TV and fried food: stuffed courgette flowers and Nigella Lawson’s Tuscan fries

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It was not too long ago, although it seems a political lifetime away, that my boyfriend and I settled in front of the TV to watch the ITV EU referendum debate, accompanied by platefuls of crispy, deep-fried goodness. There has been plenty to keep anyone glued to the television lately: Brexit and Trump for the politically inclined; Euro 2016 for the sport-inclined (it’s football or something); and the final episodes of the latest series of Game of Thrones. I’m going to  admit that of this list I paid keenest attention to the EU membership referendum debates. Now that the referendum has passed, those politically inclined can continue watching Trump, the dissolution of the Labour shadow cabinet, and post-Brexit negotiations. Those disappointed by England’s defeat in the Euros could always switch their support over to Iceland, who are in their first major international tournament, or my own team, the Red Devils (not Manchester United…this totally confused my boyfriend when I first told him “I only really support the Red Devils”.) Or, you know, tennis, since Wimbledon began, although you could have missed the news, drowned out as it has been by politics, which has been in a state of what you might call ‘flux’. And if you watch Game of Thrones, well, I know less about that than I do about football.

Whatever takes your fancy, you may wish to eat while watching. There is something that feels so decadent eating off a tray on the sofa as an adult, especially when things are eaten with fingers, even more so when you have allowed yourself not the low-fat hummus and crudites but the good stuff, the actually fried stuff: onion rings, calamari, whitebait, aubergine tempura, fried chicken, Scotch eggs, even the humble crisp, all have benefitted by being submerged in hot oil until their water has evaporated and they have returned from this slightly dangerous baptism crisp-skinned and tinged with gold. While there is nothing wrong with a torn-open bag of Doritos’ finest (Cool Ranch if you know I’m coming over, please), if you want to up your game a bit, or perhaps combine a love of deep-fried food with seasonal eating, may I recommend the fried and battered courgette flower?

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Courgette blossoms, tenderly cossetted, before filling, dredging and frying

All right, so that possibly sounds like the most pretentious sentence ever written, but I bought some of these flowers, prevalent in spring and summer during courgette/zucchini growing time, stuffed it with cheese (and anchovy – I would characterise this as optional), battered it and fried it, as per Tessa Kiros’ recipe in her elegant Falling Cloudberries (her writing is lyrical, at times a little purple, but hugely evocative of mood, place, memory). The flower itself had a delicate, slightly milky freshness, the petal both tender and yet robust enough to chew; the batter crunched under my teeth; the mozzarella oozed in long and delectable melted strands. There is nothing exclusive about this kind of textural and taste pleasure. The only problem will, of course, be getting hold of the flowers themselves. In London, this may be, at most, a hassle rather than impossible: Wild Country Organics sells them at various farmers’ markets and Borough Market, as well as online. You can buy courgette flowers online via Farm Direct, Natoora and other specialist food sellers. They are not the absolute cheapest things to buy – they are seasonal and delicate so must be harvested and transported with care. For the recipe below you will need about two, maybe three, total, flowers per person, depending what you are serving them with, so if you want to try this but are also cost-conscious, this is the perfect dish to serve up for just you, or perhaps you and your partner or a close friend. The mozzarella and batter makes the tender blooms surprisingly filling. They are scattered with a final flutter of battered and fried sage leaves.

Tuscan fries, oil blotted
Tuscan fries, oil blotted

Nigella Lawson‘s Tuscan fries, from her book and show Nigellissima, which focused on Italian food Anglicised, or perhaps Nigella-ified, is perhaps, if not quite the opposite of the fried courgette flowers, an easy introduction to deep-frying; deep-frying for the cautious. The method is unorthodox: you fry chunks of potato, starting in cold oil, adding aromatics such as unpeeled garlic and herbs at the end. I used sage, because sage was called for in the battered courgette blossom recipe and I wanted to use up the packet: the fried herbs are perfectly crisp and dry at the end, crunchy and paper-thin and shattering delectably against the tongue. I actually much preferred these naked leaves to their battered cousins. Rosemary would also be very good here.

Frying the chips in cold oil, Nigella assures us, does not leave them greasy or soggy. I think mine browned a little too much – I should have turned the heat down a little – and they were slightly limp in the middle (they could have been cut a smidge finer, and I think I used the wrong variety of potato – see my notes below), but indeed they were no greasier or oilier than chips cooked in the more traditional two-part method. While you definitely, certainly, should not ever ever ever leave boiling oil unattended in the kitchen, you can certainly potter around the kitchen and prepare other parts of the meal when cooking the chips using this method, keeping the occasional close eye on them. I did let the oil used for frying cool and then strained and saved it for possible further use.

