Steenbergs organic herbs and spices

I missed my Mum and Dad an awful lot when I was on holiday. Looks like they missed me too; I came home to a present from them – a beautiful little box of sample-sized herbs, salts and spices from Steenbergs.

Steenbergs is a Fair Trade and organic supplier of herbs, spices and teas. Their products are available by mail order and in shops in the UK and overseas, and if you’ve an opportunity to try one of their herb or spice sets, I’d recommend you give them a whirl. The little glass jars are full of an eclectic mix of spices from the familiar to the downright exotic, and the company also mixes its own blends, a couple of which were in my little box.

This set includes a nutmeg; an American barbecue mix; three colours of peppercorn (I have been a big fan of pink peppers since my brother bought me a jar to accompany the foie gras he gave us for Christmas); Steenbergs’ ‘perfect salt’; Turkish rosemary (I’m not so sure about this; I find dried rosemary a bit spiky to be useful normally. I’ll have to cook with it and report back); French rose petals; a pink, volcanic Hawaiian salt which I’ll use on more foie gras; and star anise. After a few hours of unscrewing lids and sniffing, screwing them back on, unscrewing them again to have another sniff, screwing them on etc. etc., I decided to give the ‘perfect salt’ a spin.

Perfect salt is a herb mix with cracked black pepper in sea salt. Everything (as is the norm with Steenbergs) is organic, and this salt is perfectly balanced. I slathered it all over a duck and put it in an oven for an hour and a half with no other seasoning (not even my traditional lemon) – savoury and delicious. Try it on a roast chicken, on baked vegetables and as a seasoning on finished foods. These blends are simple, natural and well thought-out; the smoke flavour in the barbecue mix comes from Spanish smoked paprika, rather than from smoke flavourings.

What is it about the sort of natural, pared-down design that Steenbergs use in their products that makes me so downright hungry?

Cha gio (nems) – Vietnamese crispy spring rolls

nemsWhen Mr Weasel and I were living in Paris, we spent a lot of our time in one of the city’s Chinatowns, along the Avenue d’Ivry. It’s more a Cambodia-town or a Vietnam-town than London’s Chinatown, which is full of Chinese people and food; France is home to many more Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people than the UK is, and this is reflected in the food.

One of my favourite Vietnamese dishes is these spring rolls, which are very hard to find in restaurants in the UK. Many cultures cook things wrapped in other things – there is the burrito, the Malaysian po pia, the fajita, the crèpe and . . . I suppose the closest English equivalent is the Cornish pasty. The cha gio stands head and shoulders above all of these – it’ s got texture and flavour to beat them all to a pulp in any contest of wrapped-up-things you may choose to imagine.

Cha gio get their texture, both crisp and chewy all at once, from the rice paper skins they are wrapped in. You can find these in good oriental supermarkets, and although they’re a little fragile when dry, they’re very easy to handle and wrap with. The finished rolls are wrapped in lettuce and herbs, making them taste fresh and light.

To make about sixty cha gio, you’ll need:

Rolls
225g cellophane (bean thread) noodles
4 carrots, grated
8 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked
8 water chestnuts
1 dressed crab
12 raw tiger prawns, peeled and deveined
350g minced pork
1 onion
5 spring onions
4 cloves garlic
6 shallots
4 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc mam)
3 eggs
15 x 25cm discs of rice paper (available in oriental supermarkets)

Sugar and water for soaking
Oil for deep-frying
Lettuce and mint leaves for wrapping

Sauce
4 cloves minced garlic
½ cup nuoc mam
¼ cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon chili oil
1 diced red chili

raw prawnsSoak the noodles in boiling water and set aside, draining and rinsing in cold water after 15 minutes. Put the mushrooms, water chestnuts, crab, pork, prawns, onions, garlic and shallots in the food processor and pulse until chopped finely. Use your hands to stir in the fish sauce, the eggs, the carrots and the noodles.

Fill a mixing bowl half-full with warm water, and dissolve about six tablespoons of caster sugar in it – the sugar will help the rolls brown and help the sweetness of the carrots come through. Soak a rice-paper disc in this until it’s soft and pliable. Cut it with scissors into quarters. Place a dessert spoonful of the filling on the curved edge, fold over the adjacent corners and roll up, as in these photographs.


Deep fry the little rolls (I use a wok, which helps save on oil) until they are golden brown.

cha gioTo serve, wrap each one in a leaf of lettuce with some mint leaves. Dip in the spicy sauce and do your very best to nibble delicately. Delicious.

