Asparagus as God Intended It

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I woke up yesterday to a vaguely recognisable sight. I looked at it and registered some long lost memory, but it took a while until it hit me: it was sunshine! I leapt out of bed doing a little dance of gratitude for the long, long awaited good weather, but soon remembered the mountain of work awaiting me. I was grounded and had little chance of enjoying the beautiful day outside.

But if I had to be locked in all day, and – worse – skip lunch, I’d take my revenge on dinner. I imagined a celebration of the warm(ish) weather with an impromptu evening barbecue, or maybe simply sitting outside a nice cafe’ sipping gin and wearing sandals. Sadly, that was very deluded of me, and at 7 in the evening I was still replying to the endless torrent of work emails. And so I called it a day and activated my plan B: my Midweek, Overworked, Have-to-Eat-Now Dinner (MOHtEND): very simple asparagus, warm barley salad, and speedy ceviche.

asparagus keeperAsparagus was a bit of a challenge for me until last night. I should have looked at it the way I do at artichokes. Growing up, I only ever knew artichokes done in one very simple way: boiled in water until just cooked, then dipped in olive oil and vinegar (we didn’t knew balsamic; it was either red wine vinegar or limes). It was only after leaving home that I realised people prepared artichokes in all sorts of fancy manners. For me, the simplest one is still the best by a mile. I suspect it is the same story with asparagus. I was about to throw in the towel and admit in shame to the world that I didn’t actually like them that much. But then I started reading the books by my current culinary crush: Ruth Reichl. And she describes the purest way to eat asparagus: boil, dip in balsamic vinegar, eat. Clearly, the trick here is to use the best quality vinegar you can get your hands on. I didn’t have any at home, so switched to a little bowl of my favourite olive oil and a bit of lemon. Hello, asparagus! I’m back! Of course I love them. I was just not eating them right.

I found this nice fat bunch of asparagus in my local Turkish shop (where I run to every time I need to prepare a MOHtEND), and 25 minutes later we were eating dinner.

To go with it, I used some cod to make what I insist on calling ceviche, but it really is more of a fish tartare. Chop fish very thinly, add lime, chopped onions and available fresh herbs, let it cook in the lime for 10 minutes, eat. And some warm barley salad for the Resident Vegetarian. He was given some lettuce for good behaviour too. Oh, and some strained yoghurt (look for labneh if you’re at a Turkish shop) to accompany everything.

For the asparagus, Ruth Reichl’s recipe suggests cooking them between 5 and 10 minutes, according to their size. She was probably IMG_0469referring to the whiteish French variety, which is massive. The green ones we get over here are rather more modest, so 5 minutes were enough.  Next time, I’ll probably leave them for 3 to 4 minutes for a more aldente bite. Once they’re cooked, sprinkle some salt over them – this is the time to use up your fancy Cornish salt, Fleur de Sel or Persian blue salt you were keeping for when the queen comes to visit. And dip them into, in my case, olive oil and lemon. It really was such a spectacular dish. We cleared the plate in no time, and would have kept going if there was any more.

For this and other very, very good Ruth Reichl’s recipes, her books are also a complete pleasure to read.

Asparagus with Olive Oil and Lemon

(adapted from Ruth Reichl’s book Comfort Me With Apples for lack of balsamic vinegar)

  • as many asparagus as you wish to eat
  • olive oil – the one you keep for special occasions
  • salt, lemon
  1. To trim the asparagus, don’t use a knife. Bend them gently with your hands and they will naturally snip at the best breaking point. With the bit you’re left with (from the tip, obviously), you can – and should – eat the whole thing.
  2. I made them in a large saute’ pan because it still held plenty of water, but kept the asparagus quite tidy and together as they cooked. But you may need a larger one if making larger quantities. Fill the pot with water, add salt, and bring it to the boil. Add the asparagus, cover it and cook until you can pierce the spears easily with a fork. Aim to get them aldente. R. Reichl recommends 5 to 10 minutes. I left my small asparagus for barely 5, and they would probably have been nicer at 3 or 4.
  3. Drain the asparagus, arrange them on a serving plate and sprinkle salt over them.
  4. Discard any cutlery. Pick the asparagus with your hands and dip them into a bowl with olive oil and lemon.
  5. Make slurping noises and lick your fingers.