I wouldn’t advocate this meal for every night (masses of oil + TV means your hips, stomach, waistline and bum won’t lie) but, with a cool glass of prosecco, it’s the perfect, slightly classy-but-still-fried accompaniment to the political TV/sporting event/brutally bloody Middle Ages themed TV show your heart could desire watching.

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Ordinary things: a lamb stew, without a story

I’ve been thinking a lot about ordinariness recently. I was recently writing a spontaneous, off-the-cuff piece about being an ordinary person living an unremarkable life which descended into a strangely anguished cri de coeur that surprised me with its sincerity and its turbulent momentum. But it was also self-indulgent and first-world-problem-ish in a way that was embarrassing to read in the cold light of day, and I decided to keep it private. In a way the writing of it was sufficient for me to consider and reflect without needing it mirrored back at me through the lens of blogging or social media.

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Lamb stew at my dinner table. Overhead lighting, photo taken at night, because that’s how it rolls

But I also think about ordinariness in the context of food, and food writing, too. I read a lot of beautifully written cookbooks, memoirs, blogs and articles where writers describe their lives – especially their childhoods – as marked by distinctive food experiences, memories, and culinary comings of age. Or I will read an evocative and heartfelt piece about a lesser-known cuisine, and get a powerful sense of a heritage being actively preserved.

Like everyone, I have a history when it comes to food and eating, but it’s often a very prosaic one. I was a painfully fussy eater as a child, the kind who causes great anguish (or at least additional work) for parents, and for many years basically ate steamed cauliflower in bechamel, spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and cheese and tomato sandwiches. I grew up in Singapore, a foodie hotbed, but for most of my childhood I was equally repulsed by hawker food, with its lingering smells of belacan (fermented fish paste; it smells stronger than fish sauce), and the local wet markets, with the watery floors and strong scent of raw meat mingling with durian. I came round to Indian food earliest, after many years of rejecting the fragrant heat of chillies, but an attempt at an authentic (albeit vegetarian Buddhist) Chinese meal made me tearful well into my teens. In my late teens I became interested in cooking and started a food blog (Musings on Dinner is, I think, my second or third); my palate broadened because I wanted to cook new things. Even today I find myself discovering new things to enjoy simply because I thought that I should really get round to trying this or that recipe.

This lamb stew is a good example of ordinary cooking. The recipe isn’t dredged from childhood or inspired by a favoured restaurant dish: like so many things I invent, it’s based on what I happen to have in the cupboards and fridge that I would like to see the back of. To this end: the remains of the diced lamb I bought in excessive quantities because I could only find a double-sized pack at the supermarket; the last of the celery; the tomatoes which had been lingering in the fruit bowl and were past their best for eating out of hand; the bag of new potatoes which were threatening to sprout angry and green; the parsley which, ignored at the back of the fridge, was wilting to show her displeasure. I added the spices because I like them, they go well with lamb and they are always in my house.

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Fin-de-siecle carrot, cabbage and beef stew for changeable seasons

Here in London we swing from chilly, bright mornings to warm, light-filled afternoons, and back into evenings cool enough to make hot water bottles a tempting prospect. Weather like this requires an arsenal of recipes in one’s back pocket, from cool noodle salads for evenings drowsy with humidity to warming recipes that provide ballast against the creeping coldness of a surprisingly crisp spring night.

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So to this recipe. It’s inspired by one I found in a magazine…nothing out of the ordinary there, except that the magazine in question is one from 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. It was published in the early, rather than high, summer, a reminder that British summers, too, can run to cool. The recipe as it was printed would, I’m sure, confound many stereotypes about British food: it read surprisingly modern with its combination of beef, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and macaroni, a veritable one-pot meal sprightly with tender vegetables. The magazine in question was a penny a week and so accessible to upper-working or lower-middle class women with a bit of extra income, and was most explicitly directed at the kind of woman who had servants, but usually no more than two (a cook and a maid); sometimes the imagined readers’ income could stretch to no more than a charlady (“the woman of the future will even have to scrub” was a particularly cautionary phrase mid-way through the First World War).

