Festive Couscous Salad to Ease You into Your New Year’s Resolutions….

IMG_0568Well here we are on the eve of New Year’s Eve and any minute now those New Year’s Resolutions to eat less, drink less, shop less etc etc will kick in. I am always a fan of easy does it in this regard as going cold turkey usually ends in failure even before the hangover has actually cleared.

We had this a few days ago as a bit of a palate clearer after the Christmas meatathon, enjoyable as always, but as we don’t eat a lot of meat in the normal course of a week, a little bit of something fishy, spicy and herby was fancied.

I am quite into the hot and cold salad together approach and this is just one of several I like to make. The warm prawn component rarely changes but the cold salad underneath is designed out of whatever is lurking in the cupboards and fridge. This one has a distinct Yotam Ottolenghi feel to it. Hardly surprising really…..

You will need (for 2) for the couscous salad:  120g Giant Couscous (or the regular stuff) cooked according to the packet instructions, so boiled in water for 10 minutes for the giant and steeped in boiling water for 5 – 10 minutes for the regular stuff, then we are into a pinch of this and that territory, so some Pumpkin Seeds, some Poppy Seeds and some Pine Nuts, all toasted, some Cucumber, cubed, some Cherry Tomatoes, halved, some Olives, some Sultanas or Dried Blueberries, 2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a squeeze of Lemon Juice from ½ a Lemon, 2 tbsp each of chopped fresh Mint and Flat Leaf Parsley, a pinch of Salt and some Black Pepper

Combine everything once the couscous and seeds are cool. Stir around and drizzle the oil and lemon juice over. Add the seasoning to taste. Of course other things like avocados, red pepper, dried apricots could be added too. Leave to sit and infuse whilst you cook the prawns.

For the warm Prawn Salad (serves 2): a 250g packet of Frozen Raw King Prawns, defrosted, 2 cloves of Garlic, peeled and chopped, a pinch of Dried Chilli Flakes, juice of ½ a Lemon, a splash of White Wine (optional), 2 tbsp of Fresh Coriander, chopped, a tbsp of Olive Oil, Salt and Black Pepper.

Into a medium-sized frying pan over a moderate heat add the oil, garlic and chilli, stir round for a minute or two and then add the prawns, wine, lemon juice and season a little, stir fry for 5 minutes or so until the prawns have thoroughly turned pink and the liquid has reduced a little, add half the fresh coriander, stir round and then, having plated out the couscous salad, divide the prawns and their juices between the two plates. Garnish with the remainder of the coriander.

This is fantastic after all the rich food that is knocking around at this time. One feels extremely virtuous.

A very happy and peaceful New Year to all, thanks to all who follow, comment and read and see you in 2013 I hope! x

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What to do with the rest of the bag of Dill once you have made Nigella’s Sicilian Pasta: Cannellini Bean and Dill Stew

Sorry the title isn’t snappier but I felt like I needed an explanation in using dill at this time of year. As I have said before, to me dill conjures up Greek islands, lemons, salads with couscous and the like, not casseroles and crumbles and everything that goes with late Autumn.

The previous post revealed my delight with Nigellissima, the latest scrumptious series from Nigella Lawson. Here at Cutest Cakes HQ we have been having a bit of an Italian week ourselves what with one meal and another and the Sicilian Pasta featured, pieced together from the recipe bites on the iPlayer. It’s intensely fishy, with smoked mackerel the principle component and dill also featuring heavily. What shall I do with the rest of the packet? I think I have the answer and here it is:

So apart from the asparagus, which does give away the fact that I took this picture in the Summer, this is quite a hearty dish and can benefit from the addition of some premium sausages, either on the side or chop up into. It is also super speedy, taking no longer than the time to cook sausages should you be having some.

You will need (for 4):

1 can of Cannellini Beans in water, drained, 1 jar of Passata (or a tin and a half of chopped Tomatoes), 1 Onion, chopped, a little chopped Celery Leaves (optional), as much Dill as you can stand or what you have left over, chopped, Olive Oil, Salt and Pepper, grilled Sausages if you wish.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan and cook the onion over a medium heat until soft and transparent, add the celery leaves if using, stir round for another minute, and then add the passata or tins of tomatoes if using them instead…..

I was given a very good tip regarding the difference between using tins of tomatoes or passata, which is passata will cook very quickly really only requiring a warm through and doesn’t require a period of cooking down and the excess liquid evaporating away, tins of tomatoes do require this lengthier simmer and benefit from a ½ teaspoon of sugar due to the bitterness of the seeds.

…….so depending on the state of your tomatoes proceed as discussed and add the drained beans and dill and allowing the whole lot to cook down for 5-10 minutes minimum. Season and if you are using passata you may need to add a little water from the kettle to prevent from drying out.

You can add the chopped sausages (if using) at the point of serving and serve with crusty bread, pasta, asparagus…. whatever takes your fancy.

Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast has replaced Nigella for now. It is a visual wonder and I shall post a recipe inspired by his foray into Morocco next week.

B is for Bristol, Bridges, Balloons and The Boston Tea Party’s Basiled Eggs

I adore Bristol. I love the Georgian and Victorian architecture, the sprawl, the vibrant, urbane youth culture, the coffee houses, the energy, the creative forces that flow there, the accent, the organic food hotbed it has become and of course all my lovely friends that still live there. I don’t live there anymore but many of the significant moments in my life happened there: moved away from home (to Bristol), met my better half, graduated from the University and the children were born there. The city itself is famous for Brunel’s Suspension Bridge spanning the Gorge, the annual Hot Air Balloon festival, brightly painted houses, rain, Banksy graffiti, the docks, the University, the longest Georgian Crescent of townhouses in the country and much more. But I always feel it is a place to live rather than visit, to get under the skin of and absorb it’s energy and atmosphere.