Those visiting Paris should run, not walk to Kim Anh (51 Av Emile Zola, 15e, 01 45 79 96), where the nems are . . . pretty much as good as these, only you don’t have to do all the work. (I lie. They’re even better, and they’re served alongside the very best Vietnamese food I’ve ever eaten.)

Weekend herb blogging – Gnocchi alla Romana in a herbed butter

Everything in the garden is dead or hibernating. Even the slugs seem to have vanished for warmer climes. So today’s Weekend Herb Blogging post (thanks to Kalyn from Kalyn’s Kitchen for organising things again), although packed with herbs, is packed with herbs from the supermarket. I feel like I’m cheating. Roll on summer.

You might be used to gnocchi as little Italian dumplings made of potato, served in a sauce. Gnocchi alla Romana are the traditional form of dumpling from Rome, and they don’t contain potato; instead, they’re made with semolina, and they’re usually served with a flavoured butter. Clearly going to Prague didn’t manage to put me off dumplings.

Semolina is durum wheat, ground coarsely. In the UK you may find it in the same aisle as the ready-made custard, the jelly and the Angel Delight; it’s used in English cookery to make a sort of sloppy pudding. I’d recommend feigning Italian-ness for the day and using it to make these gnocchi; they’re light, fluffy and infinitely nicer than any doughy pudding. You’ll often see semolina gnocchi baked into sliced or cookie-cut shapes, but I prefer to make them into roughly-textured balls; this way you get a larger surface area, and therefore more delicious crusty bits.

The gnocchi are roasted in a garlic-flavoured butter which has been infused in a warm place with handfuls and handfuls of herbs. This time I used great gouts of flat-leaved parsley, basil and tarragon; use whatever comes to hand in yours. Chervil is excellent if you you can get your hands on any. Rosemary and sage are also very good in this.

To serve between four and six people (depends on levels of hunger; frankly, I’ve had three people finish a dish this size in about five minutes flat, making self-satisfied gargling noises), you’ll need:

Herbed butter
1 pack butter (1/2 lb)
1 glug olive oil (about a shot glass full)
5 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
Around 4 large handfuls fresh herbs – I used parsley, tarragon and basil
Salt and pepper

Gnocchi
1 and a half pints milk
12 oz semolina
1/2 lb grated parmesan (plus some extra to sprinkle)
2 eggs
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper

Start by melting the butter with the olive oil over a very, very gentle heat. (I realise this is an awful lot of fat. Personally, I don’t find this terribly upsetting, but if you are the sort to be upset by butter, please still try it; you can spend the week following your triumph eating rice cakes.) Stir in all the herbs and garlic until they’re coated with the butter and leave in a warm place for an hour or so.

While the butter is infusing, grate a little nutmeg into the milk, sprinkle in some salt and pepper, and bring the milk to a simmer. When it starts bubbling, keep it on a low heat and pour the semolina into it in a very thin stream, stirring all the time. Keep pouring and stirring until you have a thick paste that you can stand a spoon in. Take it off the heat, beat the eggs and the parmesan into the semolina mixture, and leave the pan until the mixture is cool enough to handle.

Form the mixture into little balls (try for something a bit smaller than a ping-pong ball) with your hands. Don’t make them too smooth; a rough surface is better for making the lovely crispy bits. Place them in one layer in a roasting tin, pour over the butter (which will now have infused with the gorgeous rich flavour of the herbs and garlic), sprinkle with parmesan cheese, and put in an oven at 200 C (390 F) for fifty minutes until everything is brown and bubbling. Serve to loud applause.

Crostini al funghi – mushrooms on toast for grown-ups

Mushrooms on toast is a noble and ancient English nursery tea. When I was tiny, I read Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit and loved it dearly; Little Grey Rabbit would peel the pinky-beige satin skins off field mushrooms and stroke them before cooking them on her stove. In love with the bunny, I developed a fascination with mushrooms.

I’m grown up now. I can’t eat mushrooms on toast without being all post-ironic about it. In this form, though, kiddies’ mushrooms on toast becomes elevated to a dinner party amuse bouche; a gorgeous, silky, creamy, rich cloud of mushrooms on crisp slices of grilled ciabatta.

I still eat it for tea. What the hell; I’m posh.

To serve three for a grown-up nursery supper, you’ll need:

1 large knob of butter
1 punnet small chestnut mushrooms, sliced thin
1 punnet shitake mushrooms, sliced thin
4 shallots, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small handful (palmful, really) dried porcini mushrooms, soaked
A glug of Marsala
1/4 pint cream
Juice of half a lemon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 large handful chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
1 ciabatta

Melt the butter over a medium heat in a non-stick pan until it’s bubbling gently, and turn the fresh mushrooms, shallots and garlic into it. Saute, stirring frequently, until they soften and give up their juices. Add the soaked porcini, and continue to saute until all the juices have evaporated.

