Enjoy an Umami Winter

Today the sky never seemed to lighten up. It’s rained pretty much since I got up, and a short trip to the allotment to pick some greens confirmed a temperature drop, a hostile wind and a bit of proper winter weather.

Armed with some dark green kale, some muddy leeks, probably the last of the chard and a fresh chili from the last of our chili plants, I’ve got the making of a lovely savoury winter soup – umami flavours and winter are made for each other.

umami soup

The taste of umami (or savoury) was identified about 100 years ago, by a Japanese chemist Professor Kikunae Ikeda and now it’s generally accepted as one of our key tastes. Ikeda had added kombu (kelp seaweed) to his soup and achieved a wonderful deep, savoury flavour that he went on to analyse.

In Japan, as well as edible seaweed, the soy bean is a favourite umami ingredient – often in its fermented form of miso. (Miso works brilliantly as a natural stock seasoning for soups and stews and is a great alternative to a meat stock).

Meat – especially red meat –  is a classic umami ingredient, but you don’t need meat to enjoy umami….

We might not use a lot of soy or seaweed in European cooking, but we certainly do love tomatoes – another umami-rich ingredient. Tomatoes are used as either the main flavour in dishes like a good roasted tomato soup or sauce, or as a more subtle addition to dishes where a rich, depth of flavour is wanted without being too tomatoey – both are brilliant.

 

 

Spinach, chard and kale

As well as being up there at the top of the nutritional table, dark greens like spinach and kale are also high in umami flavour.

Mushrooms also feature in my list of favourite umami ingredients.

A few days ago I made the classic ‘vegetarian option’ – a spinach and mushroom lasagne. The bubbling, creamy, savoury pasta dish was hearty and absolutely delicious. I guess there was a reason for its popularity, even if it did end up suffering an image problem!

For cheese fans, ‘proper Parmesan’ Parmigiano-Reggiano and real Roquefort are the most umami-rich cheeses you can eat, given their particularly high glutamate content. Both are made from unpasteurised milk (Parmigiano – cows; Roquefort – sheeps). They may be expensive, but a little goes a long way. I’m not a big blue cheese fan but I’m working on it and it’s on my New Year’s list of ingredients to experiment with.

And for fish fans – anchovies, prawns, mackerel and tuna are all strong in umami.

prawns

So if, like me, you woke up this morning a little underwhelmed by the grey skies and rain, and pulled up the duvet till you realised the sky wasn’t about to change – my recommendation is to get in the kitchen and create your favourite umami dish – a good soup keeps the heart warm.

Kids Cook, Grown-ups Wash Up (KCGWU)

KCGWU

Getting children and young people interested in cooking is really, really important.

So I’m launching Kids Cook, Grown-ups Wash Up Day!

instead of getting the kids to wash up after you’ve cooked – switch it round for a change.

Let’s face it, for many – or perhaps most families, the kids’ main experience of cooking and eating fresh meals is setting the table, then arguing over who’s turn it is to wash up. (As a parent I know I’ve been more than guilty on this front….)

So I started thinking perhaps this contributes to some kids seeing cooking as a chore rather than a creative pleasure. The grown-ups get all the fun of making a mess and the satisfaction of putting good food on the table, then it’s the offsprings’ job to clear up.

So please join my mission to get more children inspired by cooking and send me your pictures of your KCGWU day!

Celebrate the Taste for Sour.

What’s your favourite sour ingredient? a sharp cooking apple perhaps; or maybe some strong blue cheese or a big dollop of natural yoghurt; a hunk of homemade sourdough bread or some sauerkraut perhaps?

This post celebrates our passion for all things sour.

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As one of our five essential tastes, sour ingredients add real depth and brightness to your cooking and we eat and enjoy these sour notes all the time.  Where would we be without sweet and sour chicken; a Bramley apple pie or a good plate of strong, mature cheese and biscuits?

Essentially, there are two types of sour ingredients used in cooking:

tomatillo

tomatillos ripening at my allotment

Firstly, fruits that are naturally sour,  such as cooking apples, lemon, tomatillos and tamarind. They provide essential sharpness to dishes around the world, balancing the sweetness or saltiness of a dish. For example, tamarind is a favourite ingredient in Asian cooking; tomatillos add depth to Mexican cuisine and lemon adds an essential tang to dishes everywhere.

sourdough bacon sandwiches

homemade sourdough bacon sandwiches

And secondly there’s cultured sourness such as blue cheese, sauerkraut and yoghurt. Some of the most revered foods are sour ones –
roquefort cheese;Korean Kimchi; mature cheddar, artisan sourdough bread…

These foods are created by careful fermentation, using natural, good bacteria to create delicious tastes, using salt, natural yeasts and patience.

