Caponata Siciliana

When I lived in London, I worked a few doors away from Antonio Carluccio’s Covent Garden delicatessen and restaurant. Between that delicatessen and the MAC cosmetics shop, I usually managed to relieve myself of most of my salary by the end of the month with astonishing ease. It is depressing to realise that all you’ve got to show for having edited half a book is four tubes of pink-coloured whale fat, a pot of something sparkly, a small bag of pine nuts and a stomach full of aubergines that somebody else has cooked.

Happy day. I now live in a house which is essentially in the middle of a field, four miles from the nearest shop. I work from home these days, being a freelance, so I’m not tempted to don wellies and hike out to the shops in my lunch hour. This means that I make my own caponata and get to spend more on sparkly things at the weekends.

Caponata is a Sicilian vegetable dish, and it’s brilliantly flexible; you can use it as a side dish, a salad, a kind of saucy base for cooked meat; it is good hot, cold from the fridge or (my favourite) at room temperature. It’s typical of Sicily in its Arab-influenced agrodolce, or sour/sweet flavouring, and is spiked with savoury olives, capers and pine nuts.

This is very similar to the caponata from Carluccio’s (which they used to serve in a gorgeously oily foccacia sandwich with a slice of Fontina cheese). It’s another good recipe for those with a glut of tomatoes – I used a sugo (tomato puree) I’d cooked and bottled last year. Those without their own can buy good sugo at an Italian delicatessen (I recommend Balzano’s in Cambridge for locals) – Sainsbury’s also carry a good, own-brand Italian sugo for a short period every summer. To make your own, just simmer whole tomatoes in a pan with a little butter, salt and sugar (no water) until the skins are bursting, then strain the lot through a sieve.

To make a large bowl of Caponata, sufficient for a side-dish for six, you’ll need:

4 large aubergines (eggplants)
2 large onions
Inner leaves and stalks of a large celery plant
400g Sugo (see above)
1 small handful salted nonpareil capers, rinsed well
1 small handful chopped black olives (stoned)
1 large handful pine nuts
1 large handful basil, plus more to garnish
1 tablespoon caster sugar
60ml sherry vinegar (use white wine vinegar if you can’t get sherry)
Salt, pepper
Olive oil

Chop the aubergines into even dice. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large, thick-bottomed pan until it starts to give off its fragrance and tip the aubergines in. Fry, keeping everything on the move, until the aubergines are soft and turning brown. Remove them to a bowl.

Dice the onions roughly and fry them in some more oil in the same pan until soft. Add the chopped celery heart and stalks, the pine nuts, capers, olives and sugo, and stir until the celery is tender – about five minutes. (Make sure you don’t add too much sugo; this should be moist, not wet.) Add the cooked aubergines and shredded basil to the pan and cook, stirring gently, for another ten minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar, cook for another five minutes to take the edge off the vinegar, and season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Serve immediately or leave to cool. Mine is currently on the kitchen table, cooling for Fontina sandwiches later this evening. My stomach is growling.

Best tomato salad

This tomato salad recipe is the perfect, sunny, flavourful accompaniment to long summer’s evenings in the garden, basking by the barbecue and drinking silly amounts of Pimms. There’s no cooking involved; just some slicing which is easily done with a glass by your side and the sun pouring in through the kitchen window.

If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself with a glut of tomatoes late in the summer. This salad is remarkable in that you can make it again and again, and it doesn’t become boring. It brings out the gorgeous flavour of the sun all those tomatoes have soaked up; the basil, oregano and sweet balsamic vinegar all work together to make your tomatoes platonically tomato-ish.

