The world around us, all too familiar, is not as it seems folks. Upon transcendence of our beastly realm, that illusion is swiftly shattered. Our modern scientific nous, centuries of intellectual giants leaping on top of the shoulders of their revolutionary predecessors, tells us this. […]
One of my favourite Thai dishes in the world is pad krapow gai, or Chicken stir fried with holy basil and garlic. Pork does it for me too, and I think you could do a truly wonderful version sans meat, with some melt in the mouth aubergine (I would go for the lighter coloured, slender Japanese variety).
The Italian herb is ubiquitous these days, and more recently, it is possible to get the Greek version with the smaller leaves pretty easily. Harder to obtain is Thai Basil which usually defaults to the sweet variety. This really adds a wonderful extra layer flavour to your Thai curries!
Far, far more elusive is holy basil! This is the very same variety of basil, native to India, known as tulsi, used by Hindus for their prayer. It is revered as the elixir of life, and is also consumed for medicinal purposes. In the UK it is very hard to find, and indeed I have purchased it before and have been very disappointed that find it certainly was not what it purported to be!
You see, holy basil, the real deal, really is very special: it has a much sturdier plant than its Italian cousin, and its flavour withstands heat much better too. Its flavour has strong notes of liquorice and aniseed, and these aromatics that float and dance above the hot and spicy, savoury and sweet base of the sauce make the krapow sing! It’s a relatively simple dish, but to do well and get the balance right is hard!
So just the other day, I found a big bunch of the stuff in Chinatown, and I excitedly and greedily added it to my basket, alongside its fellow krapow friends: garlic, red chillis, dark soy, Thai oyster sauce and of course, fish sauce (nam pla).
I had a quandary though: these precious leaves don’t last very long in my experience. I also know what I am like: I get over-excited about a particularly culinary expedition. I then summarily forget until weeks later when I have to fish out a science experiment gone wrong!
So what to do, dear reader? What indeed? Well, help was actually at hand in the shop. I kept on bumping into a lovely and very helpful Thai lady who helped me purchase her favourite brands of krapow ingredients as I went through the shop. She suggested I could cook off the holy basil with some garlic and chilli and then freeze this proto sauce and put it to use another day.
So here is my attempt at doing this. The logic being I can defrost this and create a lovely krapow by adding oyster sauce, additional seasonings (fish sauce and soy sauce) and meat later.
A big bag (100g) of holy basil: remove the leaves from the large stems
5 medium red chillis, roughly chopped (vary this depending on the variety of chilli and your enthusiasm of Scovilles!)
1 bulb of garlic, separated into bulbs and cloves roughly chopped
a few splashes of fish sauce
a few splashes of dark soy sauce
Here are the main stars of the show!
Denuded of their plastic…
Blitz them in a chopper or food processor, adding some fish sauce and soy sauce to lubricate and aid the process, as well as adding some amazing flavour!
Now add this to a small saucepan. Wow, that smell is pure Thailand. You’ve got to love it!
Pack in the basil to the pan. I know it looks like a ridiculously disproportionate amount of basil, but it wilts down, and the dish really calls for this much!
The finished sauce, ready to be frozen and then reconstituted another day!
My guess is that we have a portion for four here, thinking that half a bag of basil would probably be the right amount for 2 people. Enjoy!
The ever so humble aubergine: it’s not really something that we’ve embraced in the UK as a mainstream activity: its gustatory wonders are revered by the select few, a niche one could call it… The aubergine, eggplant (US/Aus), brinjal (Asia/SA): by any other name it […]
Summer has certainly arrived in London, and from a food perspective it’s a great time to be eating! Sure, we can get everything we want, all the time in London, but trust me, eating food when it is ripe and ready in season is infinitely better. All year round we taste the ghosts of flavour in our cold storage and glasshouse fruit and veg…
The shops and markets are heaving with beautiful, ripe produce: such beautiful shapes, colours, textures and flavours. Heavy, juice-laden fruit, redolent with mesmerising fragrances: peaches, plums, pears and from further afield, the heavenly aroma of a south asian mango. The blushed violet artichokes from the South of France sit next to shiny black aubergines, brightly verdant courgettes and heavenly devil-red tomatoes. The summer is all about abundance and diversity. Yet the impression of diversity is often an illusion in the modern world. The industrialisation of food has meant that man has selected and bred produce to suit the factory, industrial processes and the profit margin: not our health, not our nutrition and definitely not our senses.