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Quick and very delicious orange and coconut cake

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(first attempt)

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(improved version: taller, lighter)

Last Monday, first glorious sunny day of our belated spring, and blessed bank holiday, my sister came over for lunch with her three little angels. Her visit is normally the excuse I need to turn the kitchen upside down trying out new dishes. Her entire family are great food lovers, even the youngest boy at 10, with the refined palate of a 42 year old Parisian aristocrat. This time,

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though, I was feeling a bit delicate with a mild hangover, and so didn’t wake up at the crazy time I tend to when there’s a big lunch at home. So, amidst the mad rush of rolling out pasta and whisking meringues (I did not photograph anything at all and may have to do a second run of the same lunch for the benefit of this blog), my dear sibling calls me to remind me that the kids are no longer allowed soft drinks. Which I think it’s a lovely idea, since I find them repellent (the drinks, that is), but it also implied that they were expecting special kiddies drinks. You see, I am a water or wine drinker. When it comes to drinks, I think Jesus had the right idea. Keep it simple and classic. But I am assured that young kids don’t really go for water, and should ideally be kept away from alcohol until they are old enough to vote – the memory of childhood holidays, with the free flowing tavern wine diluted in lemonade is one I am encouraged to repress when with her family. And so I ran like the wind (to Tesco, I’m afraid. I was running out of time) and bought approximately 2 billion Jaffa oranges. I can never really tell with oranges how  juicy they are, and also they had a 3 for 1 offer, so I went for it. And now I am left with at least one and a half billion of the lovely fruit piled up in my kitchen. To juice, peel, eat, and live off duck al’orange for the rest of the decade.

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Perfect chance, then, to try this orange and coconut cake recipe I have kept – unused –  from the back of a pack of sugar for about a lifetime. It’s a sort of a chiffon cake, with that beautiful texture ready to hold liberal amounts of syrup poured over it.

I’ve tried once, then adapted a bit next day, as I found it took way too much flour, and the recommended 45 minutes in the oven was also too long. The photos are a mixture of both versions: the flatter one heavier on the flour, but still good, if a little bit dry for my taste. The second one works best for me. It is taller, incredibly delicate and and I swear it was lighter and moister the next day. If you want your house to smell like sweet heaven in a very short time, this is the one for you. No creaming of butter, not much preparation time at all, and the fragrance of happy angels flying around in your kitchen.

I’d have loved to cover it with freshly grated coconut, but sadly, it was a weekday, and I do live in London. To find a fresh coconut, then break it up and scrape it, it would probably have taken a tad too much effort. But the shredded coconut from a packet is too dry to use raw. And so the billion oranges stared me in the face and offered the solution: moisten the dry coconut with some orange juice, woman! It worked a treat.

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I was planning to take the cake intact to work the next day, but I’m afraid the sweet orangey smell drove me out of my mind, so a good quarter of it was missing when it finally got there.

Next time, I may try to add a bit or Grand Marnier in the syrup for a slightly more grown up version.

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Orange and coconut cake:

For the cake:

  • 240g caster sugar
  • Zest of 2 oranges
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 200ml vegetable oil
  • 160 g all purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 50g shredded coconut, unsweetened

Syrup:

  • Juice of 2 oranges
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  1. Cream the sugar, oil and egg yolks. I used a handheld mixer for about 3 minutes, until the mixture looked creamy enough.
  2. Add: flour, about half the coconut and the baking powder. Mix by hand with a large spoon. You’ll get a very dense dough, thick enough for a spoon to stand on it – see photo.
  3. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form.
  4. Mix in a couple of spoonfuls of the egg whites to losen the dough a bit. Fold in the rest of the egg whites.
  5. For a tall cake: Grease a 20cm (8inch) with oil and dust it with flour. Pour the cake mixture into it.
  6. 180C on an electric fan oven (slightly hotter if you have a gas oven) for not more than 30 – 35 min, or as soon as it passes the toothpick test.
  7. Make the syrup: mix the orange juice with sugar and bring it to the boil. Remove it and use it on the warm cake. (pierce a few holes on the surface of the cake first)
  8. Mix the remaining coconut with a few spoonfuls of orange juice and cover the cake with the wet coconut.

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It’s a Cheese!