Use whatever tomatoes come to hand. This salad is really pretty with a couple of yellow tomatoes scattered among the reds, or with large and small-fruiting varieties mixed together. Here, I’ve used small vine tomatoes and some baby plum tomatoes. To serve four as a side dish (or two as a lunch on its own with some crusty bread) you’ll need:

20 small tomatoes (see note above)
1 shallot
1 handful basil leaves
½ handful oregano leaves
1 small clove garlic
1 ½ teaspoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons good olive oil
Salt and pepper

Slice the tomatoes and lay them out on a large serving plate. Slice the shallot into thin rings, chop the garlic as finely as you’re physically capable of, and scatter over. Roll the basil leaves into little tubes and slice them thinly to cut it into thin strips (chiffonade), and throw them over the salad with the whole oregano leaves.

Immediately before serving, drizzle the olive oil and balsamic vinegar over, and season with salt and plenty of pepper. Crusty bread will come in handy to mop up the juices.

Honey, pine nut and pancetta salad

We had some friends round last night, and I served this salad to go with the antipasti I’d lined up as a starter. I was so pleased with it that Mr Weasel and I are having it for supper again today. This is a gorgeous salad recipe. The sweetly nutty walnut oil is beautiful with toasted pine nuts (toast them yourself in a dry frying pan, watching like a hawk, or buy them pre-toasted from Waitrose), and the pancetta is gorgeous with a tiny amount of honey drizzled over.

Use a mixture of leaves, including some rocket, and perhaps some watercress. To serve four, you’ll need:

2 bags salad leaves
12 slices pancetta, dry-fried until crisp
1 small handful toasted pine nuts
4 tablespoons walnut oil
2 teaspoons honey vinegar
1 teaspoon honey

Easy as anything; toss the leaves with the walnut oil and honey vinegar. Sprinkle the pancetta and pine-nuts over the salad, add a few turns of the pepper grinder, and using a fork, drizzle runny honey all over the salad. Serve immediately, or the leaves will wilt.

Eat, Cambridge – Superfood salad

Places where you can eat well and inexpensively don’t proliferate in Cambridge. Fortunately, there’s a branch of Eat, a take-away sandwich, soup and salad shop I first discovered when working in London about five years ago.

At the time, I was working for an art dealer in Mayfair, and there was nowhere cheap to find lunch anywhere. I found an Eat concession in the (usually very expensive) food hall at Selfridge’s, and ended up visiting daily for the excellent and very fresh food, which costs no more than a Marks and Spencer sandwich.

Eat opened a shop in Cambridge (on Petty Cury) a couple of years back, and it’s always packed. Head upstairs and try to get a table by the window for a great view down Sidney Street while you eat your sandwich.

There’s an emphasis on food that’s healthy, with wheatless sandwiches scattered among the filled baguettes and chocolate bars, but no feeling that you should be eating the healthier options, or that eating healthily is a penance. Regular readers will be aware that a consumption of superfoods is not one of my priorities – this said, this Superfoods salad is one of the best thing Eat does, right up there with the hot sausage and mustard mash pie.

This salad is full of lightly steamed vegetables, which have been prepared carefully so they don’t lose any of their crunch or their emerald green. There’s calabrese broccoli in there, some fresh peas and broad beans, and butternut squash, which has been cooked to a perfect, toothsome softness and rolled in poppy seeds. Raw, sprouting seeds feature strongly, with a pinch of strongly flavoured, sprouting onion seeds scattered on top, and crisp baby beansprouts in the mix. A scoop of goat’s cheese, some toasted seeds, raw, shredded beetroot, salad leaves and a sharp dressing made with lemon juice finish the salad.

Of course, I ruined the health-giving properties of the salad by drinking a diet cola with it. Still – yum. If you’re near a branch, drop in and give them a try.

Herb, halloumi and green garlic salad

Wandering through Sainsbury’s this evening, I saw a shelf full of fresh garlic. I spent a whole five seconds or so wondering how they’d managed to get hold of fresh garlic in March, and then (I’m being slow today) thought to read the label. It’s from Egypt. Now, usually, I wouldn’t buy an overpriced, overpackaged single bulb that had flown such a long way to get to me . . . but as I continued my shopping, my mind kept going back to the garlic. After being slightly snappish with the lady at the fish counter about the pathetic lack of shellfish, I finally left self-control at the vegetable counter and bought a single bulb.

