Crisp vegetable stir-fry in oyster sauce

This makes a great accompaniment to Chinese dishes, but it’s delicious enough to eat as a meal on its own with rice, and it works out very inexpensive – just right for the end of the month. No good for vegetarians, I’m afraid, because I do recommend that you use oyster sauce that contains real oyster essence – it’s worlds apart from the oyster-free sort. Several manufacturers make the good stuff. It’ll come with the word ‘premium’ somewhere on the label on the front, and should list around 9% oyster extract on the ingredients label on the back. I really like Lee Kum Kee’s premium oyster sauce, partly because it has such a fantastic label – a 1950s pastel-coloured confection surrounded with roses, featuring a pretty lady and little, sailor-suited boy in a boat, ferrying some absolutely giant oysters across a river. (This picture isn’t huge, but if you squint, you can make it all out.)

Despite the presence of shellfish, oyster sauce doesn’t taste at all fishy. It’s very savoury, and has a lovely sweet edge, but there’s no hint of fishiness, so you can serve this to fish-hating children (and adults) without needing to worry.

Chopping your veg into slim batons shouldn’t take too long, and I actually rather enjoy the repetitive slicing – it’s somehow rather soothing at the end of a long day. Try to buy reasonably small courgettes – these will be sweeter, and their flesh will be denser and easier to chop.

To serve two as an accompaniment (double the quantities if you want to eat it as a main course), you’ll need:

4 large carrots
3 courgettes
4 plump cloves of garlic
6 spring onions (scallions)
1 piece of ginger, about the size of your thumb
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
5 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine
1 teaspoon cornflour dissolved in 5 tablespoons cold water
Flavourless oil to stir-fry

Cut the carrots and courgettes into slim batons, about five centimetres long and a couple of millimetres in cross-section, and set aside in a bowl. Slice the garlic thinly, chop the ginger into slim batons around the same size as the bits of vegetable, and chop the white bottom parts of the spring onions into little coins. (You won’t be using the green parts, but it’s worth popping them in the fridge so you can use them later on.)

Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in the bottom of your wok over a high flame until it begins to shimmer. Throw in the garlic, ginger and spring onions, and stir-fry for about thirty seconds. Tip in the carrot and courgettes, and continue to stir-fry for a 1-2 minutes, keeping everything on the move until the courgette pieces start to go bendy (bendiness is starting to occur in the picture).

Pour the oyster sauce and wine into the wok and continue to stir-fry for two minutes. Add the cornflour mixture and keep stirring until the mixture thickens a little. Serve immediately with rice.

Jean-Talon market, Montreal

One of the things that makes food in this city so fabulous is the abundance of lovingly raised, local produce. I’m just back from Marché Jean-Talon (between Jean-Talon and De Castelnau metro stations). This is probably one of those occasions where pictures speak louder than words.











Yes, that’s me. I look even more cheerful than that now, because I’m gorging myself on strawberries from the first picture.

Sweet potato and chickpea curry

I like to make a vegetable curry as an accompaniment when I make a meat one, but this curry is substantial and tasty enough to stand up as a meal on its own with rice. This curry is in a southern Indian style, with coconut milk making the curry rich and thick, and lime juice adding zing. It’s great for vegetarians – it’s loaded with flavour, and will have the meat-eaters fighting among themselves (probably with forks) for a helping too.

I have been lazy in this recipe and haven’t made my own curry paste. A good shop-bought curry powder works very well here – as usual, I recommend Bolst’s Madras powder, which is really well-balanced and fragrant. To serve four, you’ll need:

3 sweet potatoes
2 onions
6 spring onions plus more to garnish
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 inch piece of ginger
4 cloves garlic
1 can chickpeas
1 can coconut milk
1 bird’s eye chilli (more if you want a hotter curry)
1 handful chopped coriander leaves
Juice of 1 lime
3 tablespoons oil
Salt to taste

Dice the onions and slice the spring onions, and sauté them in the oil with the curry powder and the coriander, cumin and fennel seeds until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and ginger, both chopped finely, with the diced and peeled sweet potato and the sliced chilli, and continue to sauté until the sweet potato starts to caramelise and brown a little at the edges.

Pour the coconut milk over the curry, cover and simmer for fifteen minutes, until the sweet potato is soft. Add the drained chickpeas to the pan with half the lime juice and a teaspoon of salt, and simmer for another five minutes. Taste for seasoning – you may want to add more lime. Remove from the heat and stir in the fresh coriander, and garnish with some sliced spring onion.

This curry tastes even better if you leave it in the fridge for a day before reheating and serving. If you do this, add some more fresh coriander when you serve it.