Here’s a few of my sourdough favourites:

Sourdough Bread

Making bread with a natural, sourdough ‘leaven’ is great for three reasons in my view. Firstly, you get a really good depth of flavour to the loaf – more interesting than a traditional, yeasted loaf. Secondly, it’s a very healthy way to eat bread, because the longer process of creating the starter and leaving the dough to prove means the grain breaks down more so is more digestible, and thirdly, there’s just something amazing about creating a loaf from just flour and water.

There’s a whole bunch of cookbooks to get you into making sourdough – we use ones by Andrew Whitely and Chad Robertson.

Red cabbage sauerkraut

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homemade red cabbage sauerkraut

Having begun as a way of making the most of the harvest before the advent of technology and global food production, fermented foods are once again in vogue. There’s been a huge rise in the availability of sourdough bread, and dishes like kimchi (Korea’s national dish of fermented radish or other vegetables) have also seen a big increase in popularity.

I’m a big fan of the German favourite – sauerkraut, especially homemade sauerkraut made with just red cabbage and salt.

To make a jar of sauerkraut, finely slice and chop some red or white cabbage and add 2 teaspoons salt per 500g of cabbage. Squeeze and lightly pound the cabbage in a big bowl, until you can squeeze juice out of a handful of cabbage.

Pack into jars, press down and then weigh down to ensure the cabbage is covered in juice. Seal and leave for a couple of weeks to ferment.  Once you start using it, keep it in the fridge.  It’s great with eggs, cheese and bacon.

Fermented foods are great because they provide the kick of sour flavour, and the added benefit of high nutritional value (as long as you stick to home made or ‘real’ foods and not the ‘pretend’ foods you find in supermarkets – see my footnote).

Salsa Verde

I’ve started growing my own tomatillos as they’re not yet a common fruit to buy. They’re really easy to grow though and the plants are very prolific. Just a few tomatillo plants will give you at least a couple of kilos of fruit.

The fruits are a mix of sweet and sour. You can use them raw in a salad to add a bit of sour crunch, but usually they’re cooked (roasted or simmered), and made into the classic Salsa Verde. Here’s a recipe from one of my favourite cookery books “Mexican Cooking made easy” – a great book we bought on a trip to Arizona. All the recipes are written in both English and Spanish so it has a real authenticity to it!

Mexican cook book

My favourite Mexican cook book

Salsa Verde:

450g fresh tomatillos, 2 green chilies, 1/2 cup chopped onion, 2 TBsp chopped coriander, 1 Tbsp oil, 1/4 tsp salt.

  1. Remove the papery husks from the tomatillos and rinse.
  2. Place them in a pan with 1/2 cup of water. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10 minutes, (they’ll cook down very quickly). Remove the tomatillos, but retain the liquid.
  3. Remove the stems, then put all the ingredients, including the retained liquid, into a blender and blend until smooth.
  4. Use the sauce over chicken enchiladas, or as an alternative to a tomato salsa.

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So celebrate your taste for sour and let me know if you have favourite sour ingredients.

* Footnote: A supermarket sourdough nearly always contains added yeast (as well as other ingredients). The whole point about sourdough is that it’s made with just flour and water, using time for the flour and water to develop into a natural ‘leaven’. Adding a bit of dried sourdough powder to an ordinary loaf does not make it a sourdough loaf – see http://www.sustainweb.org/realbread/ for lots more information. And another one to watch is supermarket ‘mature’ cheddar. It’s often made with additives that give the flavour of a mature cheddar without the requirement for the cheese to actually mature at all, so choose carefully. A bit of research into genuine, high quality cheddar is all you need to do to avoid the processed and poor quality supermarket imposters.

Chive Revelations

chives

Chives are at their best at this time of year – bursting into purple pom pom flowers and looking strong and fresh in the herb bed.

I’ve been broadening my culinary chive horizons, using the flowers as well as the  leaves to very tasty effect. As I’ve discovered, there’s more to chives that a potato salad garnish…

Scrambled Egg with Chive Flowers 

Chive flowers sprinkled scrambled egg with chive flowersover scrambled egg provide a fantastic sweet, oniony crunch that works perfectly with eggs, giving a bolder flavour than just the leaves. And they do look very pretty too….

Northumberland Cheese and Chive Scones

Chives achive & cheese sconelso pair up brilliantly with cheese, and make a delicious savoury scone, their mild flavour providing a subtle balance to a good mature cheddar.               I’ve used this traditional Northumberland recipe for mine, and served them warm with some fresh asparagus soup. A very English late spring lunch.