Add the Marsala (about a shot-glass full) and simmer until it’s all evaporated and the alcohol has burned off. Add the cream, cayenne pepper and mustard, and stir in the lemon juice, tasting all the time (you might want to use more or less than half a lemon). Simmer until the mixture bubbles and thickens, stir in the parsley off the heat, and season to taste.

While you cook the mushrooms, slice a ciabatta diagonally into ten, and toast the slices until crisp. Pile the mushrooms on the ciabatta slices, and serve immediately. Little Grey Rabbit was missing a trick.

Weekend herb blogging

Kalyn, from Kalyn’ s Kitchen, is hosting a weekly herb blogging event, where bloggers photograph and talk about the herbs and other edible things in their garden. It just happened that I was in the garden early this morning waving my camera around and being looked at suspiciously by the postman and the village’s early risers (most of whom were walking dogs. When I find out which of them owns the dog that keeps coming into my back garden, digging up bulbs and pooing in the hole, I shall…photograph it).

The small, flat herb in the centre here is a lemon thyme. I grow several thymes, and this is my favourite; it’s very fragrant, and has a verbena edge which goes beautifully in a bouquet garni. I’ll be using some in a beef and Guinness casserole later this weekend. The lemon thyme is surrounded by a French lavender, which is flowering steadily, and has been since early summer. (Given the very hard frost last night, I suspect it’ll give up now.) I use the flower heads and leaves in a lavender ice-cream which you’ll have to wait until next year to try. This is a fairly horrible photo when viewed this size; I was trying to be artistic. Must remember to stick to being mundane.

These are the last of the rowan (mountain ash) berries. They make a very good jelly earlier in the season, when they are still hard, mixed with crab apples, but the house is currently groaning under the weight of dozens of jars of quince jelly, so I left them on the tree this year.

An old wive’s tale says that plants near a mountain ash will fail to thrive, and often die. I do have some trouble planting around this tree, especially with plants like annual fuchsias, which aren’t all that hardy to start with. This year I’ve put in some wood anemone bulbs to flower early next year, and the hellebores under the tree do well too, so we’ll see how things are doing in the spring.

Finally, the prickly wild English roses (Rosa Acidularis) in the garden, which smell so wonderful when they flower, are covered with bright haws at the moment. Rosehips can be used in an infusion, are used in a Chinese children’s sweet, make another excellent jelly, and can be used as a cooked dessert fruit once the white, hairy centres are removed. I deadhead all my roses to keep them flowering late into the summer and on into autumn, but this bush I leave alone to form its haws, which are as beautiful as flowers; red, fat and shiny, they decorate the bush for months. And don’t they look good in the frost?

Mussels with creme fraiche – moules a la creme

There is something horribly primal about cooking mussels. I think it has to do with the elbow-grease you have to put in cleaning them and slaughtering any barnacles they might be hosting, hauling bits of their still-quivering little mussely bodies off, and the suspicion that the dead ones may not be dead, but merely pretending in the hope you’ll throw them back. (Sadly, these fakers are not smart enough to realise they’re 50 miles from the sea.)

I had some very good moules marinere in Wimereux, a town in northern France, in September. Each tiny mussel (smaller than the mussels you might buy to cook at home) had a pea crab living inside its gills (you can see a very graphic video of one found in a mussel here), which, although admittedly mildly creepy on first encounter (Gah! There is a tiny thing in my mussel), made the whole mussel experience about twenty times better, adding flavour and, dare I say it, texture. Lovely, leggy, crispy texture.

The mussels you can find at an English fishmonger will almost certainly be farmed, rope-grown mussels. This means that they’re not as gritty as wild mussels, but they’re also not as flavourful. On the other hand, though, you can really go to town with the flavours you cook them with, so it’s not a total dead loss.

Mussels straight out of the plastic fishmongers’ net are rather unprepossessing. They’re slimy, they have a straw-like, tough ‘beard’ attached (you’re going to have to remove this later, so pay attention), and they offer a home to a myriad of exciting barnacles and other little friends. Some will be open; rap them on the working surface. If they’re alive, they’ll shut. If they’re cracked or dead (or feigning in the hope that you are on a quayside somewhere), they’ll sit there, inert, daring you to look them in the eye. Bin them.