Padron peppers – Spanish roulette

One of the things I love about tapas is that they’re often so easy to prepare. Slice a chorizo, pour over red wine, stick in pan, reduce, eat. Slice some manchego and quince cheese. Eat. Place olives in small bowl. Eat. Put prawns in dish with olive oil, garlic and chillies. Make hot. Eat. Procure a ham. Slice. Eat.

Given that tapas are there primarily as a salty accompaniment to your drink, these simple, clear flavours make a lot of sense. The quality of raw ingredients in preparations like this becomes all-important, and often the best of those raw ingredients are the seasonal ones. Enter the Padron pepper.

These little green jewels are a deliciously sweet, fresh-tasting pepper which comes ready in the summer. They are, for the most part, delightfully mild – but one in every ten or so has a strong chilli kick. There is nothing better than a dish that engages your sense of danger. The Spanish have a saying: Pimiento de Padrón, pequeño pero matón. Translated very approximately, this means: “Padron pepper – teensy-weensy thug”.

To serve two as a nibble with drinks or as a starter, you’ll need:

150-200g Padron peppers (see below for suppliers)
5 tablespoons olive oil
A generous sprinkling of sea salt

Heat the olive oil in a large pan to a medium temperature, and drop the peppers in. Stir the peppers in the oil for about four minutes, until their skins are blistering. Remove the peppers to bowls with a slotted spoon, sprinkle over plenty of salt, and serve piping hot. To eat, hold the peppers by the stem and bite off the whole fruit. Keep a glass of something cold to hand in case you get one of the very spicy ones.

It’s worth getting your hands on some Padron peppers at this time of year, when they are at their very best. I’ve seen them in Waitrose, but if you don’t have a local branch you can also order them online in the UK at Little Green Men, where they have some great chilli products.

Japanese coleslaw

This coleslaw is very quick and easy to throw together, and it’s a great alternative accompaniment for your barbecues. Wasabi and ginger give this coleslaw a great SE Asian kick, and the sweet white cabbage and carrot shreds really respond well to the savoury dressing.

I’ve used powdered wasabi here, which you can usually find at Asian grocers. It’s sweeter and has more zip to it than the pre-prepared version. Check your wasabi packaging to make sure that wasabi (horseradish on some packs) is the only ingredient.

To serve about four people, you’ll need:

1 white cabbage
2 large carrots
½ inch piece of ginger
3 tablespoons seasoned Japanese rice vinegar (I like Mitsukan, which you should be able to find at a good supermarket)
1 ½ tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 ½ tablespoons soy sauce
1 heaped teaspoon wasabi powder
2 teaspoons soft brown sugar

Shred the cabbage finely with a knife, and grate the carrots. Mix the vegetables together in a large bowl.

Add the vinegar to the wasabi in a small bowl, and leave aside for five minutes. Grate the ginger and stir it into the vinegar and wasabi mixture with the soy sauce and sugar, and keep stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add the sesame oil, whisk briskly to emulsify all the ingredients, and pour the finished dressing over the cabbage and carrots. Toss everything together and serve immediately. This coleslaw does not keep well (the salad will wilt in the dressing), so you have a great excuse to eat it all in one go.

Sautéed cauliflower

Ah, the cauliflowers of our youth. I’m sure you remember the buggers: grey and brain-ish, boiled until soft and claggy by the school dinnerladies; or (worse) bobbing up and down in salty water in your Grandma’s kitchen sink as a legion of little black insects died in unison and floated out of the florets. They never all vacated the cauliflower – I spent miserable hours at the table with the tip of a knife, digging out wiggly, squashy bodies and things with far too many legs, and smearing them on my napkin.

It took me some years to mentally rehabilitate the cauliflower, and I know plenty of adults who still won’t touch the things. Happily, these days you are very, very unlikely to come across an insect-riddled specimen (pesticides are the modern cook’s friend), and grey mush is easily avoided if you’re cooking them at home. Best of all, it turns out that a cauliflower which is roasted or sautéed is totally delicious. It has a great texture and takes on a sweet and toasty flavour a little like roast chestnuts – nothing at all like the bitter, wet stuff you remember from school. Serve as a side dish or as one of a selection of vegetably nibbles. And if you’re low-carbing, which at least two of my friends are at the moment, this is a very tasty way to get your vitamins without carbs.

To saute a head of cauliflower you’ll need:

1 cauliflower
Olive oil to cover the bottom of a large saute pan
Salt

(This may be the shortest ingredient list I have ever posted!)

Separate the cauliflower into large florets (see picture) and slice them lengthways so you have flat pieces of cauliflower about a centimetre thick. Heat the oil in the pan until it is shimmering, and slide the cauliflower in. Brown on one side (four or five minutes) before turning carefully and browning on the other side. Serve spread out on a large plate, sprinkled generously with sea salt.