Processed food is inherently lacking in diversity: artificially created foods from a base set of ingredients which contain very little in terms of nutrition. Refined wheat flour, refined sugars, the disgrace of chemically processed vegetable fats, and untold ingredients invented in the lab to make all of this more palatable and less perishable (just ask Joanna Blythman, or read ‘Swallow This’ ). I have been reading huge amounts about nutrition lately and as I absorb and internalise, I have been doing a lot of thinking and talking. We have to let go of much perceived wisdom when it comes to our eating habits: what we think is healthy and what isn’t. It doesn’t help that government advice is at best poorly delivered and doesn’t incentivise people to eat healthily (e.g. the ‘five a day’ message), and at worst is frankly out of date and completely wrong (e.g. the ‘fat is bad’ message).
The title of this post is a homage to my man, Michael Pollan: I am a huge fan and loved his book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. As omnivores we have the privilege of having almost infinite possibilities when eating. In recent times we (or rather, the food industry) have decided more often than not to discard our ancient wisdom, our cultural scaffolding: ideas and laws we followed due to wisdom accrued over millennia. Many of our culinary traditions are not mere anachronisms: they enabled us to survive and often on very little, based on what was immediately available. The endless creativity of man meant that this food was often delicious as well as optimally nutritious. For example, many lentils on their own are an incomplete food as they lack the full complement of amino acids: but when paired with rice, the lacking methionine is provided and so we can grow new tissue and repair ourselves!
So what should we be eating given the choice we have? Well, completely answering this requires a book, but here are some thoughts: take them or leave them. Firstly, we should ignore or certainly take the government’s nutritional advice with a pinch of salt: over the last decades people have just got bigger and more ill doing ‘low fat’, instead ingesting processed, sugary ‘food’. Fats do not make you fat! The recent announcements by Theresa May to stem the tide are too little, too late, watered down and not compulsory.
We should seek foods that are natural as much as possible: this means avoiding refined carbohydrates, and avoiding artificial fats like margarines and vegetable oils which are really bad for us and cause inflammation in our bodies. When eating flesh we should look at what the animal we are eating ate (thanks again, Michael Pollan!)
I disagree with food fads and the demonisation of a particular food (see ‘clean eating’) or worse still a whole food group (like carbs or fats). We should seek a balance rather than having people wandering around with Orthorexia.
Perhaps most importantly of all, we should always be seeking a large diversity in the food we eat. We eat with all our senses: let them seek out the most varied and interesting range of foods. Seek the biggest assault on your senses: a range of bright colours, smells, textures and flavours. This approach should yield high nutrient densities of the most diverse types too.
Tim Spector’s wonderful book ‘The Diet Myth’ highlights the importance of our microbiome, the trillions of bacteria in our gut. It is a highly complex universe which is not just involved with digestion, it’s the sole centre for production of vital chemicals like serotonin and is also part of our immune system, amongst other things. We are just beginning to understand that when our gut flora is lacking: due to a bad diet, antibiotics, pesticides and other factors, it can impact so many things. Tim showed that identical twins can react completely differently to the same large number of calories: the twin with the healthy gut putting on a little weight in stark contrast to the one with the poor gut flora, accruing many more kilos and the showing the early signs of type 2 diabetes! One of the key ways we can ensure an optimal microbe population is to eat a large diversity of natural, nutritionally-dense foods.
I think a sandwich is an example of a nutritionally poor meal. It is largely composed of processed bread: most of its calories come from the bread which is of low nutritional value and refined (of varying degrees depending on the type of bread). After this we have a small amount of filling, which if you are lucky may contain some nutrition but is often still very processed. Contrast this with an amazing salad containing the same number of calories, with say, roasted peppers, different types of veg, seeds and nuts, maybe some fish, cheese or organic meat and a generous dressing of extra virgin olive oil: just think how much more nutrition is contained in the second meal! Of course, the occasional sandwich is fine: my last point being that we live in the real world and we will always be attracted to less nutritive, convenience foods and treats. The point is to minimise them and not make them the foundation of our dietary intake!
