Saturday, 25 April 2015

Flor de sal, thyme and olive oil crackers

No kitchen should be without the heady, aromatic flavour of thyme, A delicate looking herb with a penetrating fragrance,whether used by the pinch or by the bunch, fresh thyme infuses any dish with unparalleled aroma and flavour.
Thyme is usually cooked with food rather than thrown in at the end.When cooked in stews and casseroles the leaves fall away from the branches infusing the stock and then the branches are removed at the end of cooking. I use both the fresh and dried varieties in marinades,dressings and even to infuse syrup for puddings.
Thyme has what I could only describe as a vigorous flavour,almost peppery in character,and therefore is for foods that can carry strong flavours.It is one of the essential ingredients of Herbes de provence along with rosemary, bay and savory and is also always included in bouquet garni for stock and soup making.
 Thyme is best cultivated in a hot, sunny location with well-drained soil. It is generally planted in the spring, and thereafter grows as a perennial.  It tolerates drought well.The Casa Rosada garden is dotted with different varieties of thyme and so with a bit of thyme management the kitchen here is never without  both fresh and dried. The fresh form is more flavourful, but also less convenient.Thyme waits for no one,its storage life is less than a week.
 So bearing that in mind who would have thought that I would see the day I made my own homemade crackers.Inspired by Ottolenghi and finding another use for a windfall sack of dried thyme that recently came my way,there was no thyme like a present so I catapulted his basic recipe into something a little more aromatic. His recipe was for olive oil crackers, but the first batch I made were very bland so I upped the game with thyme and Flor de sal mediterranica, a Flor de sal with olives and chilli.What a difference some seasoning makes,now we were talking crackers.There is only one problem,they are so delicate that they can break,but this is half the fun of it as you spread lashings of soft cheese on them.they are rustic, elegant and very unusual.They are so damn easy to make and I swear once you´ve tried them you will never need to buy crackers ever again.Serve them straight from the oven, as crisp as crisp can be.

Flor de sal, thyme and olive oil crackers

Makes 24
250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1 tsp baking powder
115ml water
25ml olive oil,plus extra for brushing
1/2 tsp Flor de sal
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp smoked picante paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp black pepper
Generous sprinklings of Flor de sal mediterranica 
In a large bowl,mix together all the ingredients except the flor de sal to form a soft dough.You can do this by hand or in a processor fitted with a dough hook Work the dough until you get a firm consistency,then cover with cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for 1 hour.
Heat the oven to 220c/gas mark 7.Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface or board.Have a bowl of flour ready at your side for dusting.Use a large sharp knife to cut  off wanut sized pieces (roughly 15g each) from the dough. Roll out each piece as thinly as possible with arolling pin,dusting with plenty of flour as you go.They should end up looking like long oval tongues,almost paper thin.
Place the crackers on a tray lined with baking parchment.Brush them with plenty of olive oil and sprinkle generously with Flor de sal. Bake for about 6 minutes,until crisp and golden.

Adapted from Ottolenghi ("Ottolenghi the cookbook")

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The true Bhajia, Lap-top dinner or Goan wedding starter?

