and or bacon until translucent. Add the potatoes and allow them to soak up some of the flavoured oil. Season the dry ingredients. Meanwhile whisk the eggs with milk and butter, season and pour over. Make sure the egg penetrates through all the ingredients. Cook on a low heat to avoid burning the base of the tortilla which will become the top. After a few minutes switch the heat source to the top by placing the pan under a grill. When almost cooked (that is the egg is solid) remove from the heat. The residue heat will continue the cooking process. Allow to cool slightly. Run a knife around the edge of the pan. Take a large plate and place upside down over the pan. Quickly flick the tortilla onto the plate. This is always a heart stopping moment but hopefully you will have a lovely round and slightly browned tortilla cake. One final suggestion. Cut the tortilla into small cubes skewer with cocktail sticks to make a dainty canape.

19 January 2012

"Pa Amb Tomaquet" Tomato Bread

In the early 90's I bought a house off the King's Road. It turned out to be the very one that Simon Cowell shared with Sinitta and sold reluctantly when things went pear shaped for him in the days before the heady successes of the TV talent shows for which he is now (in)famous. Shortly after moving in I answered the phone one day and instantly recognised the voice at the other end, it was none other than David Hasselhoff ringing from the U.S. looking for Simon. It turned out he needed a place to stay for a few nights as he was doing a gig at the nearby Hammersmith Palais! If you recall he had a single out at the time! We chatted for a while but the conversation came to an abrupt end when he asked me did I ever catch his TV show Baywatch, then a global phenomenon. Just to irritate him I said I'd never heard of it! He hung up. The Hoff in a huff so to speak! 

For a while we lived with no furniture and sat on cushions on the floor. We had a series of lodgers to help pay the mortgage including an aspiring shoe designer from Japan. (That was the reason I couldn't offer the spare room to David Hasselhof) Eventually a young Catalan man moved in and we have been close friends ever since. He was from Barcelona a city I had never visited and brought some (to us) quaint and curious Spanish customs with him such as running the washing machine on a full cycle just to wash a pair of socks and underpants!! Another was his penchant for Tomato bread. We used to laugh when he started the preparation ritual. What a waste of a good tomato I used to think but that was before I tasted the result. Now we don't laugh any more and tomato bread has become a table staple which somehow always tastes even better when we are in Spain! Tomato rubbed bread is a minor classic and is eaten as a snack, tapas or accompaniment to many meals at any time in Barcelona.

1 ciabatta or about 8 slices of sourdough
4 Garlic cloves halved
4 Ripe tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil

Slice the ciabatta crossways and then into sections, place on the grill rack and toast. While still warm rub with garlic halves then with the cut side of the tomatoes. Drizzle with oil and season to taste.

13 January 2012

Bhaji Majic!

"Bhaji on the beach" is the memorably alliterative title of that wonderfully heartwarming 1993 movie about a group of Indian women who take a trip to Blackpool which becomes a great bonding experience for them. True bhaji make fantastic picnic food for the beach or anywhere else for that matter but during dark winter days why not try bhaji on the couch? They make a great snack for a movie evening at home say or when a group of friends just come round for a chat.

Although traditionally associated with onion many shredded vegetables can be used either alone or in a mix. Carrot, courgette, celeriac, sweet potato and fennel for example all make great bhajis or you can even go down the tempura route and use small florets of broccoli, cauliflower, french beans or baby sweet corn. We find a mix probably works best and should contain at least a little onion for flavour. No bhaji would be complete without a dip - sweet chilli is probably just about the best possible match! By the way the gram flour the recipe calls for is made from chick peas and is gluten free.


2 level cups of Gram (chick pea) flour
1 tsp cumin seeds or powder
1 tbsp of roughly chopped coriander
1 tsp salt
Half tsp chilli powder
Quater tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 medium white onions sliced
1 grated carrot (optional)
Pinch turmeric (for golden colour)


Mix ingredients in a bowl with a 150 ml of water to a thick batter and season generously. Set aside for five mins. Heat oil in a deep saucepan or deep fat fryer to about 190 C. Take a heaped tbsp of mixture at a time and drop into the hot fat and fry each for about 3 mins or until crisp and golden. Allow to dry on kitchen paper and serve.