To make 6 – 8 scones, you’ll need:

225g self-raising flour, 5g baking powder, ½ tsp salt, 55g mature English cheese, grated, 1 TBsp chopped fresh chives , 1 tsp chopped fresh thyme, ½ tsp crushed black pepper, 25g butter, 115ml milk and water (half and half)

  1. Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt and half the cheese.
  2. Add the butter in small pieces and rub into breadcrumbs.
  3. Add the chopped herbs and pepper and mix well.
  4. Carefully add the milk and water mixture, stirring gently until you have a soft dough.
  5. Roll out and cut into rounds.
  6. Place on a greased baking tray, brush with milk and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese.
  7. Bake at 220C for about 15 – 18 mins until golden.

chive scones with asparagus soup

A couple more chive ideas

Chive butter – finely chop chive leaves and / or the flowers and mix thoroughly with a good, salty butter. Great on baked salmon or baked potatoes.

Chive flower vinegar – harvest a big bunch of chive flowers, place in a sterilised jar and cover with a good white wine vinegar. Seal and leave in a dark place for a couple of weeks, then strain into a sterilised bottle and use – great as a flavoured salad dressing vinegar.

And of course there’s always chopped chives (leaves and flowers),  mixed with a good mayonnaise, lots of black pepper and stirred through boiled & cooled new potatoes…

If you have any favourite chive recipes – I’d love to hear about them.

A Little Bit Chili

This post is about preparing chipotle chilies – it gets to the point eventually

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My post today was intended to be about how to prepare dried Mexican chipotle chilies, but chilies are such a fascinating subject, the post has become a bit more than a set of instructions. So it’ll be just the first of a series of chili posts.

Chilies, of any kind, are definitely on my desert island seasoning list. DSCN1124_2DSCN1127_2

I love the way a carefully added bit of chili can lift and excite a dish, and I find the world of chili growing and cooking an endlessly fascinating one. There are so many varieties, heat levels and ways of preparing chili, it’s not surprising that the world of chili has become something of an art form.

If you want to learn about the art of cooking with chilies – Mexican cooking is the perfect place to begin.

Here’s just a few examples of the variety of Mexican dried chilies –  clockwise from top left – Mulato; chipotle (morito); chipotle (meco); de arbol

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Mexican is one of my all-time favourite styles of cooking. It’s earthy, flavourful and uses lots of my favourite ingredients – beans, peppers, tomatoes, cheese – and chilies of course.

And my passion for Mexican cooking has a long history. chili-0344-wr It began in the 1970s, with a visit to a little bistro in my home town in the south of England. The wooden tables were lit by tall red candles in raffia-decorated chianti bottles, layered with wax from previous evenings. From the menu I chose the very exotic sounding Chili-Con-Carne to go with our fresh bottle of Chianti.  A big bowl of spicy mince and dark red kidney beans was placed before me, accompanied by a crispy-skinned baked potato. At a time, and place, when seasoning meant gravy, and green peppers (let alone kidney beans) were unheard of, this was a culinary new experience.   The Chili-Con-Carne was truly delicious –  a wonderful mix of rich, savoury beef and earthy beans in a dark, spicy, chili sauce that had my nose running.

Fast forward a few (!) years and cooking with chilies has taken on a whole new life. You can now buy a huge variety of different types of chili in the UK,  and as well as chilies of different heat values, you can also enjoy chilies with great depth of flavour – cue the Mexican chilies.

And one of the most popular Mexican chilies is the chipotle.DSCN1144_2 The chipotle is a smoked -dried Jalapeno chili. It’s a medium-heat chili, with a unique smoked, tobacco flavour. Jalapenos are dried in a wood-smoke chamber over a few days to create the unique chipotle. These flavour-rich chilies are used in Mexican stews, sauces and salsas. If you’re looking for rich, smokey flavour to add to a bit of heat, then the chipotle is worth seeking out.

Which brings me back to the original idea for my post – how to prepare a dried chipotle chili:

A dried chipotle chili looks a bit – well – dry. It’s hard to imagine its flavour from its somewhat wrinkled, papery exterior. It looks and smells more like an expensive empty cigar.  But just soak the dried chipotle in hot (just boiled) water for 25 minutes and it rehydrates to enable you to chop it and add it to your dish.

Once it’s softened with the water, chop it finely, then add to your chosen dish – use in slow-cooked dishes like beef and pork chilies, which allow the smokey flavours to develop and the chipotle to soften.

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Chipotle chilies are a natural choice for bbq cooking too – add a little chopped chipotle to your marinating chicken for extra smokey flavour and heat.

I’ll be revisiting the world of chili over the next few months – we’ve got chili plants just beginning to grow on the windowsill, and lots of ideas for chili sauces and dishes to experiment with.

If you love chilies, whether it’s growing, cooking or eating them – please share your thoughts!

It’s About Thyme

fresh thymethymeEasy to grow, great for a small garden and wonderfully versatile for cooking, thyme is a fantastic herb to grow and eat. It’s a hardy plant, so another brilliant herb for perking up your winter cooking.