Run a sink of cold water, and drown the sad, live mussels. Give them a good scrub with a little brush, take the beards between your fingers, and yank them off. The larger the mussel, the harder you will have to yank. This beard is not, obviously, a beard, mussels having no weak chins to hide from lady mussels, but is a fibrous mass they grow to attach themselves securely to rocks (or in the case of these guys, ropes). When you pull it off, pull towards the shell’s hinge; you might tear apart the meat of the mussel pulling towards the open end, and this will kill them, prevent you from dealing them the unique, boiling-in-wine death you’re about to offer. The ones in the picture above are cleaned. They look a lot more appetising.

For this recipe, which serves two people, you will need:

2kg mussels, cleaned
1/2 a bottle white wine (I used a chenin blanc)
4 tablespoons creme fraiche
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 large bunch parsley
1 large bunch chives
5 shallots (or 1 large onion) chopped finely
4 cloves garlic chopped finely
1 large knob butter

Soften the shallots and garlic with the thyme and bay leaves in the melted butter over a medium heat for five minutes. Turn up the heat, then add the wine and creme fraiche. Simmer for five minutes to burn off the alcohol, and, while the wine mixture is bubbling, tip all the cleaned mussels in. Slam the lid on. The mussels, already pretty grumpy that you’ve removed a useful body part, will expire in the steam, giving their salty juices to the sauce – you don’t need to add salt yourself.

(On re-reading this, I realise it sounds positively pornographic. This is half the fun of shellfish.)

Keep the lid on for three minutes, then check the pan. Fish out as many as have opened as you can, and put them in a serving dish (I use large salad bowls – there’s a lot of shell in there). Put the lid back on and steam for three more minutes – they should now all be open. (Discard any closed ones; they were probably dead before you cooked them.) Take the mussels out, leaving the sauce in the pan. Stir the chives and parsley into the hot sauce, leave it for a minute to allow any sand or grit to settle (very unlikely, this, with rope-grown mussels) and spoon it over the open shells.

Make sure you’ve got some good bread to dip in the buttery, juicy sauce, and use your fingers to pull the satiny little mussels from their shells.

I usually end up naming some of my more recognisable mussels. Clint, the very big one with the nigh-unremovable beard, and Fifi, the teeny, beardless one with the barnacle beauty-spot, both died for my supper. It was a worthwhile sacrifice.

Mushroom risotto

It’s cold. It’s windy. When these conditions prevail, our bodies are programmed to do something rather special. They are programmed to crave stodge.

One organism, the mushroom, does better than we do in the cold, leafy months. The supermarket shelves are overflowing with punnets upon punnets of mushrooms, and they’re quite reasonably priced. On top of this, almost everybody I know seems to have a cold at the moment, and I think some garlic, said to have a mild antibiotic effect, is in order. Stodge, mushrooms and garlic. This is a perfect excuse for some mushroom risotto.

Carnaroli is my favourite risotto rice. It’s a fat, short grain which will absorb more than its own weight in stock, and cooks to a fluffy, swollen, creamy risotto. If you can find carnaroli rice, do try using it instead of arborio, which is more often sold as a risotto rice in supermarkets.

For six people, I use:

500g fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 small handful dried cepes (porcini), soaked, the soaking water reserved
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 large handful parsley, chopped
1/2 a teaspoon cayenne pepper
juice of 1/2 a lemon
2 pints of stock
5 shallots, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
400g carnaroli rice
1 glass marsala
2 tablespoons creme fraiche
4 heaped tablespoons grated parmesan
3 large knobs of butter
Olive oil
Seasoning

I used shitake mushrooms (meaty, robust little beasts which keep a good, toothsome texture; they don’t melt to a slime) and oyster mushrooms (less good, honestly, but still pretty darn nice). I don’t wash them, but wipe them instead with kitchen towel so that they don’t absorb unwanted water. I fried all the mushrooms (including the cepes) with two of the cloves of garlic and half the thyme in a mixture of butter and olive oil, and when they were cooked, stirred in the parsley, squeezed over the lemon and sprinkled over a little salt and some cayenne pepper.

While the mushrooms were frying, I made the risotto base. The celery, shallots, the rest of the garlic and the rest of the thyme were sauteed in oil and butter, and when soft the rice was added, and then fried gently, without changing colour, for a couple of minutes until transluscent.

I added the marsala, and stirred until it was all absorbed. Then I added the soaking liquid from the cepes and stirred until that was all absorbed. The two pints of stock were then added a ladle at a time, each time stirring and stirring until all the liquid had gone before adding another ladle.

After about twenty minutes, the liquid was all absorbed, and the rice creamy and tender. I stirred in the mushrooms, cheese and creme fraiche. Serve this quickly, while it’s still hot and moist. I have managed to convert at least one mushroom-hater with this risotto – try it yourself, and open your arms and welcome winter.