9 January 2012

Mel I Mato amb Figues

Here is another easy Catalan classic. Honey and fresh soft cheese with figs. Mato is a type of Spanish ricotta (which can be substituted) If figs are not in season many other fruits will work just as well eg. fresh peaches apricots or for texture try chopped walnuts or pistachios. (Makes 4 servings)

450g mato or whole-milk ricotta cheese
4-6 ripe figs
175g light aromatic honey eg. orange blossom

Cut the cheese into cubes and place in small dessert dishes. Cut the figs in quarters and arrange on top. Drizzle the honey evenly over and serve.

7 January 2012

Piggy Chef!!

Cooking the bacon
Culinary obsessions start young! When I was a small kid, about four or five I was fascinated by all things to do with cooking and the kitchen and my parents duly humoured me and played along. One of the first toys I can remember which arrived in the arid Yemen desert via Santa's sleigh and which gave me hours of fun was a simple "Piggy Chef". This was a grinning mechanical pig which stood in front of a small white stove dressed in full chef's regalia complete with red bow tie, apron and tall white hat. In his right hand he held a large frying pan over the cooker and in his left an oil container which sprinkled imaginary oil on the pan.  He was cooking bacon and eggs! The skillet contained a light metal disk which the pig could flip up and catch. One side of the disk was painted with two large eggs supposedly being fried sunny side up and the other was covered in red and cream stripes representing the streaky bacon rashers! I loved it and still  remember it well but it has since occurred to that this was a curious toy on many levels. We were after all in a Muslim society and no doubt it had been bought by my dad from Aden's biggest toy emporium - a Jewish establishment called Yahooda's! Not to mention the cannibalistic connotations of a pig cooking bacon! I have to say that to this day bacon sandwiches are one of the main reasons I could never become vegetarian!

The obsession with the kitchen did not end there. The only time I can remember being severely disciplined by my father was when for some unknown reason I decided to lock myself in the kitchen and play with the cooker. I turned on all the electric hob burners to red hot and put the door key in the fridge which promptly fell to the bottom where I couldn't see it. When my parents realised what I had done they panicked, terrified I would hurt myself on the hot stove. Frantic my mother kept me occupied by talking to me through the kitchen door keyhole and well away from the cooker while my father raced down to the cook's quarters to get his back door key! Luckily I was liberated from the kitchen without any major mishap but boy I was in such trouble!!


5 January 2012


What could be more quintessentially Spanish than Paella? A dish we always have to have at least once when in Barcelona and up to quite recently one we could only enjoy in a restaurant. The purchase of a paella pan however changed all that and now we enjoy making it at home with the ingredients of our choice. They are always guaranteed to elicit a "wow" response and make a really fun sharing dish when everyone is sitting around the table helping themselves. People will always remember "pa eee a" a unique combination of Spanish sunshine and seafood on a plate! 
There is nothing sacrosanct about the ingredients listed below and almost every one of them can be dropped or substituted with something else. Indeed there are numerous varieties of paella, they can be meat or seafood and some feature more unusual ingredients such as squid ink to make black paella. 
They are relatively easy to prepare - think risotto without the slow addition of stock and endless stirring. In fact paella preparation is the exact opposite. Counterintuitively all the stock is put in the pan first and only then the rice is added, stirred once then left alone to cook. It is important to get the quantities of stock to dry rice correct otherwise  as noted above everything else is flexible. For a little extra kick we like to add chilli flakes, paprika and cayenne pepper. By the way you can substitute turmeric for the saffron to achieve that sunshine colour! 
Spanish sunshine on a plate 

125 g chorizo sliced
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion finely chopped
1 red pepper deseeded and chopped
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
3 large tomatoes skinned and chopped
2 large pinched of saffron 
soaked in 2 tbsp boiling water
Sea salt
16 mussels
900 ml stock
8 whole large and 8 small uncooked prawns
100 g green beans tops removed 
and cut to 3 cm pieces
100 g peas
300 g king fish cut into 8 pieces 
Lemon wedges 