As well as an essential ingredient in a classic French bouquet garni, thyme is also one of the key ingredients in the delicious spice blend za’atar.

Like many herbs, it also has historical and renowned health properties, used to help alleviate colds and coughs, and as an antibacterial – so use it generously.

Here’s some of my favourite ways of using thyme.

Carrot, thyme and ginger soup

Thyme for freshness, ginger for zing and carrots for earthy sweetness – perfect soup combination!

carrot & thyme soup

Za’atar

Za’atar is a delicious, Middle Eastern spice blend – and one that’s very easy to make.

za'atar

Great to sprinkle on flatbreads, as a salad dressing seasoning and really good with chicken.

Just mix together:

1 TBsp crushed thyme (dried is usually used, but you could also use fresh)

1 tsp sumac (a fruity, citrussy berry)

1/2 tsp toasted sesame seeds

1/4 tsp sea salt

Thyme and lemon roast chicken.

Stuff a whole, free-range, medium-sized (1.5kg) chicken with a quartered lemon and half a dozen sprigs of fresh thyme.

Place in a roasting dish, sprinkle some crushed sea salt over the top and pour cold water around the chicken to a depth of an inch. ( I heartily recommend this method of roasting chicken that my partner introduced me to. It gives you a wonderfully, succulent, tender chicken, but with a great crispy skin. Much better than roasting in oil or fat).

Roast at 180C for about 1hour 40mins, or until the chicken is fully cooked.

The juices around the chicken make a great basis for a lemony gravy.

Bouquet Garni

A classic bouquet garni is very simple to make – a couple of sprigs of thyme, a bay leaf, a few chives and a stalk or two of parsley, tied together or placed in a muslin bag.

bouquet garni

Great for seasoning stews and soups, and you can experiment with lots of other ingredients too – try adding a stalk of lemongrass, or a sprig of rosemary for a bold flavour.

And finally, thinking ahead to summer, pick thyme whilst its flowering,  and use the (edible) flowers to flavour and decorate cakes and puddings – glamorous and flavourful.

Celebrate Winter with Rosemary

Today the temperature has been close to freezing. There are almost gale force winds and the sky is a determined dark grey, giving the impression of permanent dusk. Despite this meteorological challenge, the rosemary in our allotment is thriving.

rosemary allot

When most of the herb garden has succumbed to the winter temperatures, rosemary remains wonderfully unfazed by even the harshest weather.

Just brush off the snow, and snip off a few sprigs. Rosemary’s savoury flavour and piney aroma adds a welcome freshness to your winter cooking.

As well as providing the perfect seasoning for traditional, hearty dishes like roast lamb and herby dumplings, rosemary also works brilliantly with Mediterranean dishes like homemade pizza with olives, tomatoes and cheese. Rosemary originates from Southern Europe, so it has a natural affinity as well as a long history of being used in Mediterranean cooking.

But don’t limit rosemary to savoury dishes. Its aromatic mintiness adds depth and balance to sweet dishes too. A little chopped, fresh rosemary and a pinch of sea salt added to shortbread dough makes for a lovely marriage of sweet, salty and savoury.

And if you’re looking for a special dish to complete a dinner party – rosemary infused, dark chocolate truffles are simple to make – see my recipe below.

Alternatively, if you’re into your January detox, poach some fruit with a sprig of rosemary and a generous teaspoon of cinnamon – the flavour combination works really well – especially if you include a mix of sweet and sour fruits like apples, grapes and redcurrants.

rosemary fruit saladAnd for a general pick-me-up, make a simple, rosemary tea (recipe below) – its renowned health properties include being used as an antioxident, memory stimulant and antiseptic. rosemary tea  Dark chocolate Rosemary Truffles To make 20 truffles 160ml double cream 10 sprigs fresh rosemary 200g good quality, dark chocolate 20g butter 45ml icing sugar cocoa powder for coating.

  1. Place the rosemary in a pan with the cream, and heat until boiling. Turn off and leave to infuse for 45 mins. Boil the cream again then strain off the rosemary and leave the cream to cool a little.
  2. Gently melt the chocolate (in a bowl over hot water). Add the butter, then once it’s melted into the chocolate, stir in the sugar and the cream. Mix well then remove from the heat.
  3. Cool the mixture then place in the fridge until firm enough to handle.
  4. Form into small truffle shapes (it doesn’t matter how irregular!), and then roll in cocoa.
  5. Keep in the fridge until you’re ready to serve them and they’ll keep for about 48 hours.

 Rosemary Tea Add 1 sprig of rosemary per cup of boiling water. Leave to brew for 3 – 5 mins. Strain before drinking.