I strongly believe the only way to reverse current food trends and their resultant non-communicable diseases is via education, giving children (and adults) the opportunity to experience different foods: to smell, touch and taste, real, nutritionally dense foods. Through this process we can help to illicit an ‘hedonic shift’: the change of perception of what foods we find pleasurable (thanks Bee Wilson – First Bite). This is the only way to change habits: not to be on a ‘diet’, not to feel that we are denying ourselves.
Let’s celebrate summer and real food with a cracker of a summer dish: Piedmontese Peppers.
We have some intense flavours and this is a dish which completely resonates with my views on nutrition. It tastes incredible: intense sun-drenched flavours that mingle together in extra virgin olive oil. This combination of roasted vegetables, garlic, anchovies, basil and huge amounts of olive oil couldn’t be healthier and will leave you feeling full, paired with some protein to accompany it (e.g. pan fried fish). A cheeky slice of bread will die to mop up the the juices too!
I absolutely love this dish: it’s dead easy, and you can pretty much make it up as you go along and will taste better the next day.
3 peppers (a mix of colours, not green)
Tomatoes (enough to fill the peppers, maybe 4 medium or a handful of red peppers: I was lucky enough to use some wonderful heritage tomatoes!)
2-3 cloves of garlic, sliced lengthwise
6 anchovies (leave out if you are vegetarian)
A few basil leaves
Lots of extra virgin olive oil!
Preheat your oven to 180C.
Cut the peppers in half lengthwise and remove the stalks and the white pith. Place these natural bowls into an oven dish. If the tomatoes are cherries, halve them, or if larger cut them into smaller bite size portions.
Now artfully arrange the tomatoes inside our peppers and tuck in the cloves of garlic here and there. Do the same with the anchovies: I prefer to chop them up before adding. Now fill the peppers up with olive oil – I like to fill them half full. Season well with salt and pepper.
Place them in the oven for a good 40-45 minutes, or when the edges of the peppers start to caramelise and catch a little and look collapsed: If they need more time, leave them. Serve them up, spoon the escaped golden nectar back into their cups, taste and re-season if required. Chop up the basil leaves and tuck them into the peppers. I think these are better served at room temperature the next day. Enjoy!
The roar of the waves lapping against the shore. This rhythmic, undulating bass, tenor: underlying the alto whisper of tourists chatting in many dialects. Way up on high, the ethereal chattering of birdsong punctuated by the sonorous harmonics of church bells. Fira, Santorini on a […]
Spring has finally arrived (well, in the Northern hemisphere) and we can rejoice in the fecundity of nature as temperatures warm up and everything starts to bloom. As well as the spectacular blossom, budding leaves, tulips and magnolia, the new season also heralds the arrival […]
Time is a much valued and finite resource and we all have to prioritise how we spend it. Since the end of the second world war, the food industry has aggressively and exponentially grown: the more processed, opaque and intricate the food chain is, the more profits are made, and apparently the more sated we become as consumers, because they are supplying us just what we need, right?
In these intervening years we have been bombarded by the same messages: convenience is king, and cooking is for losers, especially in a world where gender roles began to blur and both parties work hard in the big wide world. The food industry was quick to exploit this vacuum and created a whole new array of industrialised products, each one further removed from our culinary traditions.
I have recently been a little obsessed by Michael Pollan, having devoured his Netflix series, Cooked (based on his book), and currently reading The Omnivore’s Dilemna. He makes some amazing points and is a very inspiring food writer. The above musing is definitely sparked and informed by his work: highly recommended!
The industrialisation of our food chain to convenience food: its abundance, addictiveness and therefore, popularity has meant we all cook less. Indeed, we often consume our processed food whilst watching shows about cooking which we watch more and more of as we cook less and less!