I put this together based on some shredded cabbage languishing in the fridge after a recipe called for only half a head and the vague memory of this recipe, buried under the many, many magazines I read for my MA dissertation in the summer of 2014. What I mostly remember is the serialised romances – the mill-girl swapped at birth, the man who loses his arm at Mons – but some of the recipes stood out too. I didn’t have any macaroni in the house so served it with boiled, unpeeled potatoes, but I think the pasta would be a great addition; simmering in the tomato sauce, it will absorb the flavours and add a slip of silky starchiness to the stew, subtly thickening it.

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Something I threw together: spiced red bean stew

This recipe is for a dish I threw together at the weekend. We’d had half a bag of red kidney beans sitting in the cupboard for about a hundred years, and I decided the time was right to use them up – for whatever reason I’m itching to clear out cupboards and declutter. I soaked them a few days before (I store the soaked beans in the fridge until ready to cook) and, using various bits in the cupboard and fridge, I threw together a richly spiced, juicy, tomato-tinged red bean stew. It wasn’t going to make it into the blog – since it really was just a spontaneous, on-the-fly meal – until my boyfriend suggested it.

Spontaneous bean stew - I'd already started eating when I took the photo
Spontaneous bean stew – I’d already started eating when I took the photo

“This is amazing!” he said (it is really good – hearty and flavourful). When I told him it was my own recipe, he insisted I blog it: “The baking challenge is fine, but you can find those recipes somewhere else. You can’t find this one anywhere, since it’s yours!” He added that he thought it might be useful for other people putting together a meal based on storecupboard staples. So, I hope it is.

You can serve this with all sorts of extras - pictured with flatbreads (not homemade) and cottage cheese
You can serve this with all sorts of extras – pictured with flatbreads (not homemade) and cottage cheese

This recipe draws on Tex-Mex flavours: the earthiness of cumin, and heat, sweetness and smokiness from two types of paprika and the fresh red pepper. One you have this template in your head to draw on, you could vary it in all kinds of ways: using different beans – black beans would be great if going down the Tex-Mex route – or adding more, or different, vegetables, are the most obvious. You could make it fiery with chilli and add ground meat. But you could also gently shift the recipe’s geographical focus with some other adjustments:

  • dial down the paprika, add grated fresh ginger, a teaspoon of turmeric and sprinkle with chopped fresh coriander at the end, and it would become an Indian-inspired, not-quite dhal, for example (if going down the Indian route you could substitute various lentils for the beans, as well. I’ve made a version of this using urad dhal).Serve with naan bread or steamed rice.
  • To make something more Italian-inspired, use cannellini or butter beans, add two chopped carrots and two chopped celery sticks to the onions, and omit the dried herbs. Chop through some fresh parsley or basil and stir through some lemon juice at the end and serve with parmesan.
  • If you feel inspired by the flavours of Morocco, use chickpeas and add one or two chopped carrots to the onions. If you have any preserved lemons, chop one up and add it to the pot, and stir through some lemon juice at the end. Serve with couscous.

The above suggestions might not be strictly authentic (hence my careful use of the word ‘inspired’), but using these flavour profiles will enable you to put together a dinner based on almost any dried or tinned pulses you may have.

I use a lot of spices in this recipe, because I definitely prefer strong flavours, and I think the starchy, substantial red beans can take a lot of flavour. If you’re baulking at the idea of throwing in spices by the tablespoon, by all means reduce the amounts.

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The Friday Rummage: a variation on salad – featuring prawns, bacon and avocado

Dinner on a Friday evening – the end of the working week – is, I think, the most difficult meal to put together. By the end of the week you’re tired, thinking longingly about the weekend and dismally about the mountain of work still on your desk to clear. The meal plans I put together on the Sunday have probably unravelled by Friday and I’m left with either leftovers from three weekday meals (about three mouthfuls each) in unlabelled food storage containers at the back of the fridge, or maybe a couple of carrots, a sad looking bag of spinach and half a butternut squash. Probably half a cake, whose temptations now seem all the greater. By the time I’m home my imagination usually fails me entirely and I struggle with deciding what to cook – despite an hour of empty travelling time on the Tube to figure it out.

A salad anyone could get behind, packed with prawns, avocado, bacon and asparagus
A salad anyone could get behind, packed with prawns, avocado, bacon and asparagus

So on Fridays there tends to be either a bit of a rummage through a fridge of slightly wilted produce, or a capitulation in the form of a run to the local fish and chip shop. As good as the fish and chips and lovely as the couple who run the place are, this is not an option for me given the ‘dietary recalibration’ I am currently putting myself through. Instead, there are experiments with salad.

