March 2010 Archives

Cardamom cookies

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When I made these little biscuits for my third Secret Kitchen they were gobbled up greedily, despite the preceding four course dinner.  I based the recipe on one from Tartine, our favourite café in San Francisco.  (And everyone else’s, judging by the ‘line’ running down the sidewalk every Saturday morning.)  You can create your own recipe by substituting different nuts and spices, as you like.


Lemon curd tart

california, france
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While living in San Francisco, training as a chef at Tante Marie's Cooking School, I went through a phase of making lemon tarts. At home we ate them day after day after day, as I had to practise making the perfect sweet ‘shortcrust’ tart dough and the perfect lemon curd.  Matt didn’t seem to mind.

smlemontart0028.JPGBoth crust and curd are harder than you might think.  The tart shell must be perfectly even and crisp; the curd must have a perfect balance of sweet and sour, and be luxuriously rich and smooth.  And then there is the challenge of slowly baking the assembled tart such that the curd sets up beautifully and does not curdle, blister or crack.
smlemontartrhubarb0002.jpgIn San Francisco I used Meyer lemons - a particularly sweet and fragrant variety - but now back in London they are nowhere to be found.  I recently dug out my notes (including tips I gleaned from two fantastic pastry chefs, Jennifer Altman and Jim Dodge) to make lemon tarts for one of my Secret Kitchen dinners.  I served it with poached forced Yorkshire rhubarb flavoured with a little orange zest, and thick double cream. 

Note that the dough’s sugar:butter:flour ratio is 1:2:3 - easy to remember.  For a wonderfully golden curd, use free range organic eggs.

Pistachio stuffed dates

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This is a Moroccan recipe, and the perfect accompaniment to mint tea to round off a lavish Moroccan feast.  Dates are one of Morocco’s finest exports.  While travelling around Morocco we drove all the way to Erfoud on the edge of the Sahara for its October date festival, only to find that the unusually wet weather had flooded most of the date palm groves and raging torrents had destroyed several key roads and bridges.  Not what we expected to find in the desert!

smpistachiostuffeddates0001.JPGSmdateharvest0001.jpgFurther West, in the foothills of the High Atlas mountains, we caught up with the date harvest (see pic).  And just beyond we found the beautiful Valley of the Roses.  In spring this valley is carpeted with roses, whose petals are harvested to make fragrant rose water, used as both a culinary and cosmetic ingredient.  Rose water is also used in Iranian and Indian cuisine, and throughout the Arabic world.  It was much more popular, along with orange flower water, in European cuisine in the past than it is today.  Try it in cakes instead of vanilla.

smpistachiobaklava0001.JPGBut pistachios will always make me think of Turkey, and in particular Gaziantep (formerly Antep), renowned throughout Turkey and beyond for the fine pistachios which thrive in the surrounding dry, low hills.  Here we ate our fill of baklava stuffed with naturally bright green pistachio paste, and marvelled at the women who sort the nuts one-by-one by hand, to ensure only the best are used.  As in Morocco, Turkish cuisine combines nuts and sugar to great effect.

In London I buy my ‘Antep fıstığı’ (Antep nuts) from a brilliant little shop called Hot Nuts on Green Lanes, a few minutes walk from Manor House tube station.  Green Lanes and nearby Blackstock Road are also a sure bet for good dates and rose water.

Chicken couscous with onion relish

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This recipe is based on one given by Clifford Wright, an expert on Mediterranean cuisines and their histories.  I have made some changes to reflect my own culinary experiences in Morocco and personal taste.  This is not a quick or easy dish, but fantastic for feeding a crowd.  The chicken, vegetables and relish look magnificent piled on top of a vast mound of steaming couscous in the centre of the table.  Serve it with rose harissa sauce, for a fragrant chilli kick.

smchickencouscousplated0003.JPGClifford tells us that couscous might have a sub-Saharan origin, and that the origin of the word may be Berber.  Having seen couscous cookery in Senegal and Mali, I can believe this.  One of its benefits is that it can be steamed over your pot of stew, so you only need one fire, which need not be a roaring hot one.  So it is practical and economical, not to mention delicious.