Sadly, around the world, our old traditions are slowly being forgotten as our tastebuds are transformed. Children are growing up with little knowledge of tastes that were previously handed down from generation to generation, and if they don’t learn then we might lose them altogether. Thankfully there is a powerful backlash against this, and many of us want to effect real change and stop this cultural erosion, for the sake of our humanity and health.
On this note, I was recently challenged to come up with a easy, yet impressive menu to serve up to a date. I then gave them a lesson to help them cook it.
Fish en papillote with seasonal vegetables and samphire, hasselback sweet potatoes with za’atar. Parsley and fennel seed sauce.
Here’s a recipe I have devised which is relatively simple to put together, yet looks very impressive, has an array of flavours and is pretty nutritious too!
En papillote is a fancy french name (literally, in parchment) for cooking ingredients in a parcel with flavourings, a splash of wine and oil. This keeps everything moist, the resultant emulsion creates a lovely sauce, and we get to open a lovely fragrant bundle of joy!
I have taken the Nordic hasselback potato, made it healthier by using sweet potatoes and then mingled those Viking tendencies with za’atar from the East: a blend of sesame, sumac, thyme and other spices. The hasselback potato does really look impressive and the textures of soft yielding root and crispy fanned edges will make you come back for more. Finally the marriage of the sweetness of the potato and the spices is really one made in heaven.
Fish en papillotte
2 large white fish fillets (cod, haddock, seabass, for example)
2 handfuls of samphire
Some seasonal veg (I recommend a couple of different coloured ones e.g. cherry tomatoes and baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and baby courgettes).
Two good sprigs of thyme
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
2 good splashes of wine
Salt and pepper to taste
Hasselback sweet potatoes
2 small sweet potatoes
2 tbsp za’tar (this can be bought in shops: I will post a recipe soon!)
Salt and pepper to taste
Click on the link above for the previous post containing the recipe…
Pre-heat the oven to 200 C.
First prepare the sweet potatoes as they take a long time and we can then work on our fish when they are in the oven.
Take the potatoes and give them a good scrub (with a scourer or wire brush) to remove any dirty and less than pristine bits. You could peel them, but leaving the skin on is tasty and provides valuable nutrition.
Now we want to take these potatoes and ‘hassleback-ify’ them: we want to cut thin slits across the width of the potatoes about 1/2 to 1 cm apart, as shown in the picture. There are a few points to note in order to achieve this. Firstly, cutting a sliver off the bottom of the potato ensures it can sit on a flat surface, rather than unsteadily on a curved one. Secondly, ensure you have a sharp knife (to make your life easier), and thirdly place chopsticks on either side of the potato, lengthwise. This ensures that when you cut down you don’t cut to the bottom, thus leaving the spud intact.
Once the oven is hot, place the spuds in a baking tray and then smear over a little of the butter and za’tar, salt and pepper. Note: initially the uncooked potato is hard to work with. As it cooks it will soften and fan out. Therefore whilst cooking, add more butter, seasoning and za’atar flavour in between the gaps: the easiest way to do this is by melting the butter and brushing it.
Once the potatoes are in, let’s turn our attention to the parcels. Season the fish well all over with salt and pepper. Cut two large sheets of foil: remember we will be folding this over and crimping the edges to seal so it needs to be slightly larger than double the parcel size!
Folder over to mark the fold and then add slices of lemon in the middle of one half. Lay the fish fillets on top of both sheets. Now add the vegetables on top, ensuring any woody bits of samphire have been removed. Finally finish off with the thyme and add the oil and wine. We can now fold over and crimp the edges, forming a tight seal to keep the flavour in whilst cooking.
The potatoes should take about an hour, whilst occasionally basting with butter and seasoning, but you should check and make your own decision. When you think you have 20 minutes of cooking to go, add the fish.
At the end of cooking, serve the fish parcels with the potatoes and the fennel and parsley sauce as a side (see my last post!). The parcels should be opened at the table to release the flavours: enjoy!
This recipe can be adjusted: you could miss out the samphire, you could add capers, you could accompany with a salsa verde or even a salsa romesco perhaps. I had a last minute panic when I realised one of my students was vegetarian: you can do what I did and use thick aubergine steaks in place of the fish as a vegetarian alternative (cook them on a griddle pan before adding to the parcel)!