Salad! I have never hitherto really considered a bowl of lettuce a proper meal…and I still don’t. A bit of soft butter lettuce, a handful of cherry tomatoes, maybe a scattering of chives or parsley…this is the stuff of a side plate. To be a real, proper meal – satisfying, filling and nutritious – you need different textures, and it needs to be loaded up with more than twelve varieties of rocket. If you’re having salad for a meal, lettuce and its varients aren’t constituted of a whole lot beyond water, and finding nutritional balance is even more important for me as I’m restricting my calorie intake temporarily, giving me fewer instances in which to find the nutrients my body requires. At the very least there should be a protein component to keep you going for a bit.

So, a salad perfect for the Friday evening rummage (though no less suitable for lunch). This one is quick and offers enough interest to suit both a dieter and a non-dieting partner or friend, if those are your circumstances. The most important thing is that, in terms of taste, this salad is utterly rewarding to eat: delicate, slightly bouncy prawns; crunchy, salty lardons; sweet asparagus; creamy avocado. It all comes together beautifully. In many ways the lettuce is just token.

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Meat Free Monday: Crispy tofu, broccoli, and rice

This meal – crispy tofu, steamed or blanched broccoli, and plain brown rice – is one that brings me right back to my childhood, and in many ways I think it epitomises hippie vegetarian food for a lot of people (although vegetarianism is no longer the preserve of hippies). There’s the tofu, the brown rice, the lightly cooked cruciferous vegetables. This is healthy, wholesome food, plain (but not tasteless) and uncomplicated – I imagine this simplicity is actually what appealed to me as a child. But for all its simple lack of pretension, it has much to please an adult palate.

The quintessential hippie vegetarian triumvirate: tofu, cruciferous vegetables, brown rice. I love it!
The quintessential hippie vegetarian triumvirate: tofu, cruciferous vegetables, brown rice. I love it!

Firstly, the meal offers a contrast of taste: nutty rice, milky tofu and sweet green broccoli. There’s also a satisfying interplay of textures between the grains, slightly firm but silkily yielding vegetables, and the crunchy tofu coating which gives way to the jiggly beancurd beneath. For me this is a standby recipe: I don’t make it every week, by any means, but it’s always there in the back of my mind if I have a pack of tofu sitting in the fridge.

Serve with soy sauce, if wished
Serve with soy sauce, if wished

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Baking challenge: flaky family pie

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week five (pastry week) of series two: make a hearty family pie with rough puff or flaky pastry; no pastry base.

This savoury pastry dish combines two family favourites: pie and stew. I actually made much of this recipe up, as I got it into my head that I wanted to make an Irish stew pie (not least because I was serving it to friends, one of whom doesn’t eat beef but loves lamb), and none of my cookbooks yielded a recipe. In fact I thought I’d made up the concept completely, but Darina Allen refers to it in her magnificent Irish Traditional Cooking, although she found the recipe in a manuscript cookbook and says that she’s never heard of it in any other place. The recipe Darina offers up is very plain – meat, potatoes, onions – but my version is more colourful with vegetables (including carrots, which seem to be a controversial ingredient in Irish stew), although I think it retains an authentically simple flavour profile: just salt, pepper, parsley – and the parsley needn’t even be flat-leaf if you don’t mind (not that it’s easy to get hold of curly parsley anymore). The pie had substantive gravy (though it was thin – you will need to add thickener of some description if you would like it more gelatinous) and was utterly delicious: hearty, satisfying, quite warming, yet light and wonderful to eat. I thought it was really ideal for early spring, when the body starts hankering for lighter, brighter flavours but actually it’s still pretty cold and you need something that will stick to your ribs.

Irish stew pie
Irish stew pie

The flaky pastry recipe I used was from Delia Smith. I don’t always turn to Delia instinctively but this recipe is absolutely perfect, utterly simple, and explained very well (I find some Delia recipes quite pedantic and prescriptive). I have used this one for a number of years and frankly I think it is unbeatable. People always compliment me on the pastry when I make this version, even though it is very simple to make. The recipe produces light, delicately flaky layers, and many people mistake this flaky pastry for a much more involved puff pastry on account of how crunchy, buttery and multi-layered it is. Indeed the friends who I served the pie to thought it was puff pastry, and both are experienced bakers. I suggest that you tuck up the recipe and use it for all manner of things: rough handheld fruit pies, sausage rolls, apple turnovers.

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