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Amlou is served in Morocco with good fresh bread to dip in.  It’s eaten as a snack or appetizer, for example to welcome a guest into your house.  It is delicious, especially with a glass of mint tea.  The three key ingredients are all Moroccan specialities:  almonds, honey and argan oil.  Real argan oil, extracted from the kernels of the nuts of the argan tree, is expensive and hard to find outside Morocco, but is worth the effort.  Try to find one with a delicate nutty flavour, and check it has not gone rancid.   


Nocino (green walnut liqueur)

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This delicious liqueur is traditionally made on 24th June, the day of St John the Baptist, when (at least in warm parts of Italy) walnuts are at the perfect point of (im)maturity.  This is my version of the recipe, based on that I learnt from the lovely Giulia Savini at her organic agriturismo, Valle Nuova.

IMG_0005.JPGWe actually first made it in France, using Italian ‘pure’ alcohol and French walnuts picked in July.  In England I’m guessing the nuts definitely won’t be ready as early as 24th June.

smnocinoItaly0005.JPGThe walnuts should still be just soft enough to cut through the whole thing (unpeeled) with a big heavy chef’s knife - cut notch then lift knife with walnut attached and whack down on board.  The nut revealed inside should be jelly or semi-jelly, with nuttiness just beginning to form.  They stain your hands and board like anti-theft capsules stain clothes.  Be warned.

If you can’t get pure alcohol (I don’t think it’s sold in the UK), use the strongest vodka you can find and reduce the amount of water in the sugar syrup by 500ml.

Note that your liqueur will taste horrible at first, good after a year, and delicious after two.  I’m yet to discover just how wonderful it gets after three years in the bottle…

Lacto-fermented cucumbers

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Lacto-fermenting is another way of pickling.  Instead of using vinegar, you use a salt solution and wait for some special (naturally existing) bacteria to work their magic.  The gherkins retain more of their vitamins and there are other health benefits too.  More importantly, they don’t have that overpowering vinegary tang and taste delicious.

smgherkins0007.JPGHere’s the science bit:  The salt solution favours the proliferation of lactic acid bacteria.  These bacteria (of which there are many species) ferment carbohydrates into lactic acid, carbon dioxide and other organic acids without the need for oxygen.  This turns the solution acidic and replaces the air at the top of the jar with carbon dioxide gas.  So, other (unwanted) bacteria will now not be able to reproduce. 

American recipe books will contain warnings, or not include this method of preserving at all.  But this kind of fermentation has been used across the world for centuries.  We came across plenty of food preserved this way on our culinary travels in 2008:  In Poland we loved the big barrels of gherkins and cabbage (ie sauerkraut); in Turkey we ate and drank yoghurt with everything we could; in Morocco our chicken tagines came with preserved lemons; in Mali we drank lots of millet beer; and in Ghana we filled up on fufu (fermented cassava and unripe plantain, pounded to a sticky stodge).

Secret Kitchen menu, 20th March 2010

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Pegasus Bay Riesling 2006, New Zealand

Thai crab salad in little gem lettuce cups

Bresaola and rocket salad with goat’s cheese vinaigrette

Wild Alaskan sockeye salmon with Puy lentils, purple sprouting broccoli, salsify and herbed yoghurt

Lemon curd tart with poached rhubarb and double cream

Coffee, cardamom cookies and home-made limoncello

Preserving workshops, 6th & 13th March 2010

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preserving-class.jpgTogether with Riverford Organic Vegetables, I am running a series of hands-on seasonal workshops on preserving fruit and vegetables.  The classes will be ideal for beginners and will cover all the basics of preserving.

Our March sessions will include:

Lacto-fermented Moroccan preserved lemons
Pickled beetroot with horseradish
Orange marmalade
Spicy carrot chutney
Grapefruit curd

There will samples to taste and jars and recipes to take home.

Dates:  Saturday 6th, repeated Saturday 13th March 2010

Time:  10am - 3pm

Location:  London N5

Price:  £50 (includes light lunch)

To book:  email Paul Jardine at Riverford Camden & Islington



Culinary Anthropologist