Here it is, the thick outer skin peeled off. You can see each individual clove in place; the green tendrils growing in a point from each become the white, straw-like threads you’ll recognise on the cloves of ordinary, cured garlic you have in your kitchen cupboard. When green, these tendrils are edible and very tasty; imagine a garlicky spring onion.

This year, I’m growing a lot of garlic for eating fresh in the garden; it’s sweeter, more fragrant and less harsh than the dry product. (I’m planning to have a go at curing my own this year if I manage to raise enough in the garden.) This fresh garlic roasts to a sweet, delectable paste, perfect spread on sourdough bread or stirred into a sauce. It is mild enough to be eaten raw. Sauteed gently, as in this recipe, it is juicy, plump and delicious.

Halloumi is a salty, mild-tasting, ewes’-milk cheese from the Middle East. It has a very special quality; it holds its shape and does not melt in cooking, instead turning crisply golden outside and tender inside. The Lebanese call it the kebab cheese, and it’s excellent on a skewer over a barbecue.

For a cooked herb, halloumi and green garlic salad to serve three as a main course, you’ll need:

1 bulb green (fresh) garlic, separated into cloves
6 shallots, finely diced
2 packs halloumi, sliced
1 handful each chives, coriander and tarragon
Juice of 1 lemon
1 large, sweet red chili
1 knob butter

Melt the butter in a thick pan, and gently fry the whole cloves of garlic (green parts still attached) and the shallots for about ten minutes until golden. Slide the halloumi into the pan and fry on one side for five minutes until golden. Add the chili, cut into strips, turn the cheese over and wait until the second side is golden too.

Layer half the cheese, shallots, garlic and chilis in a large mixing bowl, then sprinkle herbs on top. Arrange the rest of the halloumi and the pan juices over the herbs. Squeeze the juice of a lemon all over the salad and serve with crusty bread and some sliced tomatoes.


“I don’t like coleslaw.”

Mr Weasel really should know better by now. It’s been nearly ten years; surely that’s enough time to realise that saying such a thing could only have one possible result?

I made some coleslaw.

You’ll need:

¼ celeleriac, peeled
5 carrots, peeled
¼ white cabbage
2 tablespoons double cream
2 tablespoons mayonnaise (make it yourself or use Hellman’s – I’ve still not found another I’ll allow fridge space)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon toasted caraway seeds
2 teaspoons walnut oil
½ teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper

Julienne (cut into fine strips) all the vegetables. This will be infinitely easier if you own a mandoline or a food processor with the relevant blade. The rest of the recipe is simplicity itself – just mix the lot together in a big bowl. Taste to see if you need more lemon, salt or sugar. Then serve immediately.

The idea with coleslaw is that it should be creamy and fresh. It’s really not good if you leave it hanging around (like supermarket or fast food coleslaw); it needs its crunch. This means that it doesn’t make for good leftovers. This will make enough for two people. Swap the mayonnaise for Greek yoghurt if you want a slightly lighter texture.

Mr Weasel’s verdict? He finished his bowl in under a minute, wiped his mouth and said:

“Is there any more?”

Caesar salad

Poor Mr Weasel. While we were in America he fell in love with the Caesar salad at Friday’s Station, the steak house at the top of Harrah’s casino in Heavenly, Tahoe. (Review coming soon.) He’s been mentioning it with a hopeful glint in his eye since we came home.

He’s had a bad day – he’s had to take the cats to the vet to be neutered. (Not moment too soon; Raffles has been demonstrating some pretty remarkable feats of anatomy since we came back from holiday, and has also become rather territorial, facing off with the new fridge and posturing in a macho fashion around visitors and delivery-men.) Mooncake is being surprisingly bouncy for someone who’s just had her ovaries whipped out and half her fur shaved off. I think this is what comes of not having a pelvic floor. Here they are, Mooncake in the front, demonstrating her newly shaved beard.