 Not for Arachnophobics 
I have recently been thumbing through Indian  cook books researching menus for a wedding we will be catering next year.The bride to be is of Goan Irish descent.While thumbing through starters I unearthed Bhajias.
Now I have never attempted to make these even though they have always been a much-loved favourite, but how surprised was I when I saw how they should be properly made.  
This is probably the most popular of all Indian snacks and the most commonly found throughout India.They are just one variety of the wider pakora family often made with aubergine, potato, spinach, plantain, paneer or cauliflower.In the UK,a nation never renowned for its subtle taste, the pungent onion "bhajji" reigns supreme as the king of pakoras.It is also the most misunderstood and incorrectly made.It is very simple and quick to make, and if done properly, the results will astound you.The correct term is Bhajia which simply means fritter.Like many adopted British dishes the bhajias you see in shops and even restaurants throughout the UK do not always represent the true bhajia the Indians know and love.They should not be the size of a tennis ball for starters.They should be flatter and not really have any shape at all. I had an expat craving recently and I thought I would give the true recipe a whirl.I was amazed.I imagine that what I made was  similar to those made in Indian homes.I hope so anyway.If the wedding couple decide on these as a possible canapé option I will have to ensure against arachnophobic guests having panic attacks and screaming on the dance floor.
Kaanda Bhajia 
2 medium onions
2 green chillies, finely minced
1 level tsp chilli powder
2tbsp coriander,chopped
1 tsp cumin, crushed coarsely
1/2 tsp Ajwain (lovage),crushed also known as thymol or carom seeds
(I used dried thyme)
1/2 tsp turmeriuc
1/2 tsp lemon juice
6- 7 tbsp chickpea flour
salt to taste
Sunflower to deep fry
Two tbsp water
Slit the onions in half,remove the root stubs and slice them as finely as you can.
Place in a deep bowl and add the green chillies,chilli powder, coriander,cumin,ajwain or thyme,turmeric and lemon juice.Seive the chickpea flour with the salt.
Heat the oil in saucepan deep enough to hold oil for deep frying or a deep fat fryer.
Mix the chickpea flour slowly into the onions and rub it with your fingers,until the mix is firm and sticky.Add the water and mix for afurther 1~2 minutes.Check for salt it is likely you will need to add some at this point.
Keep a strainer ready over a bowl for draining the bhajias when ready.
With your already messy fingers put small dollops of the batter into the oil to fry.
Do not put too many in the oil together when frying or else you will have soggy bhajias.
Each bhajia should be no bigger than a small fritter,approximately 2.5cm.
Do not keep the oil too hot.The fritter should fry slowly so that it gets crisp and golden.If the oil is too hot the bhajias will fry too fast and remain raw and gooey inside.If you then try to refry,they will burn,remain soggy and taste bitter.
On the other hand,if you want to serve them later,you can half fry and remove them.Fry when you are ready in hot oil this time.If the oil is not hot when refrying,the bhajias will absorb too much oil.
Serve the bhajias with any chutney of your choice.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Do yourself some favas- Broad bean and smoky bacon soup

Spring is finally with us and seeing over-filled boxes of broad beans in the market made me want to rush home and make a fresh green soup.The marriage of beans and bacon has a long history, so I thought I would include smoky bacon in the equation.When I sieved the soup at the end of cooking I found I was left with a lot of tasty residue in my sieve.The consistency was similar to hummus and I thought it would be fun to add a little lemon juice,olive oil and mint and serve it up as a bright fresh tasting variation on that theme.A great sort of springtime hummus.Friends around the table can dip into and spread it on crostini as they lunch in the springtime sunshine around the garden table,while they wash it down with a chilled glass of Alvarinho wine.
The most frugal cooks choose only the best looking beans with an eye to making soup,not just from the beans but from the pods too.The Portuguese way of harvesting is to leave the pods on the plant to reach maturity, when the pods become quite hard and very shiny. This morning in the market there was a hive of activity as  a huddle of ladies mucked together to help our favourite  stall holder, Dona Isabel Domingues, pod the boxes of beans into bowls, ready to be bagged up for those cooks who have more generous purses and and dont want the task of freeing the beans from their pods.
 I love observing this fuss around the market stalls at this time of year when the broad beans are new in the market. I actually enjoy podding ,be it peas or favas, I even find the process quite therapeutic.

Broad bean(fava) and smoky bacon soup
Serves 6-8
1 large onion, diced
1 leek,washed and chopped
2 sticks of celery,peeled and chopped
50g butter
100g smoked bacon, finely diced (optional)
1 sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
500ml chicken or vegetable stock
500g fresh or frozen peas
250g fresh broad beans,blanched and skinned
100ml double cream
Over a low heat,soften the onion,leek and celery in the butter for 5 minutes.Add the bacon,if using,and the herbs.Cook for 10 minutes,stirring occasionally.
Pour the stock into the pan and bring to the boil,then lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.Skim off any residue that comes to the surface.Add the peas and the broad beans,bring the liquid to the boil,then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for five more minutes.
take the pan off the hob and purée the soup in a blender.Rinse the pan and pass the blended soup through a sieve back into the pan.Return to the hob and bring back to the boil.Immediately stir in the double cream.Remove from the heat,season and serve in warm bowls.            

Broad bean and coriander hummus

There has always been a strong affiliation in the Algarve between broad beans and coriander
With the residue I had left from sieving the soup I made a spring hummus.Putting the residue in a processor I added olive oil,a large handful of fresh coriander and lemon juice,seasoned with salt and pepper.I then blitzed it until I reached an almost smooth purée,but retaining a little of the coarse texture.