Brunel’s masterpiece: Clifton Suspension Bridge

Interestingly though very little cooking-wise can be associated with the city as far as I’m concerned. Don’t get me wrong there are hundreds of fantastic restaurants, cafés, bars, deli’s and the like and the city also hosts an organic food festival every year, but very little influences me now apart from the veg box routine and a tale I can tell about trying to transport an extremely hot, freshly roasted turkey across town as a student as no-one had an oven big enough to cook the turkey and all the trimmings for our Christmas meal.

Lift off at the annual Balloon Fiesta, however a common site at any time

One dish I ate there amongst all the hundreds was in a coffee lounge called The Boston Tea Party. This establishment was a bit of a trail blazer in its time. Housed in a large rambling Georgian Town House in ‘downtown’ Bristol very close to the University, the interior was painted cobalt blues and stately reds. The chairs, tables and sofas were mismatched and second-hand. The original shabby chic, in fact the shabbiest of chic. There was a courtyard garden for the rare moments of dry weather and it served the new wave of coffees: latte, Americano, flat white, double espresso together with deep filled hearty sandwiches, curiously forgettable cakes but fabulous breakfasts.

It was the place to go to nurse a hangover and take visiting friends to show how ‘hip’ Bristol was/is. Having breakfast out, and not in a transport-style cafe, was a new idea in the early nineties and new style fry-ups were definitely the thing to have. I was never much of one for bacon, sausages, black pudding and fried bread, but could be tempted with scrambled eggs. So this recipe is really just that but with an Italian twist which drew me in at the time and inevitably has stuck with me.

Another easy, peasy one. Serves 1.

Split a panini or thickly cut a slice of bread and toast. Meanwhile, crack two eggs into a smallish bowl and add 2 tbsp of milk, a pinch of salt and pepper and whisk to combine. Cut 4/5 cherry tomatoes in half and very roughly chop about 8 basil leaves.

Melt a knob of butter in a non-stick pan and add the eggs, stir around over a moderate heat with a wooden spoon until lumps start to form. Then add the tomatoes and basil and continue to cook until the egg sets to your preference. Spoon over buttered toast.

Despite the juiciness of the tomatoes the eggs continue to set as normal and the basil gives off a fantastic aroma which I think it works well for breakfast. Wakes you up a bit, but also works at any other time of day…

‘Gert Lush’ as the Bristolians would say. ‘Yummy’ for the rest of us.

Many thanks MW for the bridge and balloon photos. For those of you who think you may know MW, but need a clue, the W stands for a wellknown purveyor of cake ingredients, spookily enough.

Enough Flavour to Keep it Simple

A good friend of mine has just returned from her first trip to Italy. First trip to Italy. It’s like some adolescent awakening a first trip to Italy. You will never be the same again.

My Mother will probably disagree here but I regard my time spend working as an au pair in Milan, at the age of 19, as my culinary awakening and the way I think about food now is defined by lingering memories and habits formed at that time. I saw a great quote on another blog site where the author remarked ‘well I’m off to make more food from food’. I think the author is American, but that sentiment would apply to the British too. Sufficient flavour in some foods can be an issue and the contrast if you are lucky enough to be eating in Italy is marked.

Now I know that the situation here has improved a lot over the last 10-15 years say but the Italian fruit, vegetables, cheese, cured meats and wine, all those deli items which can make a delicious lunch, have a depth of flavour which is hard to match except possibly by the French. One of the reasons for this is I suspect is the ambient temperature. Fruit and vegetables ripening on the plants, the intensity of the sun, storage methods, coupled with better collective culinary know-how, it all makes a difference. Before the restrictions on transporting liquids a few bottles of red wine would be heaved onto the plane as carry-on, you remember? In our case it was cases of the red in the car as we drove the 1,500 miles back up through France to the ferry at breakneck speed. Once home the wine would be presented as a rarefied object at some special event and it was supposed to transport us all back to our holiday. It didn’t really work though, England is too cold. It’s even worse with Languedoc Rosé, what was fruity and thirst quenching down in the South-West of France, seemed more like paint stripper in Blighty. It was always very disappointing.

Cheeses, salad ingredients and cured meats also travel about as well as the French Rugby Team. We in the UK tend to keep everything in the fridge and don’t let the food even warm up to our ambient temperatures before we consume it. Tomatoes are a case in point. Virtually tasteless straight from the fridge, yet given a couple of hours at room temperature, sliced and drizzled with Olive Oil and the merest pinch of salt they are transformed.

So when you catch those moments when you achieve a flash of those heady delicious Mediterranean lunches it’s always a surprise as much as a treat. Believe it or not a trip to Tesco recently produced such a lunch. Bread, cheese and tomato was about the size of it. However due to the fact that I had been shopping, the deliciously ripe looking beef tomatoes weren’t fridged anyway, the Spanish Manchego cheese out of the chiller for long enough and my new basil plant emitting the most pungent aroma, I felt compelled to assemble the following:

The tomatoes were sliced and oil, from a long since eaten jar of artichokes, drizzled over them (I do store such remnants in the fridge for such moments). A few torn basil leaves topped the dish off. The Manchego (ewe’s milk cheese, nutty and delicious) was in slices too and the Panini, Tesco own brand which I toasted, released a faint smell of Olive Oil. Pear, from the veg box and just ripe, has an affinity with sheep’s milk cheese, something understood by the Italians of Pienza, the home of Pecorino and some pear based jelly like condiment I can’t remember the name of……

Child 2 was with me and chose a grilled ham and cheese Panini. It is mildly irritating to me that he hates tomatoes.

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