Roast asparagus with shaved parmesan

If you thought the hollandaise sauce recipe from the other day sounded like too much hard work, this asparagus recipe will suit you down to the ground. It’s very quick and easy, and this cooking method makes the most of the tender sweetness of the stems. It also looks posh, so you can serve it up as a starter (or as an accompaniment) to guests and feel smug when they congratulate you on something which, in reality, only took you five minutes to put together.

For a starter, look at serving between six and eight stalks of asparagus per person. You can get away with less than this if you’re making it to accompany something else as a main course, but it’s worth making plenty because roast asparagus is downright delicious.

To serve two as a starter you’ll need:

16 stalks of asparagus, as fresh as possible
½ teaspoon flaked Italian chilli peppers
Zest of a lemon
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
50g parmesan cheese
Salt (preferably something crystalline, like Maldon) and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F).

Snap the bottoms off the stems of asparagus. They’ll come apart naturally, with a lovely snapping sound, at the point where the woody part (which you don’t want to eat) begins. Arrange them in a single layer in a baking dish.

Sprinkle the flaked chilli and lemon zest over the asparagus, and drizzle with the olive oil. Roast the asparagus in the oven for 10-15 minutes until bright green.

While the asparagus is roasting, use a potato peeler to shave the parmesan into little pieces. As soon as the asparagus comes out of the oven, scatter over the parmesan, which should soften a little as it meets the hot asparagus. Serve the roast asparagus with crusty bread if you’re eating it as a starter.

Celeriac purée

Celeriac pureeThese days, few of the vegetables you’ll find in the supermarket are truly seasonal. We’ve got year-round mange tout peas (I remember the days when my parents grew them in the garden – the season only lasted for about about a month, but my, were we sick of peas at the end of that month); year-round broccoli and year-round cauliflower. Spring cabbage appears in the shops in summer, autumn and winter, and out-of-season asparagus is there whenever you want it. It doesn’t taste of anything, but if you want it, it’s there.

Happily for those outraged by man’s twisting of nature, here are a few season-specific things that you won’t find all year round. Some English root vegetables in particular are only easy to find in the winter (for the most part – there’s always bound to be someone bussing turnips in from Australia in high summer), and they’re wonderful in the cold months. It makes sense really – these roots are the energy store of the plants, and so they’re full of sugars and other nutrients.

Celeriac is one of my favourite winter roots. It’s the taproot of a celery plant (not the same one you use to dip in your hummus or to stir your Bloody Mary), but tastes much richer, deeper, creamier and sweeter than celery. I know people who can’t bear celery, but who will happily munch on celeriac; they’re really very different flavours. This vegetable isn’t readily found outside Europe, but if you are an American reader and happen upon one in a market, snap it up so you can impress your friends with your cosmopolitan cooking.

Although modern ‘best before’ stickers tend to suggest you can only keep your celeriac for a week or so, the root will actually keep in the fridge for a month or so if wrapped in plastic to keep it nice and humid- inside your fridge it is dark and cold, which fools the root into thinking it’s still underground – the celeriac won’t be any the worse for it.

celeriacThe celeriac is a knobbly, rough-skinned vegetable, and its flesh is very hard. Make sure you have a very sharp knife to remove all the skin and nubbly bits, and to cut through the solid root. It makes a lovely soup (which I really ought to blog some time), and it’s great raw in coleslaw. One of the very nicest of French crudités is simply grated raw celeriac blended with a little home-made mayonnaise. But for my money, one of the best things you can do with a chunk of celeriac is to cook it until soft, mash it with a little potato, push the resulting mixture through a sieve and whip it with butter and cream for a very fine and rich side dish.

To make celeriac purée as an accompaniment for four, you’ll need:

1 large celeriac, about 20 cm in diameter (anything larger than this may be a bit woody)
2 medium potatoes (choose a variety which is good for mashing)
100 ml double cream
2 heaping tablespoons salted butter
2 level teaspoons salt (plus more to taste)

Using a very sharp knife, peel the celeriac and cut it into 2 cm square chunks. As soon as you have cut a piece, put it in a saucepan of cold water to stop it from oxidising and turning brown. Peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks about twice the size of the celeriac pieces, and add them to the pan. Warm a mixing/serving bowl.

Bring the potatoes and celeriac to the boil, put the lid on the pan and simmer for 15 minutes. Poke the vegetables with a fork to check they are soft (if they are not, cook for another 5 minutes). Drain and use a potato masher to mash the celeriac and potatoes until they are as even as you can manage.

Melt the butter and cream together in a milk pan, and bring to a very low simmer as you sieve the purée.

Push the mashed mixture through a sieve using the back of a ladle. You can also use a mouli or food mill if you have one. The resulting purée will be extremely smooth. Put the purée into the warmed bowl and use a hand whisk to whip the butter and cream mixture into the purée with the salt, and serve immediately. This is particularly good with rich meat dishes and roasts.