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Few surprises are as exciting as opening the door to an unexpected delivery. Even fewer surprises are as heart sinking as finding a Royal Mail ‘Sorry we missed you’ note on your doorstep. Collecting a missed parcel delivery requires patience and nerves of steel. The opening hours of a typical sorting office are picked at random by an employee with a sadistic sense of humour. The schedule of my not-so-local Royal Mail office looks like this:

Mon to Thu: 08:47 to 09:50
Thu mornings: closed
Tue and Wed afternoon: 12:00 to 14:13.
Wed: closed for lunch
Sat: 05:00 to 05:30.
Sun: closed
IMG_0267[1]I am, however, a determined person. And so, armed with 2 different forms of photo ID, several documents to confirm my address, and the promising Royal Mail note, I set off on Saturday very early, to claim my mysterious parcel . I am also an eternal optimistic. Not even the time when, having hurried under torrential rain and arrived drenched and out of breath at nearly closing time, to triumphally claim my missed delivery, only to find it was one of those Camorra-type threatening letters from the TV Licence people incorrectly addressed to me – no, not even that most infuriating episode managed to kill my faith in The Lure of The Missed Delivery. It takes me a good half hour walk to get there, and that stroll has produced some of the most elaborate fantasies I have been part of in my head. Has a long lost, secret millionaire auntie left me her fortune and derelict, yet full of potential house in the Alps? Do I have a discreet benefactor who, watching me from a distance, decided to reward the brilliance of my latest cake with a cheque to fund a bijou patisserie in the Marais?
And so, it was with grand ideas on how to best invest my million dollar cheque that I was greeted at the post office with not one, but three surprise parcels! Here’s what was waiting for me:
1. an iphone charger that was supposed to be delivered approximately 6 weeks ago with the actual phone. Bit disappointing.
2. warm feeling surprise: a beautiful pink summer top my Mum made with her own hands and posted with a lovely Thinking of You card. Thank you, mum!
3. and this is where it gets a little embarrassing: one kilo of parmesan.
Yes, a kilo of parmesan cheese, tightly vacuum packed for freshness. I had by now forgotten about this entirely. A few months ago, I came across this wonderful idea: the Save-a-Cheese campaign, in aid of cheese makers in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, left struggling after two devastating earthquakes in 2012.

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How it works: you order your parmesan from a consortium of artisan cheesemakers. One kilo of parmesan costs £22, and it is delivered to your door – or nearest sorting office, if you’re away! What do they do with your money? As the Save-a-Cheese webiste explains:

The bulk of your money goes directly to the individual cheesemaker. A further 1 Euro /kg goes to the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium for further distribution to all the affected cheesmakers. The rest will be used to get the cheese from Italy to the UK,  cutting, wrapping and postage & packaging to your home.

Was the cheese any good? Beautiful. Moist, tender, very tasty parmesan. You do not find anything of that quality and freshness in London.

What do you do with a kilo of parmesan? Well, that’s not a major issue in this house, but if you’re struggling to find other uses beside grating it on pasta, Save-a-Cheese helpfully publishes links with recipes. I’ve decided to try a delicious, yet rather controversial recipe of bombocado: a sweet muffin with… bear with me, coconut and parmesan … in the same recipe. I know this is not an appealing description, but trust me, I’ve been eating these since I was a kid, and they really are rather wonderful. Fluffy, delicate, moist, moreish. Perfect brunch food.

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But my dairy packed week was not over. As I went back to work with my belly full of cheese, this is what I found on my desk:

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Yes. Another very generous (640 grams) of parmesan, shared by an Italian colleague whose mamma got a bit carried away on her last visit from Genova.

I considered freezing some, or going on a parmesan cooking frenzy weekend. But in the spirit of Save-a-Cheese, I’ll spread the goodwill and share some of it with the neighbour. God knows he’d be here trying all the parmesan based dishes anyway.

If you’d like to help cheesemakers in Italy and eat some of the finest parmesan around, Save-a-Cheese are still taking orders. They do take a while, as they wait to ship enough orders at once. But the wait is well worth it, and with any luck, you get the warm glow of the suprise delivery when you’ve forgotten all about that order so long ago.

Bombocados:

  • 500g caster sugar
  • 250ml water
  • 5og grated parmesan
  • 6 eggs
  • 70g butter
  • 5og all purpose flour
  • 200g dessicated coconut
  • 100ml coconut milk

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, boil the water with the sugar.

Remove from the heat and add the coconut and parmesan. Mix until incorporated.

Return to a medium-low heat and let it cook for just under 10 minutes, stirring regularly. You should end up with a fairly wet mix, the consistency of a thick porridge.

Turn the heat off, then add all the butter at once and mix until it’s all melted.

Gradually add the flour and mix well, making sure there are no lumps.

Let it cool a little before adding the eggs, to avoid scrambling them.

Beat the eggs for about 3 minutes, until it’s doubled in volume.

Add the beaten eggs to the coconut mixture. Mix well.

Bake the bombocados in muffin tins at 180C for 10 – 15 minutes. They should still be a bit gooey inside.

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