The whole thing was clearly rather stressful for Mr Weasel, who currently seems unable to look the emasculated Raffles in the eye. He ran out of the house at five o’clock under the pretext of going to a friend’s house to do some analogue electronics. I took the opportunity to try to reproduce the salad as a surprise for his dinner.

Caesar salad is named for Caesar Cardini, the Italian chef working in Mexico who came up with the recipe in the 1920s. A Caesar salad in some American restaurants can be quite a performance, with the dressing being whipped up at the side of the table (Judy Garland fans will be familiar with this from Easter Parade, an otherwise marvellous film which reaches a nadir in the scene where a particularly odious French waiter prepares a Caesar-type salad in mime). I am lazy and use the Magimix.

The original recipe does not include anchovies, but the delicious salad from Friday’s Station had them in the dressing, and you’ll find them in my recipe. You’ll need:

1 soup bowl of bread cut into cubes about 2cm per side
4 grated cloves garlic
1 handful grated parmesan
2 tablespoons olive oil

Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed
5 anchovies
1 coddled egg (put the egg in briskly boiling water for 60 seconds, then fish out and leave to cool)
1 tablespoon double cream
Salt and pepper to taste
100ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 handful grated parmesan

2 cos lettuces, torn into pieces

Start by making the croutons. Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl, spread them in one layer on a baking sheet, and bake at 200°C until golden (about ten minutes – keep an eye on them from eight minutes in to check that they don’t over-colour). Set aside.

Put all the dressing ingredients except the olive oil and parmesan in the bowl of a food processor and whizz until you have a smooth paste. With the machine on and the blades spinning, drizzle the olive oil into the mixture – it will emulsify with the other ingredients and create a creamy dressing.

Toss the lettuce and croutons with the dressing and parmesan. Serve immediately so the croutons and leaves don’t go soggy. Guzzle, and congratulate yourself that it’s not necessary to cross the Atlantic to get a good Caesar salad.

Salad cream – edible by human beings

Sometimes, bad, bad things happen to good recipes. Until a few years ago, I imagined that salad cream had always been that unspeakable pasteurised egg product out of a bottle by Heinz. My grandma was a lady fond of boiled eggs and cucumber, which she always anointed with a hearty gulp of the stuff. It was perfectly repellent – eggy, slimy and wafting fumes of vinegar strong enough to knock out a medium-sized rodent. (Grandma was not characterised by her love for salad cream; she was, in fact, a lady of otherwise splendid taste. I think the salad cream thing was something to do with rationing in the war. I hope it was, because otherwise this means that I might have a vinegar-loving chromosome lurking somewhere in my genome.)

Then, I found a copy of Mrs Beeton, whose recipe for salad cream did not sound remotely like the wet slick Grandma used to top our salads with. It was a recipe full of good, fresh things; a hard-boiled egg yolk, cream, mustard and so on. I braced myself and made it. It was bloody marvellous. I’ve changed the recipe a little since then (fresh lemons are more freely available these days, and I think Mrs Beeton liked her salad cream rather more tart than modern salad-munchers might like), and present it for your eating pleasure.

You’ll need:

1 hard boiled egg yolk
6 tbsp double cream
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard (no seeds)
½ tsp caster sugar
¼ tsp salt
Juice of ½ a lemon

Mash the egg yolk with the back of a spoon, and add all the rest of the ingredients except the lemon juice. Mash furiously with the spoon until you’ve got a creamy paste. (If you still have any lumps, pass through a sieve, and you’ll end up with a perfectly smooth mixture.) Add lemon juice to taste. (Mrs Beeton uses vinegar, which you can try if you like; use a white wine vinegar or a cider vinegar. She does, however, use two tablespoons of the stuff, which is far too much. Exercise caution.)

This is, against all reason, a really excellent salad dressing. It’ll keep in the fridge for about three days. It’s also extremely good with cold new potatoes, over warm asparagus and on eggs instead of mayonnaise. Spend the five minutes it takes to make some, and encourage your Grandma to stop buying the Heinz stuff.