Mexican squash and corn cream

butternut squash pureeDo try this one – it’s seriously good and has worked its way up to being a frequent star alongside my roast dinners. This silky, sweet puree works unbelievably well as an accompaniment, especially with poultry – I hope some of you will try it with your Christmas turkey. It’s rich and packed with flavour; and like many recipes which utilise creamed corn, it’s a favourite with children. It also works as a great quick main dish (and is lovely if you’re entertaining vegetarians – try it over rice with an interesting salad).

Butternut squash originates in Mexico, and it has an affinity for other Mexican ingredients like the corn, the coriander and the chillies. I’ve used crème fraîche here to loosen the mixture – an authentic Mexican dish might use crema, the thick, Mexican, sour cream, but really the difference between the two products is minuscule. If you can’t find smoky ground chipotle chillies where you are, just substitute your favourite crushed, dried chillies or chilli powder.

To serve two as a main dish or about four (depending on greed) as a side dish, you’ll need:

1 butternut squash
1 can creamed corn
3 heaped tablespoons crème fraîche
1 tablespoon salted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon ground chipotle chilli
1 large handful roughly chopped coriander

Peel the squash (you’ll find a serrated knife the best tool for this job – that peel is tough), remove the seeds and stringy pith, and chop the flesh into pieces about an inch square. Cover with water and simmer for 15 minutes until the pieces of squash are tender and soft when poked with a knife.

Drain the water off and return the squash pieces to the pan. Add the corn, butter and crème fraîche to the pan and mash with a potato masher off the heat until smooth. Season with the salt, pepper and chillies – you’ll find this dish will require quite a lot of salt for maximum flavour because of the natural sweetness of the vegetables.

Return the pan to a low heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Remove from the heat again and stir in the coarsely chopped coriander. Serve immediately.

This squash and corn cream freezes well.

Golden winter vegetable soup with frizzled chorizo

Golden vegetable soupSoothing, sweet, buttery, winter vegetables are a real blessing when the weather’s cold. Plants keep a store of energy in the form of sugars in their tubers and roots, and those tubers and roots make for some surprisingly uplifting eating. This soup is passed through a sieve after being liquidised to ensure a silky, creamy texture. If you don’t own a food processor you can still make it – at the stage where the ingredients go into the processor bowl you can just mash them with a potato masher for about ten minutes, then pass the resulting mush through a sieve, pressing it through with the bottom of a ladle. You will end up muscular and with a very good pan of soup.

Because of all the plant sugars in these vegetables, you’ll find you need something salty to counter the sweet taste. I’ve cut chorizo into coins and fried it until it’s crisp and friable – a lovely contrast in texture with the silky, creamy soup. The result is a lovely sun-coloured dish at a time of year when the sun is a distant memory.

To serve four as a main course, you’ll need:

1 small celeriac
3 small sweet potatoes
1 small swede
1 small butternut squash
1 small onion
2 shallots
1 parsnip
3 carrots
1 leek
3 tablespoons butter
1 litre chicken stock (vegetarians can substitute vegetable stock and use croutons instead of the chorizo)
200 ml double cream
2 teaspoons salt
½ a nutmeg, grated
10 turns of the pepper mill
2 tablespoons chopped chives

Peel all the vegetables and cut them all into 1-inch chunks. Melt the butter in a large pan with a heavy base (this will help the soup cook evenly – I recommend Le Creuset pans, which are made of enamelled cast iron, and disperse heat beautifully) and sweat the vegetables, stirring regularly, until they begin to soften. You’ll find that the sweet potato pieces may brown a little. Don’t worry about it; they contain so much sugar that it’s hard to prevent a little of it caramelising, and it just gives depth to the soup.

When the vegetables are softening evenly, pour over the hot stock. It’s best if your stock is home-made, but some of the liquid stocks you can buy at the supermarket these days are a good substitute if you don’t have any in the freezer. Bring the stock and vegetables to a simmer, cover with a lid and leave for 20 minutes or until all the vegetables are soft all the way through.

While the soup simmers, slice a chorizo into pieces about the same size as a pound coin and fry over a medium flame in a dry frying pan, stirring and flipping the pieces occasionally. The chorizo will release its fat and the pieces will become crisp. After about 20 minutes, when the chorizo is crisp and dry, remove the pieces and drain on paper towels. Reserve the oil.

Transfer the vegetables and stock to a large bowl and liquidise in batches, passing each processed batch through a sieve back into the large pan. You will find you need to push the soup through the sieve with the back of a large spoon or ladle. Return the pan to a very low heat and stir in the cream, salt and pepper and the grated nutmeg. Bring to a simmer and serve with a drizzle of chorizo oil, some chorizo scattered over (keep some more in a bowl for people to help themselves) and a sprinkling of chopped chives.