Fry the chorizo in the paella pan for about 2 mins and set aside leaving any oil behind. Add the olive oil and fry the onion pepper and garlic until soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes and saffron plus water and mix well. Boil about 300ml salted water in a pan  and throw in the mussels, cover until they are all open. Strain reserving the water which should be added to the paella pan with the stock. 
Scatter the rice into the stock season and cook for 5 mins. Add the beans and prawns and cook for a further 4 mins then turn the prawns over. When cooked remove the prawns. Push the king fish into the rice and cook for 5 mins. Finally arrange the peas, prawns chorizo and mussels over the rice and heat through until the rice is cooked to your liking and allow to stand for a few minutes or if a little too wet place under a grill for a minute or two. Serve with lemon wedges. 

3 January 2012

Lamb Tagine and couscous

Quite often when we prepare party menus we are asked to include something a little more substantial than canapes. A dish we did recently and which went down well was lamb tagine accompanied with couscous. This is a delicious North African dish actually named after the vessel it is cooked in, a tagine which is usually ceramic bowl with a tapering conical lid and features dried fruit usually but not necessarily apricots. Sultanas, dates and prunes can also be used. It is a rich slow cooked lamb stew which is quite easy to do and you definitely don't need a tagine to cook it in, a simple casserole or oven dish with lid will do just as well.
The lamb cut we generally use is the neck fillet which we trim. (This is a succulent cut of meat which although slightly pricey is well worth it. We also use it in kebabs and brochettes where the marbling of fat melts and adds extra flavour ensuring the meat retains its wonderful tenderness and juiciness). You could also use shoulder of lamb.
There are many spices you can use, for a degree of authenticity we use Ras al Hanout a Moroccan mix of herbs and spices. We are lucky that we have the wonderful resources including the many Arab food shops of North End Road in Fulham relatively close at hand but this ingredient should be available however in any specialist shop or you can order it on line. Other spices which are commonly called for are ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, saffron cayenne pepper, paprika, cumin, chilli flakes etc etc
Below is a basic recipe and method but I would strongly recommend that after reading this post you Google lamb tagine where you will find many recipe ideas and variations and pick and choose the suggested spices which you most like. Like all casserole / stew dishes there is room for more than is little alchemy so don't be afraid to put your own stamp on it. You can even substitute beef for the lamb and prunes for the apricots.
Lamb tagine and couscous served in party size portions

1.5 kg lamb
1 red onion
2 garlic cloves
2 tins chopped tomatoes
300 g dried apricots
125 ml red wine
Worcestershire Sauce (Optional)
Tabasco Sauce (Optional)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
Fresh parsley or coriander
100 g Toasted flaked almonds or pine nuts

Cut the meat into bite sized portions. Heat the butter and oil in a pan and brown the meat in batches. Set aside. Add the chopped onion and garlic and fry in the oil. Deglaze using the red wine. Return the meat to the pan and sprinkle with Ras al Hanout. Add the tomatoes and bring to the boil. Cover and stew for about an hour. If more liquid is needed add a little lamb stock. Add the dried fruit and Worcestershire and Tabasco sauce (if using) and season to Taste. Cook for a further 20 minutes. Serve with a garnish of parsley or coriander and flaked almonds.

The classic accompaniment is couscous which is again very easy to prepare, requires no cooking and can be done in advance. (Having said that you can "toast" the dry couscous on a dry pan prior to adding the liquid which gives an extra roasted flavour). Equal amounts of liquid to dry couscous are usual but brands may vary so follow the instructions on the pack. We generally use chicken or vegetable stock for extra flavour. After a few minutes fluff up with a fork. 
Strictly speaking it is now ready to eat but couscous in itself is pretty bland so we would recommend adding ingredients with strong flavours. Good options are spring onions. sun dried tomatoes, lemon juice, roasted peppers or root vegtables, olive oil, cashew nuts or peanuts, sultanas, paprika or cayenne pepper and of course plenty of seasoning.